Over the course of each of the family-style Shabbat meals last weekend at the Radisson Hotel in Piscataway, New Jersey, at the first-ever Renewal Kidney Donor Appreciation Shabbaton, person after person told me the story of their kidney donation. What bound their stories together was that, for them, donating a kidney was normal. It was something one does. And it certainly seemed that way, since there were 58 of them. I couldn’t walk two steps in the hotel lobby without running into someone who was a kidney donor. As I chased my overly excited children around the hotel alongside donor moms, donor spouses and adult children of donors, I was asked the same friendly question over and over.
“So, are you the donor?” No, I said. “Your husband, then. He donated his kidney?” No, I said.
“So, what brings you here?” I’m not quite sure yet why I was invited here, I thought. I even said it a few times out loud, I think, as I distractedly picked up my 3-year-old son’s blue velvet kippah from the floor and placed it back on his head for what seemed like the thousandth time.
After Shabbat lunch, as the sweet sounds from our musical guests The Maccabeats reached its crescendo, my raison d’être started to crystallize in my mind.
Rabbi Ari Sytner, of Bergenfield, a former pulpit rabbi now serving as director of community initiatives at Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future, spoke at seudah shlishit, and started by querying the assembled group. “Please raise your hand if you donated a kidney.” Fifty-eight Jews, men and women, young and not-so-young, Chassidish, Modern Orthodox, Conservative and everywhere in between, raised their hands. “Now, raise your hand if you think you did something particularly heroic,” Rabbi Sytner asked. All the hands went right back down, and everyone laughed a little.
“I understand. I did it too. I had an extra, someone needed it. Take it, take it,” he gestured with his hands, as if his left kidney, which, almost six years ago, he gave to a woman he didn’t know, a single Israeli mother of three, was an extra plate of whitefish salad.
Rabbi Sytner, who is, perhaps surprisingly, one of four rabbis I know personally who have donated a kidney, published a book this past December called “The Kidney Donor’s Journey: 100 Questions I Asked Before Donating My Kidney” (available on Amazon here: https://tinyurl.com/zs62h62), truly had taken the pulse of the group. I watched as person after person came up to him after his talk, thanking him for understanding that what they did was not so special. After a weekend of the Renewal staff treating the donors and their families as though they were firefighters who had just rushed into a burning building, asking them, pleading with them, to tell others in their own communities their amazing stories, someone finally got them!
Rabbi Sytner understood that they did what anyone would have done, that what they did was ordinary. “Why does anyone want to hear what I have to say?” they seemed to be thinking.
The reasons they donated varied: One donated to his father; another donated to his best friend. How could they not? Many others had contacted Renewal to see if they were a match for a particular person in need who they either knew or had heard about via a public appeal, but then were found to be a match for someone else. How could they not?
Some met their recipients, some never did. Most recipients of donor kidneys thrived, and a few had, sadly, passed away. Quite a few had wanted to donate their kidney for many years, and jumped at the chance to give their kidney to a stranger when a match was found.
This was a group of 58 people who felt they were not heroes; their only regret was, as was written on a large placard in the lobby, they could not donate their kidney a second time, a play on the Nathan Hale quote, “My only regret is that I have but one life to give for my country.”
These were just poshiter yidden, average Jews, of many levels of observance, faced with a simple question. “Should I donate my kidney if someone needs it? If someone is very ill, on dialysis or about to start dialysis, and I have a chance of curing them or extending their life, should I donate one of my two perfectly healthy kidneys?” What these 58 people held in common was they said yes, and they assumed anyone else would have said yes, as well.
But was this assumption correct? I am not so sure. Halachically and practically, there are, of course, questions that should and must be asked and answered if one is considering donating. Renewal, the nine-year-old Jewish organization based in Brooklyn, which works to provide comprehensive resources and assistance to those who need a kidney, and covers all costs to those who donate (including lost wages, transportation and all testing and hospital fees), does its best to provide every kind of information to those who are interested in testing to see if they are a match. Renewal staff then stays with the donor virtually every moment from the morning of their donation until they leave the hospital, and work actively to keep in close touch afterwards.
Renewal, which was responsible for 87 transplants last year, is still actively seeking matches for over 230 people still in their database who are in desperate need of a kidney. However, amazingly, UNOS, the United Network for Organ Sharing, reported that only 207 people altruistically donated a kidney last year. This number does not count Renewal’s transplants, as they are considered a religious organization, or the transplants are “religiously motivated.” Regardless of the motivation, it means, however, that if you understand that 207 “American altrustic donors plus Renewal’s 87 equals close to 300 (and taking into consideration that a few of Renewal’s donors know their recipient), Renewal is still responsible for close to 25 percent of the total number of transplants to strangers in America last year.
But what Renewal still needs, and what I realized was the reason for the Shabbaton, is for the donors to go home and talk about what they did. The group, as a whole, was exceedingly humble, and perhaps too humble, if you ask most members of Renewal’s staff.
And here came my lightbulb moment: I am here because my friends at Renewal, with whom I’ve worked since Donny Hain’s family sought help to find him a kidney back in 2014, thus starting a cascade of six Teaneck/Bergenfield kidney donations since, asked me to come and see what these people, as a group, had done. Renewal needed someone to bear witness to the Shabbat, to synthesize and process and understand that there is a difference between thinking conceptually about donating your kidney, and dialing the number 718-431-9831. There is a difference between picking up Rabbi Sytner’s book on a friend’s coffee table and emailing email@example.com, and writing: “I would like to be tested to see if I am a match for someone in your database.”
Renewal is a special organization made up of special people. Every single one of the donors, whether they think so or not, has done something immensely heroic. And now they must be heroes again (and for many, this might be harder than actually donating a kidney), by becoming ambassadors for living kidney donation.
And they, with Renewal, are coming to a community near you. Don’t miss the opportunity to hear them speak. You too might feel inspired to do something, whether it’s to donate money to help defray Renewal’s costs, to host a Renewal event in your home or shul, or yes, even asking yourself what it might mean to renew someone’s life by giving, physically, of yourself. Learn more at http://www.life-renewal.org.
By Elizabeth Kratz