Photo Credit: Jewish Press

The Torah tells us that we should always be happy. But how can we be happy when we’re going through difficult times or incidents? The answer is that if we remember that everything is from Hashem and therefore good, then we’ll be happy. Of course, it’s not always easy to do but it’s what we should be striving for – to live every moment of our lives with that awareness.

There are people who live on that sublime level, who have constant emunah, faith and bitachon, trust in Hashem. One such person was Rabbi Reuven Karelenstein, zt”l, who lived with his family in Eretz Yisrael. Rabbi Karelenstein was a very fine man who was a devoted husband and father, and a very pious Jew. He suffered for many years with kidney problems but still he was a positive, happy person, believing firmly that everything is from Hashem and therefore, everything is good.


When Rabbi Karelenstein’s health problems worsened, he was told by his doctor that he would need a kidney transplant. This was about forty years ago when transplants weren’t as common in Eretz Yisrael as they are today.* And in addition to that, Rabbi Karelenstein had a rare blood type which made it much harder for him to find a donor since the donor and the receiver of the kidney must have the exact same blood type. Rabbi Karelenstein waited and waited to hear of a possible donor but nothing came up and it wasn’t likely that something would, and so he was advised to fly to the United States where kidney transplants are more common and he would have a far greater chance of finding a match.

And so it was that he left his family behind and flew to America and settled in a religious neighborhood of Brooklyn for what he hoped would be a very temporary stay. He went through many tests and then he waited, and waited and waited. But no suitable donor was found. Weeks became months, and then a year and then two years, but still, no donor was found.

At that point, after two years of futile waiting, someone who knew about his situation, an askan (someone ‘who knows how to get things done’) decided to try to help him. He went to many hospitals in the New York area but without success. Rabbi Karelenstein’s rare blood type made most of the potential kidneys irrelevant for him; he needed a perfect match.

When two and a half years went by with still no success, the askan said to the rabbi that there’s no use waiting there any longer, and that he heard of a hospital in San Francisco that specialized in transplants, and suggested that they go there, saying they would have a much better chance of getting a match there. When Rabbi Karelenstein agreed, the askan asked his wife if she agrees to his going to San Francisco with the rabbi. At first she said she agreed, but then she added: “But what will be if while you’re on the plane a kidney becomes available in Brooklyn. It’s a six hour flight between New York and California.” The askan said that after two and a half years of waiting, that was highly unlikely, but his wife said: “But it’s possible. I agree to your going only if you promise to call me as soon as you arrive in case there is a kidney available for him here.”

The askan agreed, and then immediately made arrangements for him to fly with Rabbi Karelenstein to San Francisco and in less than two days, they were on a plane to California.

They arrived at three o’clock in the morning, went directly to the hotel they had booked and they each went to their respective rooms. The askan remembered his promise to call home immediately upon arriving but being that in those days there were no mobile phones, calling at that hour would be complicated, plus, of course, he knew that the odds of there being a kidney in New York exactly now were just about zero, so he went to sleep peacefully, planning on calling his wife after he got up.

At about six o’clock in the morning there was a sudden noise in the askan‘s room. He woke up and realized that someone was banging furiously on his door. “Who is it?” “The police! Open up!” “Why?” The policeman shouted through the closed door: “Are you… and the policeman said the askan‘s name..?” “Yes, what the problem?” “Your wife needs to speak to you immediately! She said it’s a matter of life or death! Open up!!” The askan opened the door and heard that while he was calmly flying to San Francisco with Rabbi Kerelenstein, a kidney became available in New York and his wife had been trying to reach him desperately for hours!

The askan called her immediately and heard that yes, a kidney that was indeed a perfect match had become available but since time is of the essence with an implant, the kidney hospital policy was that if they didn’t receive an affirmative answer from the potential receiver of the kidney within three hours of the notification, the kidney goes to the next person on line. Three hours had passed. His wife called the hospital, said they had located Rabbi Kerelenstein, and begged them to give him the kidney despite the late response. “We’re very sorry,” she was told, “but there are rules and when three hours passed and we hadn’t heard from you, we contacted the next person on the list and he affirmed that yes, he did want the kidney. Sorry.”

