“It doesn’t matter if you’re Jewish or Arab, secular or religious – it’s a real merit to save the life of a fellow human being. Thanks to Matnat Chaim, I had the honor to donate my kidney and keep another person alive,” Hagay Harel, 43, told The Jerusalem Report.
On April 4, Hagay became the 1000th Israeli to donate a kidney through the Matnat Chaim organization. Based in Jerusalem, Matnat Chaim (“Gift of Life” in Hebrew) is a non-profit organization, which encourages and facilitates living kidney donations – founded in February 2009 by Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu Heber, who passed away in April 2020 at 55.
“Rabbi Heber didn’t die young; he lived fast,” said Mrs. Rachel Heber, wife of Rabbi Yeshayahu Heber. “We started Matnat Chaim together and raised it like a child,” Heber continued. “We built it from scratch like a new-born baby.
As Chief Rabbi Yisrael Lau said in his eulogy, my husband never left a will; but I know he wanted me to continue on his vision – that of shortening waiting lists for those needing kidney replacements and finding more kidney donors. He also wanted kidney health awareness to be raised in broader Israeli society – not just in the religious sector – which is what we are focusing on now,” Heber told the Report.
Heber went on to explain, “in order to understand the vision of Matnat Chaim, you need to understand why it started. Only when my husband became a kidney patient himself and was on dialysis, did he get an appreciation of what those who needed kidney transplants went through. He built up a close relationship with a boy named Pinchas, who was also on dialysis and also needed a transplant – they even studied Talmud together.
“While in 2009, my husband got a kidney from a friend, Pinchas passed away just two weeks before his transplant due to all the bureaucracy and red tape. Seeing what Pinchas went through and the pain of his death changed our lives. My husband was in such shock that Pinchas’s life could have been saved. The day Pinchas died, Matnat Chaim was born,” Mrs. Heber said.
“While I was sitting shiva for my husband, due to corona, we couldn’t have visitors. But when the restrictions were relaxed, Pinchas’s family came to visit me and we spoke for hours. I promised his parents that I would carry on Matnat Chaim and follow in my husband’s footsteps.”
Mrs. Heber said her husband was respected throughout Israel and the world, “he wore two hats – that of a medical specialist and rabbi – as a result of his intelligence, modesty and charisma, people really warmed to him.”
In 2018, the BMC Nephrology medical journal in an article by Wasser et al, referred to Matnat Chaim as “a major force for arranging living donor kidney transplantation mainly by facilitating altruistic living unrelated donor transplantation. The success of an Israel community organization in the promotion of kidney transplantation may serve as a model for other religious and non-religious communities worldwide.”
Dr. Walter Wasser, senior nephrologist at Mayanei HaYeshua Medical Center and Rambam Hospital, told the Jerusalem Report: “It is truly amazing that Mrs. Heber has been able to continue the organization that Rabbi Heber began. In fact, she has expanded and enhanced it and continued his legacy.
“The 1,000th kidney donation is not just a huge achievement for Matnat Chaim, but for all of Israel. What an amazing accomplishment to serve all Israelis-whatever their religious level whether secular or religious.
“We owe an enormous debt to this organization – as an inspiration to all of Israel or what can be done with gemilut chesed. Rabbi Heber himself would be in awe and so impressed with the accomplishment.
“We expect in the future as Israel becomes the first country to eliminate the waiting list for kidney transplantation that Matnat Chaim will reach international recognition as well,” concluded Wasser.
Israel’s Culture and Sports Minister, Yehiel Tropper, donated a kidney through Matnat Chaim more than a year ago.
Tropper told the Israel Hayom newspaper: “I spoke with the doctors beforehand, and they explained the process to me. I understood that the risk was minimal. It’s true that it involves surgery, but the understanding that the kidney is highly likely to save a life trumps it all.”
With regard to Matnat Chaim reaching 1000 transplants, Tropper said: “It is one of Israel’s greatest points of pride. Israel ranks first in the world in organ donations from live donors. We are a wonderful and extraordinary people.”
About two thirds of the donors are men and one third women. Since women can’t donate until after they’re finished having kids, the average age of women donors is much higher than men, and we expect the numbers to even out after a few years. An extremely high number of kidney donors are teachers and educators, about 40%.
A large majority of kidney donors are religious, modern Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox. However, Matnat Chaim has been emphasizing getting the word out to the non-religious public and they have seen a sharp increase in the number of secular donors – the numbers are still small, but increasing rapidly.
The 1000th kidney donor through Matnat Chaim was Hagay Harel, 43, married to Noah and father of four from Moshav Natur, in the Golan.
Hagay explained why he decided to donate a kidney, giving two reasons, “I had a car accident in September 2018 and was seriously injured. My six-month-old son, Benaya, was not hurt but I was confined to a wheelchair for four months.
“I had to learn how to walk again. After recovering, I felt so grateful and asked myself: how can I repay G-d with all good and kindness I had been blessed with?
Hagay thought he could donate a kidney. “My accident made me realize that ultimately my body belongs to God – so why not give my kidney to another of God’s creations so they can live?”
Secondly, Hagay said, “my grandmother passed away from kidney disease, so donating my kidney was in her memory.”
“When I recovered from the accident, I decided with Noah’s support to donate my kidney. We didn’t explain to the kids why, but we were very impressed by their response. They said that if it will save life, it’s the right thing to do.
“We heard about Matnat Chaim and Rabbi Heber’s fantastic work locally in the Golan as people had donated from here. The process was very smooth and Matnat Chaim accompanied me all the way – literally to the door of the operating theater.
The surgery took place at Tel Hashomer Medical Center. “I was so impressed by the medical staff who treated me: Prof. Moore, Dr. Genai and the nurses – Angela, Limor and Sarit.
“When we think of the word, ‘donate’ it usually means to give. When donating my kidney, I felt I was receiving. When you donate a kidney you experience true unconditional love – it reminded me when we had our first child. The connection I felt both with G-d and the recipient of my kidney was truly incredible.
“The biggest problem is that people think only tzadikim do things like donate a kidney. This is wrong. I am not a tzadik, or rabbi or even religious. I am a good person. We can ALL donate. That’s my most important message. God gave us two kidney’s – one we don’t need. So, as in the end our bodies go back to the earth, why not do something with it while you still can,” Hagay concluded.
Judy Singer, head of external relations at Matnat Chaim, told the Report, “Rabbi Heber’s death was a shocking tragedy and we were all stunned, he was the creator and the driving force behind Matnat Chaim. But very quickly Mrs. Rachel Heber, despite her own grief, announced that she would take over the job of Chairwoman, she knew that Matnat Chaim couldn’t die along with her husband, the medical and social revolution here is too important.
“Many, many people came forward after his passing and said that they wanted to donate a kidney in his memory, and we have had a big increase in the number of kidney donors, despite corona and all its restrictions.
“I’m certain that he is looking down at us and is very pleased and proud to see that we have passed 1000 kidney transplants. He was a great believer in the essential kindness and generosity of our people and he knew we would reach these milestones and many others. We are all committed to his legacy and determined to make Israel the first country to eliminate the waiting list for kidney transplants.
“Rabbi Heber died just when we had our 800th kidney transplant; last week we marked the first anniversary of his death just after celebrating number 1000 – it’s an unprecedented increase,” Singer concluded.
With Harel’s donation, Matnat Chaim broke the record in global kidney donations per capita with its 1000th donation. Matnat Chaim has made Israel a world leader in altruistic kidney donation – carrying on Rabbi Heber’s vision. To quote Harel: “When you die, it will make no difference whether you have one or two kidneys – but you will certainly have made a difference while you are in this world, having had donated it.”■