Forget Supergirl and Wonder Woman. To see a real female superhero in action, check out Paula Eiselt’s documentary concerning the creation of an all-female, Hasidic EMT corps. 93Queen centers on Rachel “Ruchie” Freier, the co-founder of the organization that gives the film its title, and watching this intrepid woman in constant exhausting motion will make even the biggest overachiever feel like a slacker. Recently given its world premiere at Toronto’s Hot Docs festival, the pic should easily find appreciative audiences upon theatrical distribution.
Set in Borough Park, Brooklyn, a neighborhood containing the largest ultraorthodox Jewish community in the U.S., the doc chronicles Freier’s efforts to establish the history-making organization. The community had been served since 1969 by the all-male Hatzolah, the largest volunteer ambulance force in the world. But Freier is determined to provide an alternative for Hasidic women whose religious beliefs have infused them with a powerful sense of modesty. The film includes an interview segment with one Hatzolah member whose identity is disguised because the organization prohibits its members from speaking to the media.
As quickly becomes evident, Freier is a force of nature, a mother of six children and a practicing attorney who earned her law degree at age 40. Her efforts to establish the female corps dubbed Ezras Nashim (Women for Women) result in fierce opposition from many of the community’s men, and more than a few of its women, who think, as one man puts it, that “the focus of a woman is being a mother.” A community website accuses the group of, among other things, “challenging the Torah,” and Freier and its other members are accused of being “radical feminists.” The neighborhood rabbis decline to endorse them, but that doesn’t deter Freier. “It’s God’s endorsement that’s most important, and I believe we have God’s endorsement,” she says. Someone even writes to the school that Freier’s daughters attend to complain about her being named Mother of the Year.
Never cowing to the difficulties, Freier soldiers on, and the female EMT corps quickly proves highly successful. The group is eventually recognized by the New York City Fire Department, which assigns it the code “93Queen.” But that success isn’t enough for its co-founder, who then moves on to her next goal: running for civil court judge. Not surprisingly, she encounters head winds in that matter as well.
“It’s not modest for a woman to be a judge!” a man tells her on the street where she’s handing out fliers.
Spoiler alert: Freier wins the election, with her proud, supportive husband by her side. In the process, she becomes the first Hasidic woman to ever hold public office in the U.S. And, as the film illustrates, probably the first judge to bake her own challah bread as well.
93Queen is rough-hewn technically and, although it includes brief interviews with several other members of the female EMT corps, it would have benefited from a wider focus. But it’s excusable that the filmmaker would concentrate so much on her central figure, whose fierce intelligence and indomitable spirit render her truly inspirational.
Production company: Malka Films
Director-director of photography: Paula Eiselt
Producers: Paula Eiselt, Heidi Reinberg
Executive producers: Sally Jo Fifer, Justine Nagan, Chris White, Marco Williams
Editors: Rebecca Laks, Sunita Prasad
Composer: Laura Karpman
Venue: Hot Docs