On Monday, a 47-year-old man facing end-stage kidney disease sat in his hospital room in Hackensack and wondered if he would meet the stranger who was about to save his life.
Adam Kaplan, a real estate broker from Manalapan, has suffered in recent years from diabetes and its complications. This father of three college students—boy/girl twins and their older brother who all live in Florida, where he and his wife Holli also spend time—endured gastric bypass surgery to preserve his health. He grew healthier, but with diabetes as the number one cause of kidney failure, his nephrologist continued to sound the alarm on his kidney numbers, advising him to seek a donation before he would be forced to begin dialysis, after which outcomes tend to be much poorer. While he was in the state’s organ-sharing donor registry, last July he followed up with Renewal, with whom he had registered two years ago.
Renewal is a Jewish organization based in Brooklyn that has coordinated over 650 kidney donations since its inception in 2006.
“Rivky, from Renewal, told me that my blood work had never arrived. I couldn’t believe it; and I made a ton of phone calls to get all my records over there, but she was such a sweetheart. She helped me so much,” said Kaplan. “Now, Rabbi Moshe Gewirtz [another of Renewal’s donor coordinators] is another brother to me.”
Renewal, in recent years, has garnered some extraordinarily influential kidney donors in several communities, who have, in turn, inspired others to donate. Teaneck resident Zvi Adler’s kidney donation to his father, Rabbi Yosef Adler, has been linked to a whopping 19 kidney donations from the Teaneck community since 2017, which now is home to about 30 kidney donors affiliated with Renewal, many of whom were inspired after Rabbi Larry Rothwachs’ donation to Donny Hain in 2015. (In terms of donations from Renewal communities, Teaneck is second only to New Square, New York, which houses about 45 donors out of approximately 1,300 families.) Similarly, Rabbi Aryeh Leibowitz, from the Woodmere community of the Five Towns, also a rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University, has ignited a firestorm of kidney donations in his community after he donated through Renewal in 2018.
Surprisingly, Renewal’s kidney donations now account for almost one in five altruistic kidney donations in the United States. Most Renewal donors are observant Jews, which account for only.2% of the U.S. general population.
Kaplan’s new kidney, directly inspired by the Adler donation and from a member of the Rinat Yisrael community in Teaneck, was the 104th Renewal kidney transplant of 2019. “With 81 in 2017 and 98 in 2018, we are amazed by how the numbers continue to grow exponentially, thanks to these wonderful, selfless individuals,” said Rabbi Josh Sturm, Renewal’s director of outreach. In fact, Kaplan’s transplant was one of three that took place in a single day this past Monday, and by year’s end, Rabbi Sturm predicted the annual donations for 2019 would hit an inspiring 115.
Kaplan’s voice broke with emotion as he shared his gratitude to Renewal, to his donor and to everyone pulling for him, even showing a picture on his phone of his Chabad of Manalapan “lunch & learn” group, which was having its weekly meeting as he awaited his surgery. The assembled group of men sent him a group picture of themselves, with thumbs-ups and smiles straight from Get.Furniture in Manalapan, the store where their shiur was being hosted. They told him they were dedicating their learning in the merit of his refuah sheleima. Kaplan added that the same group of men, organized by Rabbi Levi Wolosow of Chabad, had been going to the Ohel (the burial site of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, in Queens) once a month on Rosh Chodesh, but his surgery meant he’d be missing their upcoming visit to the Ohel.
“The Ohel visits have been very spiritual and deeply connecting events for the men, and they have seen tremendous blessing after their visits,” Rabbi Wolosow told The Jewish Link.
“The group is a really solid group of people who love their Yiddishkeit. It’s our way of life, but we have fun also. I rent a bus or a 15-seat passenger van from Lakewood, and we drive to the Ohel. We go to dinner together after, or have food brought to the Ohel,” where there is a beautiful, open-plan tea room for visitors.
In anticipation of his transplant and in gratitude, Kaplan headed to the Ohel on his own on Sunday evening, the night before his transplant. Kaplan shared that he was yeshiva-educated in Brooklyn until eighth grade, and began putting on tefillin daily again five years ago, when a Chabad rabbi he ran into casually asked him if he’d put on tefillin that day. “I went home that day and searched my house for my bar mitzvah tefillin, and found them. Then when my father passed away I started putting on his every day,” he said.
Meet David, Adam’s Donor
While Renewal does not often broker meetings between donor and recipient before the transplant, the staff felt that the energy that both men shared would be beneficial to one another. “They are both such positive, sweet people,” said Rabbi Moshe Gewirtz, one of Renewal’s donor coordinators. “I could tell they should meet each other.”
Rabbi Gewirtz, a kidney donor himself who works at TorahLinks in addition to Renewal, was absolutely right. David Schiff, 51, a trader at a big financial institution in Manhattan, is the father, with his wife Debbie, of four college-aged and above children from Teaneck. His next-door neighbor was, until recently, the very same Zvi Adler (who made aliyah last year), who donated a kidney to his father in 2016. Schiff is the gabbai rishon (prayer service coordinator) at Congregation Rinat Yisrael, and Rabbi Adler is his rabbi. Schiff, when asked why he had decided to donate a kidney, said simply, “tov l’sh’chaino,” referring to the biblical obligation to be a good neighbor.
Schiff shared thoughts on his powerful experience witnessing his own neighbor donate his kidney, and explained that he, as well as his fellow shul members, became familiar with Rabbi Adler’s health issues as they were accustomed to seeing him daily at shul. They saw him as his health declined, and as it, thank God, renewed. “I am cognizant of the many brachos we have in our own lives,” he said.
He attended Rabbi Adler’s seudat hoda’ah (meal of thanksgiving) in November 2017, “and I decided to swab that evening,” he said. When he was told he had a match, he said, his only concern was asking if the recipient could wait until after Yom Tov, so he could complete the very busy gabbai work that goes with the season.
Back in the hospital rooms at Hackensack University Medical Center, Kaplan walked tentatively into Schiff’s room. They embraced. Pictures were snapped of their meeting, and a few tears were shed.
Kaplan, back in his room, texted a picture to his children of himself with Schiff. “Kids, meet your new Uncle David,” he wrote. “I feel like he is going to be my brother. I want to know him,” he said. “Thank you, Uncle David,” wrote back one of Kaplan’s sons.
Holli Kaplan, Adam’s wife, expressed emotion as well at her experience, coming face to face with the man who would soon save her husband’s life. “This proves there is real kindness in the world,” she said.
The Renewal community will honor the Teaneck community’s growing roster of life-saving kidney donors, including David Schiff, at its Celebration of Life melave malka on December 21 at 8 p.m. The event is at the Teaneck Jewish Center, and will feature entertainment from comedian Ashley Blaker and a pre-Chanukah sufganiyot and wine tasting. Learn more at https://www.renewal.org/.