Ordinarily, Chanukah is a time to hug and kiss the kids as we sing in front of the menorah. This past Chanukah was an exception. Instead of putting my arms around my children, I watched them light the menorah on a streaming video from my iPad while I rested comfortably in my hospital bed.
It was a bittersweet moment, one I would not trade for anything in the world – because this year for Chanukah, I gave the gift of life.
Ronit, a mother of three children from Petach Tikva, had been on dialysis for years. Her body was slowly shutting down due to her genetic kidney disease and the doctors did not give her much longer to live. Over the past several years, Ronit literally traveled the world and explored every option to find an altruistic kidney donor willing to save her life. Yet as time continued to run out, she never gave up hope.
Meanwhile, halfway across the world, I had a sudden urge to launch an educational lecture series in my shul about Jewish medical ethics. I spent a great deal of time researching, studying and teaching about the medical and halachic perspectives of organ donation. The lectures were stimulating, interactive and well attended. My conclusion was always the same: “Not only is living kidney donation permitted by halacha, but if a person is in good health and is inclined to donate – saving a life is the among the greatest mitzvot we can ever do.”
After hearing myself repeat those words so often, it forced me to look in the mirror and ask: Would I ever consider doing something so crazy as to donate a kidney to a total stranger?
I continued researching the topic and quickly realized it actually is not so crazy. I learned the surgery itself is extremely safe and highly successful, and that a person can live a perfectly long and normal life after donation.
By contacting organizations like Matnat Chaim and Kidney Mitzvah, I was matched with Ronit. Unlike finding a bone marrow donor, which is tantamount to searching for a needle in a haystack, finding a kidney match is not all that difficult. The hardest part is finding someone who is actually willing to make the donation.
My wife, Chana, was incredibly supportive throughout the process. She wisely suggested I go through the testing and take it one step at a time. It turned out to be the best advice I received. Rather than getting overwhelmed, I carefully took my time testing, researching and talking to others who had previously donated. A year later I was approved as a perfect candidate for kidney donation.
At that point, I sat down with my two older sons (11 and 8) and explained to them that my kidney could save the life of a woman in Israel. I assured them I would not go ahead with the donation unless they were fully on board. As I explained the process to them, my eight-year-old son began crying and said, “Totty, please don’t do it. I am scared and I don’t want anything to happen to you.” I responded with a hug and assured him that if he didn’t want me to donate my kidney, I wouldn’t do it.
At that point, my older son asked if the recipient had any children. I explained that she had three children but was a single mother. Immediately my boys both responded that I should definitely give her my kidney.
I looked quizzically at them and inquired about their sudden change of heart. The response I received knocked the wind right out of me. They both said basically the same thing: “Totty, if you die, we will be very, very sad, but at least we will still have Mommy to take care of us. However, if this lady dies, her children will become orphans. That is why you must give her your kidney”.
Their words echoed with simplicity and resounding clarity. I could live a perfect life with one kidney. However, without a transplant, Ronit would surely die.
Thus, in late December I went to New York’s Montefiore Hospital to donate my kidney. When I met Ronit for the first time, I was overwhelmed by the tears flowing from her eyes and the look of pure joy and gratitude on her face.
The two-hour laparoscopic surgery was a huge success, and after two days in the hospital I was home recuperating. Just one month later I feel great, and am back to my usual routine – even running a few miles each day. Ronit has begun a new life – full of energy and free of the constant tethering to a dialysis machine.
I don’t view my “Chanukah present” as being heroic or righteous. In the prayer of Shema we constantly state our desire to serve Hashem “b’chol me’odecha” with all of our me’od – our excess. To me, my second kidney was my me’od and I was glad to share it.
I would strongly encourage others to give some thought to becoming a kidney donor. In today’s economy, it may be tough to make large charitable contributions – but the gift of life is guaranteed to be the single most significant donation you will ever make.
Rabbi Ari Sytner is spiritual leader of Brith Sholom Beth Israel Congregation, the only Orthodox shul in Charleston, South Carolina.
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