'Transplanted' to Israel

"I was given a new lease on life when I moved here. So how can I deny that ... to others?"

organ transplant 88 (photo credit: )
organ transplant 88
(photo credit: )
Some people collect stamps or coins in their spare time, others paint or do yoga. Agnes Hoffman saves lives. Born and bred in the Philippines, Agnes was a young social worker in Manila 20 years ago when she first met Carl. The archetypal Wandering Jew, Carl had come to the island of Mindoro via Indonesia and Borneo as a volunteer for the US Peace Corps. An anthropologist by training, he was involved in helping the Mangyan tribe retain its ancestral land when he first laid eyes on Agnes, who was also working with the tribe. They fell in love and married. Carl and Agnes joined the small synagogue in Manila, and Agnes began to study Hebrew and Judaism. When her children were born, Agnes decided she would like to convert, but was stymied. There was a long-standing ban on conversions in Manila, instituted decades earlier by the Syrian Jewish community as a bulwark against the rising tide of intermarriage. So Agnes, sweet, unassuming but as determined as a Philippine tropical storm, told Carl it was time to move - to Israel. Arriving here in 1997, Agnes joined a conversion program and became the top student in her class, "taking the mikve plunge" in 1999. Her ulpan teacher told me, "She's one of the best Jews I've ever met!" But then, two years later, Carl became sick. His kidneys failed, and he was forced into dialysis to stay alive. He put his name on the national transplant list, and waited four-and-a-half years, in vain, to receive a kidney. Not surprising, considering the meager response of the Israeli public, despite constant appeals by civic and even religious leaders to participate in this great mitzva. (ADI, the Israel Transplant Center, reports that no more than 30 percent of those waiting for vital organs can expect to receive them.) SO AGNES decided to take action. She found a reputable doctor and hospital back in Manila who agreed to do the transplant at a reasonable cost. While trafficking in organs is officially illegal, many countries turn a blind eye to the practice, and even help regulate the procedure to prevent abuse and ensure safety, because it is essentially a victimless crime, which brings new life to those medically sentenced to die. In Manila, as many as 5-10 kidneys are transplanted into foreign recipients every day. Carl received his kidney, and his life was revitalized overnight. And - more good news - it didn't cost the public a penny, as his Israeli HMO covered the entire bill. Agnes had done a wonderful mitzva and was prepared to get back to her job helping foreign caregivers acclimate to Israel. But then a neighbor in her building heard what she had done and asked Agnes to help his cousin receive a kidney. He, too, had been waiting fruitlessly for several years and was dying. For three months, she refused, reluctant to take the responsibility for a stranger. But then one night, Agnes sat up in bed and said, "Why should he suffer if there is hope somewhere?" And she was off to Manila again, where the transplant went smoothly, the cost was covered, and another life had been saved. BUT AGNES wasn't done yet. A year ago, her son walked into the house with a copy of the local Hebrew weekly. On the cover was Ron Shuker, a Ra'anana teenager fighting for his life. Ron had been sick almost from birth, and had received a new kidney at the age of three. But after seven years, Ron's body had rejected the kidney, leaving him dangerously weak. His family had searched for a donor for four years with no luck. A city-wide effort to help Ron raised significant funds, but no compatible match. Unscrupulous "organ agents" had told Ron's mother they could secure a kidney, but only after they were paid $120,000, a sum far beyond the means of the struggling family. Once again, it was Agnes to the rescue. She worked tirelessly to find a donor for Ron, and then escorted the family to Manila. Ron was prepped for surgery, but the day before the operation - the Fast of Esther - Agnes was told that the kidney would be given to someone else. She pleaded with the medical board to reconsider, and took them to see the young boy with despair in his eyes. She told the doctors in her native Tagalog that this was his last chance for life and that his fate was in their hands. And then Agnes went to synagogue - it was now Purim - and prayed for a modern-day miracle. When she emerged from the Megila reading, she was told that her petition had been granted; the operation was on again, and it was successfully performed on Shushan Purim. I saw Ron on the street the other day, and he is a new person, filled with life. The New Year is a time of optimism, hope and second chances. The protagonists of the Torah and Haftara readings - Abraham, Sarah and Hannah - had their prayers answered, and new life was granted to them in miraculous fashion. Their saga is a metaphor for the opportunity given to all of us to reclaim our lives and start fresh again. I asked Agnes - as good a neshama as ever walked this Earth - why she never seems to be able to say no. She told me: "I guess you could say that I, myself, am a 'transplant' here in Israel. I was given a new lease on life when I moved here. So how can I deny that same right to others?" The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center in Ra'anana. jocmtv@netvision.net.il