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June 22, 2016 12:01 a.m.

Ministering to the souls of the sick as the in-house rabbi at Mount Sinai Hospital

A former Catholic, Mira Rivera found strength from her days as a modern dancer

By Timothy McDarrah

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Photo: Buck Ennis

RABBINICAL ASSEMBLY: Mira Rivera is the only full-time rabbi at Mount Sinai Medical System's Fifth Avenue hospital.

 

The signs pointing Mira Rivera toward becoming a rabbi were always there, but it took decades before she finally followed them. A former principal dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company, Rivera was raised and attended Catholic school in the Philippines, earned a B.F.A. in film and television from NYU, is a devoted wife and mother of two college students, and lives and dies with her beloved New York Knicks. 

Now she is the only full-time rabbi at the sprawling main campus of Mount Sinai Hospital on upper Fifth Avenue. “When I was thinking of attending rabbinical school, my own rabbi [Marshall Meyer of B’nai Jeshurun on West 88th Street] asked me if I was prepared to face being marginalized—as a woman, a Jew, as an Asian."

Rabbi Mira Rivera

WHY SHE DOES IT “I can articulate what I am feeling in my heart.” 
FAMILY Rivera met pianist Jerome Korman, now musical director of the National Dance Institute, when she was dancing with Martha Graham. They married after a six-year courtship and have two children: Arielle, a student at Davidson College in North Carolina, and Benjamin, who is at Brandeis University, outside Boston.
STAGE While at NYU, she toured as a dancer in The King and I, starring Stacy Keach as the King.  
RITUAL The Upper West Side resident cherishes her daily meditative walk to work across Central Park.
TEAM DREAM She hopes to lead her own congregation one day. Or coach the New York Knicks. “I have an ongoing low-grade Knicks fever,” Rivera said. “I so wanted Phil Jackson to come to the rescue for us. It hasn’t worked out yet, but I’m still hoping he can turn it around!”

“I told him that when I was dancing, Martha would tell us never to bow down to an audience, but to stand and look forward, always look up and forward. So that’s what I have done.” Her background has been a help during her time at Mount Sinai: “The complexities and crossroads that I represent... well, a lot of the people I meet also share a varied family and cultural history, so there is a real connection.”

Her Catholic parents met while students at Johns Hopkins University. Rivera was born in Detroit but was raised from age 2 outside Manila, partly by a grandmother with some Jewish roots. After dancing with Graham and graduating from NYU, Rivera spent several years working with social-justice groups in India, Israel and elsewhere around the globe. At 21, she said, “I had a profound experience at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem - a catharsis of tears - and I said, ‘I belong here.’”

Back in New York, she married (her husband is Jewish), raised a family and spent time teaching dance at B’nai Jeshurun. Finally, the mother of one of her students asked when she was going to rabbinical school. Rivera graduated from the conservative Jewish Theological Seminary in 2015 and joined Mount Sinai last September. She ministers to patients in five languages: Tagalog, Hebrew, Spanish, Sanskrit and English. She recently meditated with a patient who was a Hare Krishna devotee. “You come across every belief among patients in a large hospital like this,” she said.

A version of this article appears in the June 20, 2016, print issue of Crain's New York Business as "Ministering to the souls of the sick".

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