Alt+SHIFT: The Gift of Life

Yitzchak Blau Tradition Online | September 21, 2023

Alt+SHIFT is the keyboard shortcut allowing us quick transition between input languages on our keyboards—for many readers of TRADITION that’s the move from Hebrew to English (and back again). Yitzchak Blau continues this Tradition Online series offering his insider’s look into trends, ideas, and writings in the Israeli Religious Zionist world helping readers from the Anglo sphere to Alt+SHIFT and gain insight into worthwhile material available only in Hebrew. See the archive of all columns in this series.

The Habers

Can one person or one couple truly change the world? R. Yeshayahu Haber זצ”ל (1965-2020) and his wife, Rabbanit Rachel Haber תבלח”א, may offer an affirmative answer. Twenty years ago, Israel did not excel at organ donation. Members of the religious community were particularly underrepresented among donors. Halakhic debates about brain death and superstitious beliefs about organ donation’s impact on the future resurrection of the dead contributed towards lower donor numbers among religious Israelis. Although these two factors do not impact directly on rates of live kidney donations, the numbers in that area were also not spectacular.

In 2007, R. Haber was on dialysis and met another patient struggling with failing kidneys who eventually died. R. Haber, who ultimately received a transplant himself, decided he must facilitate more transplants and started the Matnat Chaim organization. Matnat Chaim encourages donors via education, streamlining the bureaucracy, providing support and incentives for donors (such as public acclaim, weekend retreats, etc.), finding matches, and more. During its first year, the organization only facilitated four donations and now they frequently achieve four a week. In all, Matnat Chaim has more than 1,500 kidney donations to its credit.

The Habers overcame significant challenges in their noble pursuit. In 2017, the police investigated R. Haber for selling organs but the case was closed without an indictment. In 2020, he passed away from Corona, and his wife took upon herself the running of the organization. Despite these hurdles, the organization continues to pick up steam and Rabbanit Haber was awarded the Israel Prize for contributions to the State. Though they only managed to have two children of their own, the Habers consider all the donors and recipients as part of their larger family.

Some of the educational initiative involves informing potential donors that both the health risks and the impact on lifestyle are rather minimal. My wonderful wife, Noa Jeselsohn, donated a kidney in December 2019 (two weeks later she finished the Siyyum HaShas). While her aspiring tackle football career has taken a hit, she seems unconcerned, and the only ongoing effect is that she can no longer take ibuprofen.

This idealistic endeavor raises questions about the balance between humility and helpful publicity. My wife, like many other heroes, prefers not to highlight her donation and does not think of it as a noteworthy accomplishment. However, publicizing donations plays a major role in planting the idea in the heads of additional potential donors. Talking to donors who saved lives without encountering major danger encourages others to emulate their benevolence. My wife was influenced by a co-worker who donated, and in the wake of her donation, an aunt, a first cousin, and a neighbor have all donated. Sometimes, anonymity is not the highest level of charity.

Along the same lines, giving seems to spread within certain communities. In Israel, religious Jews, and the National Religious in particular, are today overrepresented among kidney donors. The settlement of Yitzhar has made a particularly impressive contribution. Since I am often critical of the more militant, anti-Arab voices in Yitzhar, it is important that I note that people are complex, with different sides to their personalities, and to acknowledge their more noble traits.

Another moral issue relates to the subsequent relationship between donor and recipient. In America, the two rarely meet in person. In Israel, it is often the opposite. On the one hand, the donor has given the recipient an immeasurable gift and the recipient desires to offer words or gifts of gratitude. On the other hand, trying to pay off an unpayable debt creates an awkward dynamic.

Kidney donation made the news recently when television personality Arnon Segal said that he wanted his kidney to go to a Jewish recipient. Several liberal voices harshly criticized him. Although I am equally grateful when any human life is saved, I thought the criticism of Segal to be out of place. First of all, we should recognize the great act of kindness in donating a kidney to anybody. Secondly, feeling greater ethical responsibility towards one’s own people and co-religionists need not be a diminution of ethics; it can be an elevation of ethical performance.

There is a parallel organization in the United States titled Renewal, but it seems they have not yet achieved the impact of Matnat Chaim in Israel. On the Israeli scene, I can speak with more confidence. Before the Habers started Matnat Chaim, Israel ranked 28th in the world in proportional live kidney donations. By 2020, the WHO ranked Israel the world leader in altruistic live donor kidney transplants Apparently, a few good and dedicated people can change the world.

Visit the websites of Matnat Chaim (in Israel) or Renewal (in North America) to learn more about becoming a kidney donor.

Yitzchak Blau, Rosh Yeshivat Orayta in Jerusalem’s Old City, is an Associate Editor of TRADITION.

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