The human spirit: When one good deed leads to another

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.

Doctors perform surgery (generic) R 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Swoan Parker)
Doctors perform surgery (generic) R 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Swoan Parker)
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 condition.
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 defined.”
That’s what happens when you have kidney disease and get a new kidney.
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 kidneys.
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.
Her husband, 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 and plan a romantic weekend in St. Petersburg. Tourism was controlled by a Soviet arm called Intourist.
Your 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 had miscalculated.
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 personal.
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 Anatoly Sharansky.
Her life was now dedicated to speaking, strategizing and protesting.
Fighting for the refuseniks’ right to move to Israel, the Wurtmans and their children exercised their own right and moved to Jerusalem in 1977.
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 Klita.
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 them.
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 herself (
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 single name.
Her donor had received one of the e-mail alerts about Wurtman’s situation.
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.”
The donor 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.