Here’s a surprise. Although Israel is low – 34th to be specific – on the list of countries where organs are donated from the deceased – we’re close to the top of the list when it comes to kidney donations from living persons. Based on 2017 data from the Registry of Organ Donation and Transplantation, we’re in fifth place – with preliminary 2018 numbers suggesting that we’re moving even higher.
I looked up the statistics because I’m a subscriber to the wonderful mailing list of Matnat Chaim (Gift of Life), the organization that encourages men and women to altruistically donate kidneys. Every week, I get notifications from Rabbi Yeshayahu Heber of new donations. The celebratory announcements include a little information about the donor and recipient, enough to direct prayers for their good health.
Rabbi Heber is the former school teacher and principal who founded Gift of Life. He’s a kidney recipient. When he was 42, he was struck by kidney disease. He went from working two jobs, from an active life as husband and dad, to a life dominated by dialysis. In the long hours attached to the machines, he became friends with a young kidney patient named Pinchas Turgeman, whose brother was killed in military service. After Rabbi Heber was gifted a kidney by a friend, he tried to find a kidney for Turgeman. The kidney arrived too late. Turgeman died and his parents buried their second son.
Although Rabbi Heber’s physical health was now much improved, he was desolate over the loss of his friend and the knowledge that he might have been saved if organs were available. He decided to become a full-time advocate for kidney donation, and founded Gift of Life. That was a decade ago. In the first year, he made only four matches.
But then, the numbers started to grow.
Each of the stories moves me. Previously in these pages I’ve documented a few of them, starting with a grandmother in hi-tech from Rehovot who gave away her kidney. Then there was a Christian Nigerian oil magnate who wanted to give his kidney to an Israeli. Because he came from Africa, he was mistaken for an illegal immigrant, but Rabbi Heber believed him. His kidney went to a Druze young woman studying law. Then was the mother-son duo who both gave away kidneys. Recently, a young mom saved an even younger soldier from the Ethiopian community.
Now the numbers themselves are part of the story, changing how Israel is perceived. This is also a story of how community awareness can make a major impact on life decisions.
Take for instance donor #684, whom I met last week. He’s a physician.
Dr. Moshe Halberstam, 49, long experienced in emergency rooms in the US and Israel, has of course seen the devastating impact of kidney disease on patients. But he credits the atmosphere in his own small synagogue for crystallizing his decision to donate his own kidney.
Delaware-born Halberstam, his wife Shoshana and their five children were living in Beit Shemesh – yes, Beit Shemesh, a town often mentioned in the context of religious extremism. They were members of the small Ohr Shalom Synagogue. The synagogue – maybe 60 members he says – is headed by Rabbi Chaim Soloveichik, father of eight who is a descendant of the distinguished rabbinical dynasty. The Rabbi himself and several congregants have donated kidneys.
“One day in synagogue, I realized I wanted to donate a kidney, too,” said Halberstam, recuperating down the hall from the recipient at Hadassah University Hospital in Jerusalem.
In the meantime, he and his family left Beit Shemesh to live in Neveh Daniel, in Gush Etzion.
“After we’d adjusted to our new home, life felt stable enough to go forward. My wife was my greatest support,” Halberstam said.
Becoming a donor is an arduous process, requiring numerous medical and psychological tests.
“For me they were a little easier,” says Halberstam, who works in the TEREM Emergency Medical Center in Jerusalem. “If I need a blood test, I can order one for myself.”
Nonetheless, the doctor discovered he was an impatient patient and the many tests, meetings with psychologists and government supervisory committees were irksome.
“But looking back, you realize the tests and hassles are worthwhile. If you pass all these tests, you really are ready, Halberstam went to his new rabbi in Neve Daniel – not to ask permission – but to discuss an ethical issue. Would it be correct for him to specify his preference for a relatively young recipient?
Instead of answering the question, the rabbi told him that three days earlier a member of the community, a father of seven, had told him he needed a kidney.
It felt like a match made in heaven, but from a kidney donor’s point of view giving a kidney to a neighbor is a possible complication. Dr. Halberstam had already testified that he had no specific recipient in mind. Any private arrangement that is made without disclosure is considered suspicious.
New to the community, Halberstam didn’t know the potential recipient, even though he lives 300 meters from his home.
Last week, Halberstam took the elevator down the 10 flights to where the recipient, architect Miles Hartog was recovering.
“I didn’t look at his chart,” he said, “but it was thrilling to hear that his numbers were already improving.”
Hartog told him that 13 years earlier his sister who also suffered from kidney disease, had gone to the Philippines for a transplant. Their father died of kidney disease.
Prof. Hadar Merhav, who heads Hadassah’s Transplantation credits Rabbi Heber not only for Israel’s newly elevated position in the international listing of donors from living persons, but for impacting an increase of donations from the deceased, as well, which may be reflected in next year’s rankings.
In the seven days since I met Halberstam, I’ve received two additional emails from Rabbi Heber. #645, “an educator,” receiving a kidney from “a mother of many children.”
Then came #646. This time the recipient is a doctor. You can’t make this stuff up.
To get on Rabbi Heber’s e-mail list, write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Join in the celebration.
The writer is the Israel director of public relations at Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Her latest book is A Daughter of Many Mothers.
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