When the askan heard this, he was devastated. After more than two and a half years of waiting for a kidney, the rabbi missed this opportunity because his ‘helper’ decided to go to sleep and call later. How would he break this to Rabbi Kerelenstein?! He decided that since there was nothing to be gained, and it would only upset him terribly, he wouldn’t tell him about what had transpired.

Later that morning the rabbi, together with the askan went to the hospital in San Francisco to begin the procedure that would enable him to eventually receive a life-saving kidney with Hashem’s help. Though the askan was usually full of positive energy, today he wasn’t because of what had transpired, and the rabbi noticed that. He asked him what the problem was but the askan didn’t respond. When the askan continued to be obviously troubled by something, Rabbi Kerelenstein insisted that he tell him what the problem was. And so, with no choice the askan told him how because of him, the rabbi has lost the potential kidney.

There was a moment’s pause and then the rabbi smiled exuberantly and began to dance, crying out with all his heart – thank You Hashem, Thank You!” The askan thought that the news caused such stress to the rabbi that something went wrong in his brain. There was no other way to explain the rabbi’s expression of great joy and gratitude. As the rabbi continued to express his love and thanks to Hashem, the askan saw that actually the rabbi did look normal even though his behavior was totally unexplainable. And so he asked the rabbi: “Is everything okay?”

“Everything is wonderful!” the rabbi answered, and then he continued: “Don’t you see – Hashem saved me from something terrible, from getting a kidney that obviously wasn’t for me!” “Why do you say that?” asked the askan. “The hospital said it was a perfect match.” The rabbi responded with elation: “It doesn’t matter what they say! Hashem made it work out that I shouldn’t get it! So obviously it wasn’t for me! Nothing is by chance. Everything is from Hashem. And everything is good! Baruch Hashem that I didn’t get it!” And the rabbi continued joyfully thanking Hashem for the hashgacha pratis, the divine providence which kept him from getting the wrong kidney.

Time went by, months, and then a kidney which was a perfect match for Rabbi Kerelenstein became available and the implant was performed in San Francisco. After enough time went by for the staff to see that the implant was indeed successful, and some more time for the rabbi to recuperate, the rabbi finally went back to Eretz Yisrael, to his family and home. He was once more healthy, baruch Hashem.

And of course, the askan also returned to his home in New York. Time went by and the askan couldn’t stop thinking about the emunah and bitachon that the rabbi had. After several months, because he couldn’t forget Rabbi Kerelenstein’s unusual and thought-provoking response to having lost out on the first kidney, the askan decided to follow up on what had happened with the kidney that was almost the rabbi’s, but wasn’t. He inquired at the hospital about the transplant that was supposed to be for the rabbi, and since they knew him, they told him that actually there were two kidneys at the time and since the rabbi didn’t respond in time, they were both given to two other people, gentiles who were on the waiting list. “And everything’s okay?” the askan asked. “Actually, no.” was the answer he heard. And the nurse explained: “The kidneys looked perfect externally but it turned out that they were both infected. Both the men who received those kidneys unfortunately died.”

Rabbi Kerelenstein merited to live a good, healthy life for another thirty years, baruch Hashem, and every year he made a seudat hodaya, a meal of thanksgiving – not on the day that he received his kidney, but on the day that he didn’t receive the kidney that wasn’t his!

Yes, there are people like him in the world. Let’s strive to be like them. It’s not easy, not at all, but at least we can strive for that. And if we do, if we work on it, Hashem will surely help us.


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Naomi Brudner, M.A., lives in Yerushalayim where she writes, counsels and practices Guided Imagery for health, including for stroke patients.