Haredi rabbi promoting living kidney donations to alleviate transplant waiting list

Rabbi Yeshaya Haber discussed the kidney donation that he himself received and which opened his eyes to the issue, how he helped more than two hundred people in Israel to donate a kidney.

Doctors perform surgery (photo credit: COURTESY SZMC)
Doctors perform surgery
(photo credit: COURTESY SZMC)
A haredi rabbi in Jerusalem has become in recent years a leading proponent of living kidney donations, people who donate one of their kidneys to a stranger suffering from kidney disease and failure.
Speaking with the Jerusalem Post, Rabbi Yeshaya Haber discussed the kidney donation that he himself received and which opened his eyes to the issue, how he helped more than two hundred people in Israel to donate a kidney to someone they had never met before, and his ultimate goal of eliminating waiting lists for kidney donations.
Rabbi Yeshaya Haber received his kidney donation seven years ago. In the time since his operation, Haber and his wife have dedicated themselves to their mission of searching for kidney donors who are willing to help not friends or family members but dialysis patients in Israel whom they have never before met in their lives.
“Donating a kidney from a living person is the greatest thing a person can do with his body – because he is saving a life,” said the rabbi.
“I was saved because of a kidney donation, so that my children got back their father due to the donation of a complete stranger and my wife got back her husband.
"There are so many people that are in need of a kidney transplant and, because of my own personal experience, I decided to do all that is possible to ensure that as many people as possible donate their kidneys and save as many people as possible who wait for such a long time.”
The organization which Haber runs is called Matanat Chayim, meaning the Gift of Life, a registered Israeli charity. In June 2014, Haber was awarded the "Volunteering Award of the President of Israel" by former Israeli President Shimon Peres for his activities promoting and actively seeking living kidney donors.
At its heart, Matanat Chayim is a small operation, with just six salaried employees, of which Haber is not one, and several dozen volunteers. It has so far helped find 216 living kidney donors who successfully donated their kidney with another three donations expected to take place next week.
The organization has been active in raising awareness for living kidney transplants in the haredi and national-religious sectors for most of its life, with some 98 percent of its donors coming from these two population groups, half from each community. The organization is however seeking to increase its exposure in broader Israeli society.
Haber is eager to underline that living kidney donations have been permitted under Jewish law by some of the most senior haredi rabbis alive including Rabbis Aharon Leib Shteinman and Haim Kanievski, as well as some of the most respected figures of recent generations such as the late rabbis Ovadia Yosef, Yosef Shalom Elyashiv and Shlomo Zalman Auerbach.
While most donors to Matnat Chayim are currently from the religious sector, recipients are from across the Israeli societal spectrum, with 70 percent coming from the non-religious population.
Matnat Chayim’s main method of reaching potential donors is through newspaper and other media advertisements and promotional material. Haber says that no efforts are made to persuade or convince people to donate and that it is donors who are the ones to make contact with the organization.
Once an individual has expressed interest in donating a kidney, Matnat Chayim provides donors with information as to the risks of the transplant operation, the recovery period and other vital details about the process.
According to the Mayo Clinic medical research organization in the US, there is little long-term risk for kidney donation, as long as careful and comprehensive medical tests are conducted on the individual before they become a donor. 
“Long-term survival rate, quality of life, general health status and risk of kidney failure are about the same” as for non-donors, the organization says.
The operation itself is described as “major surgery,” is performed under general anesthetic, and after the operation, a donor requires several days hospitalization in order to recuperate.
After a donor approaches Matnat Chayim, he or she is sent for the requisite tests. Before they are found to be suitable donors they must gain approval by hospital committee, as well as a committee within the Ministry of Health, which examine if the donor is indeed acting out of altruism and not through any form of coercion, are not being paid money for their kidney donation, and also evaluate donors physically and psychiatrically.
According to Haber, there are currently 5,800 people receiving kidney dialysis treatment in Israel, of which, 850 are on a transplant waiting list and another 400 who are in need of transplant but have not yet been listed. The average wait for a kidney transplant is seven years.
“Every time we are alerted to a person in need of a kidney donation we turn the world upside down in order to find a donor.
“I cannot describe what it means for a person to live with kidneys that do not function," Haber told the Post, describing the regime of three dialysis treatments per week of approximately four hours each and the strict limitations on what food and the quantity of liquid a dialysis patient may eat and drink while receiving this treatment.
“There is so much suffering that such people need to cope with, and after I myself experienced this and was fortunate enough to receive a kidney donation myself, I decided to undertake, together with my wife,  to help these people and to help one person save another’s life.
"There are very many patients waiting in line to receive a kidney donation and we will fight for each and every one of them,” concludes Haber. “The road before us is a long one and I am sure we will succeed in reducing the list of patients waiting for a transplant to the bare minimum. Donating a kidney save lives and is a great Mitzvah, so we will do all that is possible in order that as many people as possible will become aware of this and will donate life to others.”