Who would have guessed that getting together with Enid Wurtman would be such a
challenge. A septuagenarian who had undergone major surgery, recently bedridden
and – according to newspaper articles and social media – in desperate medical
Here’s the note I got: “Appointments out of my home in the
morning; and again from midday; I will be home sometime mid-afternoon-ish or a
bit later. My son said he may stop in sometime in the afternoon but still not
That’s what happens when you have kidney disease and get a new
In these pages, I have had the privilege of reporting on a number
of the righteous who have saved the lives of others by giving away one of their
In this story, the donor wishes to remain anonymous. I can tell
you that he’s a man in his 50s who lives in Israel.
But here’s what I can
tell you about Enid Wurtman, the recipient.
Forty years ago, she was
living in Philadelphia, a social worker with two children.
Stuart Wurtman, was a Philadelphia lawyer. A travel ad caught their attention:
eight days in Russia. The Soviet Union was just beginning to pry open its iron
curtain. They signed up. Not only would the trip be exotic, but they might be
able to connect with Soviet Jews.
For young readers of this column,
here’s a little history. In the mid-1960s, and particularly after the Six Day
War, the Jews of the Soviet Union began a movement for freedom. They were
prohibited from practicing and studying Judaism. They were persecuted for going
to synagogue, learning Hebrew and applying to emigrate to Israel. Among Jews
outside of Russia, a protest movement began to develop.
In 1973, when
Enid and Stuart Wurtman applied for visas to visit Russia, general secretary of
the Communist Central Committee Leonid Brezhnev and his comrades had realized
that the Jewish “students and housewives” they mocked for challenging the Soviet
dominion over its Jewish citizens could not be laughed away. Jewish activists
within the USSR faced daunting retaliation: loss of jobs, discrimination
regarding their children’s educational opportunities, harassment and
imprisonment. But they didn’t give in. They continued to apply for exit visas at
extreme personal sacrifice. They were called “refuseniks.”
BACK THEN you
couldn’t Google tripadvisor.com and plan a romantic weekend in St.
Petersburg. Tourism was controlled by a Soviet arm called Intourist.
guide on a chartered bus would be reporting not only on the 230 statues of Lenin
in Leningrad, but on you, too.
Despite the restrictions of movement, the
Wurtmans succeeded in meeting refuseniks.
Those meetings changed their
lives. The zeal of the Soviet Jews ignited the fuse of their own. If the Soviets
had opened tourism to promulgate the success of their controlled society they
Not only had the Wurtmans recoiled at the
totalitarianism, but Enid had recognized an important truth about the movement.
Yes, it was national, and affected millions of Jews. But it was also
She put names and faces and stories to the “Let My People Go”
posters. In years of dedication to the movement for Soviet Jewry, she made us
familiar with names like Silva Zalmanson, Yosef Mendelevitch, Ida Nudel and
Her life was now dedicated to speaking, strategizing
Fighting for the refuseniks’ right to move to Israel, the
Wurtmans and their children exercised their own right and moved to Jerusalem in
Enid continued her work, alerting the world to the daily struggle
and health problems of refuseniks through a column in The Jerusalem Post. By the
time the Soviet Jews were freed in 1990 and a million arrived at Ben-Gurion
airport, Enid was in Israel to greet the many she knew on the tarmac and to
facilitate their absorption, on her own and through an organization called Keren
And when she realized that many refuseniks had arrived too late in
their working lives to re-establish careers, she began raising funds to help
And then she got sick.
THE SYMPTOMS of kidney disease are
sometimes so subtle that they can be mistaken for a stomach virus. Widowed and
in her late 60s, Wurtman’s life now revolved around dialysis three times a week.
Her prognosis was poor.
A call went out in the Jewish world, through word
of mouth and Jewish media. Here was a woman who had devoted her life to the
Jewish people and saved so many. Wasn’t there a kidney out there for her?
“Remarkably, 20 persons volunteered,” said Wurtman, a vivacious, curly-haired
woman. Essential in this outreach, she says, was the Kidney Mitzvah website
started by started by Chaya Lipschutz, a Brooklyn woman who donated a kidney
To give away a kidney, you need
more than a good heart. You have to pass rigorous physical and emotional tests.
You have to be a match.
Wurtman’s list of potential donors shrank to a
Her donor had received one of the e-mail alerts about
He noted that they shared the same rare blood type.
He felt motivated by his Torah values to save a life.
“And when I sailed
through all the physical tests,” he said, “the grilling by psychiatrists, social
workers and the entire transplant committee, I figured it was destined to be.”
Actually, he used the Yiddish term “bashert.”
The time of the Jewish year
is upon us when we begin to evaluate our deeds in preparation for the High Holy
Days. One good deed leads to another, we believe. As we learn in the Mishna:
“mitzva goreret mitzva” (Pirkei Avot).
That happens when you are either
inspired by seeing someone else do a good deed, or get in the habit of doing
good deeds. There’s also an idea that a good deed has an energy of its own and
continues to reverberate in this world.
You might say that the lifesaving
deeds of Enid Wurtman brought her the anonymous lifesaver.
BOTH DONOR and
recipient recovered quickly from the surgery. “My doctor said I was healthy
before and I’d be healthy afterwards,” said the donor. His feeling of
satisfaction of saving this precious life was “indescribable.”
won’t share his identity because he doesn’t want anyone to accord him special
credit for giving up his kidney. But think of being him, standing before the
Divine Examiner as the month of Elul begins this week.
How does he feel?
He smiles. “The Divine Judge is actually called the ‘Examiner of heart and
kidneys.’ I’m hoping to get a break because I have only one.’” Don’t think he
needs one. Just saying. The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the
wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public
relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views
in her columns are her own.
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