Rena Arshinoff, Nurse and Rabbi, Guides Couple Through Delivery of Stillborn Child

Far From Pulpit, Quiet Solace Helps Parents Cope

Renan Levine and Mira Perry, along with their 4-year-old daughter, Ziva Perry
courtesy of renan levine
Renan Levine and Mira Perry, along with their 4-year-old daughter, Ziva Perry

By Hody Nemes

Published March 22, 2014.
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After graduating, Arshinoff decided to blend her medical background with her passion for Judaism by spending a year studying in a chaplain’s certification program. Today, the sixty-year-old, who describes herself as a “perpetual student,” is pursuing a PhD in palliative care through a long-distance program run by Lancaster University in the U.K.

She also serves as a chaplain for the Toronto Western Hospital, does freelance rabbinical work, advises healthcare professionals on grief, and – in her spare time – volunteers with Bereaved Families Ontario, an organization devoted to helping grieving families.

Levine and Perry said they were grateful to have a supporter with such extensive medical and rabbinic experience present during delivery. Arshinoff helped coach Perry through the labor and delivery and helped the couple select appropriate prayers to mark the occasion. But for the most part, she just stood quietly beside the couple, her mere presence a comfort.

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“I literally stood right next to [Renan] – that was what he needed. He even said ‘Please don’t leave – stay with me,’” Arshinoff said. “When the baby was delivered, he said that he would bathe the baby but he wanted me to stand right next to him.”

By the end of this traumatic day, Arshinoff was no longer a stranger. “When she was initially there in the delivery room I was a little hesitant, but it didn’t take long until we felt we wanted her there,” Perry said. “Her simply being there helped us find some context and put things in a bit of perspective.”

Arshinoff has continued to advise the couple long after they returned home from the hospital. “At first, you’re sort of in a fog. You go home and you sit in the living room and you go ‘Wow, what do I do now?’” Perry said. “She managed to provide just the right nuggets of helpful information, reading suggestions, and thought-provoking ideas to mill over. It really helped.”

Knowing when to speak at all is the secret of helping people who are grieving, according to Arshinoff. “To be with someone in a painful, hard situation is not easy,” she said. “We want to jump in, to fill the silence. [But] there are many times that there are not words. ”

Perry said she deeply appreciated Arshinoff’s silence. “So many people want to offer you advice or consolation,” she said. “They want to say, ‘It was meant to be,’ or ‘At least it wasn’t this or that.’ She doesn’t give any of these pithy responses. She listens.”

The couple decided to nominate Arshinoff for the Forward’s list of Most Inspiring Rabbis in part because they knew Arshinoff receives few public accolades for the private work of chaplaincy.

“It’s not like a good sermon that everyone applauds you for. It’s not like people [can] say, ‘Oh rabbi, you did such a good job standing by my side while I was dying,’” Levine said. “It’s a reminder that some of the most inspiring things that rabbis do are off the pulpit and often out of the eye of the majority of their community.”

Contact Hody Nemes at nemes@forward.com or follow him on Twitter @hodifly


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