The stories our kidney donors tell are remarkably for any number of reasons: their selflessness, their courage, their humility. But one common element that each one of our donors tell about is the emotional and spiritual rewards they have found for themselves. Through their incredible acts of kindness, by bestowing an anguished person with the gift of life, they have earned the greatest merit.
My journey began five years ago, on the receiving end of Renewal’s assistance.
My cousin was in need of a kidney transplant. The sight of her as she bravely endured
dialysis – frightened, weakened, diminished – struck fear and pain into my own heart. Two months after contacting Renewal, she received a kidney, renewed health, and a second chance at life. Just weeks later, her husband donated a kidney as well; as I witnessed his recovery, his positivity, and his remarkable rebound. Inspired, I decided to donate one of my own. However, a huge – literally – roadblock thwarted my plans: I was significantly overweight and struggling with diabetes and a fatty liver.
Determined to persevere, I vowed to change my life in order to change someone else’s.
Those five years since my cousin’s transplant were a time of drastic revolution in my life. I underwent bariatric surgery, receiving a gastric sleeve in February of 2015. I lost 75 pounds, was declared diabetes-free, and redeemed myself from my own failing health.
Once again, I contacted Renewal, filled out the paperwork, and resolutely resumed the quest to become a kidney donor.
May 18, 2016 is a day that I will remember for the rest of my life: testing day. I spent the day in its entirety – from 8:30 in the morning until 5 in the afternoon – subjected to a rigorous battery of tests to determine my physical and emotional health. Two days later, I received the call I’d anticipated for years: I was deemed healthy and capable of donating my kidney. Better yet, I was a match for a patient in need! I celebrated, thrilled to have the chance to help free someone like my cousin from the treacherous, uncertain life of kidney disease.
We worked to schedule the surgery, ultimately settling on July 19, a date before the beginning of the Three Weeks. To my satisfaction, it was to take place on Tuesday, paamayim ki tov – twice as good. Three weeks prior to transplant day, Renewal called my recipient to deliver the good news. My excitement mounted along with his as the date of the transplant grew closer.
Finally, July 19 arrived. At 5:30, I walked through the doors of Mount Sinai Hospital, barely able to contain my exhilaration. As I sat in the hard plastic waiting room seat, I couldn’t help but notice a man sitting with a woman; I instinctively knew that it was my recipient. Sure enough, we met a short time later, clad in hospital gowns and awaiting surgery. His grateful, positive personality reinforced the knowledge that I was doing the right thing. Shortly thereafter, we were wheeled into surgery; three hours later, I was wheeled back out. Baruch Hashem, I felt great post-op and was raring to go when the nurse arrived to help me walk around. Of course, undergoing surgery is no simple feat and I did feel the aftereffects when I overexerted myself, but my overall recovery was smooth and straightforward.
My kidney donation experience was a positive one, and news of my recipient’s slow but steady healing buoyed me through it all. With a renewed appreciation for my own wellbeing, I’m enjoying my life to the fullest extent: I’m back at work, back at the gym, and dreaming of skydiving one day – just like my professionally skydiving recipient. I’ve even gone back to the hospital to visit another Renewal donor, sharing tips and support as she completed her own donation.
I kept an informal journal throughout my journey; reviewing it months after surgery, I am grateful to have a chronicle of the ups and downs, the emotions, and the overwhelming joy. Today, I share pieces of my account with others in hopes of inspiring people to give the fundamental gift of life to those who are still in need.
At my day job, I do banking and financial work for a company. One night a week, I ride a volunteer ambulance shift in my town; I’m on the front lines of helping people at their time of illness or distress, sometimes even saving their lives. Being in the ambulance corps has had another effect – it’s deepened my gratitude to Hashem for my own health and wellbeing. I’ve always had an idealistic side, so when Renewal came to our shul to talk about the need for kidney donations, the message resonated with me.
With the encouragement of my wife, Renewal’s assistance, and the support of the Mount Sinai Hospital staff, I completed the medical testing and was cleared for surgery. After several unsuccessful attempts, they matched me with a compatible recipient.
