In November 2012, Renan Levine and Mira Victoria Perry were eagerly awaiting the birth of their second child. Two days before the scheduled C-section, the Toronto couple received the news expectant parents dread most: their child had died in utero.
With no family in the area and their synagogue rabbi out of town, the couple hesitantly turned for support to a chaplain whom they had never met: Rena Arshinoff, a rabbi, nurse, and epidemiologist, who appeared on the Forward’s recently released list of Most Inspiring Rabbis.
Arshinoff met Perry and Levine during the dark hours of childbirth, providing the couple an unexpected source of comfort during their ordeal.
“It’s a lonely thing to think you’re about to have a living child. And now all of a sudden you have to think about funeral preparations not, ‘Do we have diapers ready? Do we know where we’re going to put the crib?’” Levine said. “To have someone you can draw strength from like Rabbi Arshinoff was immensely valuable to my wife and me.”
Though she is an experienced chaplain, Arshinoff is still moved when families are willing to allow her to help them. “I arrived at the hospital a complete stranger to them,” Arshinoff said of the couple. “That takes a lot of trust for both of them to allow me into their lives in such an intimate situation. And what a privilege that is for me.”
Today, Arshinoff is one of just two certified rabbinic chaplains in Canada, but her journey to the rabbinate was a long one. She spent nearly three decades working in health care, first as a nurse and later as an epidemiologist.
But after the deaths of her father and her sister, Arshinoff began to rethink her career path. She became more connected to Judaism, saying kaddish (a prayer of mourning) for her loved ones and holding a bat mitzvah as a 48-year old.
“I was able to crunch numbers and analyze statistics until the cows came home,” she said. “But one day I was thinking, ‘Maybe I would like to go back to my roots after 18 years, maybe I’m tired of working with numbers so much.’”
In 2003, Arshinoff decided to enroll at Hebrew Union College, the flagship seminary of the Reform movement. “I really did feel in going to rabbinical school that I was still studying health – just a different side of it,” she said. “I wanted to work with people and now I was looking at the spiritual not the physical component of health.”