December 12, 2018

Rena Hirsch: Her Life Is ‘Being of Service to God’

Rena Hirsch, who is participating in a chaplaincy internship at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, has comforted stroke, heart attack and cancer patients, as well as the occasional gunshot wound or traffic accident victim. Then there was the young Jewish woman who arrived in the emergency room after overdosing on heroin some time ago.

Hirsch discovered that the woman’s mother had died when she was a girl, and that she had been raised in a series of foster homes. “She wanted to turn her life around, so I gave her encouragement and the numbers of rehabilitation facilities,” Hirsch, who is Orthodox, said in her Fairfax-area home, surrounded by Jewish art and books. “We prayed together, and I tried to help connect her to God, because she did believe in God.”

“When you are in a medical crisis, it brings out old traumas,” Hirsch added.  “And when you are a person who is a chaplain, they feel they can share with you their pain.”

“When you are in a medical crisis, it brings out old traumas.”

Hirsch is now in her second year of the two-year layman chaplaincy training at Cedars, which requires 1,600 hours of patient visits to complete. On a volunteer basis, those chaplains provide a compassionate presence for patients and families, helping them sort through their spiritual and emotional distress and providing a spiritual perspective if desired. Hirsch’s goals include “breaking patients’ isolation, and encouraging them to find strength within themselves.”

Hirsch, who was born in Morocco and raised in Toronto, began her volunteer efforts in earnest after she married and moved to Los Angeles 28 years ago.  When her husband suggested that she try matchmaking for baalei teshuvah —  people who are becoming observant — she attended a singles event and began connecting with people and gathering names.

“These people don’t have their parents, teachers or rebbes to match them up,” she said of why the matchmaking is crucial.

Hirsch began to work many hours per week to help Jews who were in the process of becoming or were Sabbath observant. Her clients today range in age from 18 to 75. She often begins by questioning people about what they would like in a prospective spouse; those predilections have changed over the years, she said. “The men, as always, want someone they’re attracted to and is a good person,” she explained. “But these days many men are also looking for someone who can bring in a second income, since it’s so expensive to live in Los Angeles.

“In past years, women were looking for a mensch and a provider,” she added.  “Today they’ve got a longer list; he’s got to be fit, funny, established and educated.”

Hirsch has long arranged for people to meet at her Shabbat dinner table, where she regularly hosts at least 25 guests. During the Journal interview on a Thursday, her kitchen bustled with preparations for that Friday’s Sabbath meal.

Her efforts have resulted in more than 50 marriages, three of which took place in her backyard. Hirsch also has hosted Jewish outreach events for some 40 young people at her home.

Her work with visiting the sick began when she was a young mother who would take her children to speak with the elderly in nursing homes and also at Cedars-Sinai, where she would distribute Shabbat kits to the patients.

To enhance her volunteering skills, she enrolled in the paraprofessional counseling program of the Wagner Program at American Jewish University four years ago. At Wagner, she studied subjects such as childhood development, psychology and gerontology. When it came time to do her internship through Wagner, she chose the chaplaincy program at Cedars-Sinai.

There, her studies have continued with such topics as how to support patients with disabilities or who suffer from mental illnesses.

“For me, my work is about being of service to God,” she said.