One of Jill Maura Rabin’s favorite stories concerns a recent visit to her office by a frail and shaken 93-year-old woman.
The woman had come to see Rabin, an obstetrician-gynecologist at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, because of pelvic-organ prolapse and incontinence, a related ailment that often sends women to nursing homes.
Rabin discovered that her patient spoke Yiddish and, hoping to lessen her fear, suddenly began singing an old Yiddish melody, “Oifen Pripitchik” or “On the Hearth.” The woman was initially confused but eventually smiled and, finally, joined the doctor in singing the song, Rabin said.
That a medical doctor broke into song to soothe one of her patients, choosing a Yiddish melody no less, came as no surprise to those who know Rabin. Raised in Yonkers and now a resident of Manhattan, she wanted most of all to become a cantor while growing up. Although she has no intention of leaving the medical field, she is now a part-time student at the Academy for Jewish Religion, a training ground for rabbis and cantors in Riverdale, and serves a small congregation in Connecticut as a student cantor.
Rabin also takes a holistic approach to the work she does, believing she can help heal some of her patients, or at least calm their nerves, through music. As she said last month during National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, she often brings her keyboard to the educational forums she leads on women’s cancer. The outreach effort, intended for at-risk populations of Jewish women, draws support from UJA-Federation of New York.
Rabin’s love for Jewish music began at an early age, she said, recalling the religious and musical influences that once surrounded her. Her father, the chief judge of Yonkers and now a judge in White Plains, served as a voluntary cantor at the Lincoln Park Jewish Center. Her mother, a teacher with “a beautiful voice,” sang in War Bonds shows with the legendary entertainer Edyie Gorme.
“I began singing at about the same time as I began to speak,” said Rabin, who eventually told her father about her dreams of becoming a cantor. That would have been frowned on by Rabin’s grandparents, all of whom lived with the family from time to time and all of whom were strictly Orthodox. “But my father said he’d continue to teach me as long as my grandparents didn’t find out.”
In scenes reminiscent of “Yentl,” the story of a Jewish girl who secretly studies the religion, father and daughter would head to the family’s basement, where both would study sacred texts. “And the house was small,” Rabin said with a laugh, “so you had to sing softly.”
Meanwhile, Rabin’s interest in the medical field “sort of evolved,” beginning with high-school science. She attended Hofstra University, where she majored in speech pathology and premed, and applied to SUNY Downstate Medical Center, from which she graduated in 1981.
“Not many women went into medicine at all” three decades ago, said Rabin, who declined to give her age. But she rejected the notion that she may be a pioneer, naming, instead, one person she believes deserves that label: the late Gertie F. Marx, one of her mentors. A refugee from Hitler’s Germany, Marx became an anesthesiologist and “single-handedly pushed the development of the epidural in this country,” Rabin said.
Once she was settled in her field, Rabin, now the chief of ambulatory care at LIJ’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, decided to pursue that old dream of hers. She entered AJR several years ago and, although she is currently on temporary leave, expects to receive her ordination in the next few years. At that point, she hopes to teach young students, conduct lifecycle events and continue to officiate on holidays while maintaining her practice.
In addition to the influences of both her religious studies and her medical education, Rabin appears to have a certain haimishe quality inherited from her childhood. She now serves as a bikur cholim volunteer at LIJ, visiting patients not in her medical role but as a concerned individual. Rabbi David Moseson, the center’s head chaplain, said he has many bikur cholim volunteers but only one doctor among them.
She also sees a unity between her two major interests, medicine and Jewish music, said Rabin, who lives with her partner, Barbara Friedlander, and their young son. “It’s all about healing and making a difference. You know that quote about ‘he who saves one life saves the entire world’ — it’s the same thing.”