Renewal’s Rabbi Josh Sturm met up with us as we checked in at Mount Sinai and asked if I wanted to meet my recipient. I could barely refrain from bursting out, “OF COURSE, THAT’S WHY I’M HERE!” We met and tearfully embraced, and then each of us was wheeled out on a gurney to be prepped for our operations.
Now, a year later, we are celebrating. I learned that my recipient had not been doing well on dialysis, and when his daughter got the phone call from Renewal, she wept with gratitude, “now he’ll be able to attend my wedding!” He is continually grateful, and I feel so fulfilled and
gratified that I could make his renewed life possible. At the ambulance corps, I can save people with my skills; saving someone with a part of myself is a different matter altogether. I have no residual medical effects. My strength rapidly returned after a short recuperation. I resumed my ambulance shift. I quickly got back up to my 150 miles per week of bicycle commuting. The Mishna says כל המקיים נפש אחת, מעלין עליו כאילו קיים עולם and I have had the privilege to fulfill this precept with no lasting sacrifice to myself, Baruch Hashem, and am all the better for it.
“Go to the talk,” my wife insisted. I wasn’t really interested, but went anyway to humor her since she wasn’t able to go at the time. The talk turned out to be fascinating: a personal account of kidney donation delivered by Dr. Tamar Green.Thank G-d for my wife. Three months later, I walked into an operating room to donate my own kidney. Why? Why put myself through the ordeal of surgery, of recovery, of being out of work for a month? I think this can best be answered in the same fashion as President Kennedy when he asked and answered a question about sending a man to the moon: if this was easy, there wouldn’t be any difficulty finding donors. But it isn’t easy, both in qualifying to be a donor and in going through with it.
I decided to donate my kidney because I could, not because it was easy. It wasn’t easy. Pain medications don’t work well on me, so I had more pain than most; still, I was able to return to work a month post-surgery. But the end result was to see my recipient at a seuda a year later, healthy and able to enjoy life again after nearly forty years of suffering. I suffered for a mere week to end someone’s lifetime of suffering. I could not have done it without the support of my wife, my rabbi, my company, and Renewal.
In an added twist, my personal benefit extended far beyond the initial donation. During a checkup about 6 months afterwards, the doctor found an extremely early tumor in my thyroid; it was essentially undetectable, and would not have been found if not for the donation. My donating a kidney saved not only the recipient’s life, but my own as well.
Kidney donors are frequently lauded for the gifts they bestow upon their recipients: the gift of health, of family, of life. But as I reflect upon my journey as a kidney donor, I find myself focusing on the gifts I received: the gifts of being a kidney donor. The period of time leading up to transplant day was truly life-changing. Each of the “gifts” I received represents a distinct area of my life that required growth and attention; all three are inextricably intertwined.
My first gift was self-transformation. When I became aware of a need in my community for a kidney donor, I went to do the preliminary testing: a simple blood test, the results of which would determine the need for further testing. I had previously donated blood and platelets but was unaware of what kidney donation entailed. I underwent extensive physical and psychological testing to determine my physical and emotional health. I spoke to doctors, my rabbi, and other donors, many of whom gave me extensive amounts of time, information, inspiration, and strength. I transformed from unsure and cautious to enthusiastic and confident; I chose to donate. The Rav who I reached out to didn’t know me personally, yet he recognized what I needed to work on; he advised me to recognize G-d in my life. I responded, “What about the transplant?” He replied, “Get tested, go through the process, but look for G-d”. This leads to my next gift: connection to G-d.
As I encountered obstacles and challenges, I worked at tuning into G-d’s presence in my life, viewing myself as a cog in the wheel and not the driver (though I’ve always liked being in the driver’s seat!). I visited my primary doctor for a check-up towards the end of the testing to discuss my plan to donate my kidney. She unexpectedly found something that required further examination. The next month was filled with tests, fear, and concern, but also tremendous hashgacha, support, and peace. I saw firsthand how G-d watches out for me; I witnessed Him actively handling things and humbly stepped out of the way. The final outcome was good, thank G-d; the practice of surrendering my will was truly invaluable!
The days leading up to the surgery felt like Yom Kippur. I contacted people to make amends, required specific prep prior to surgery… and fasted the day of surgery! As I entered the waiting area with my husband very early that morning, I was filled with gratitude – and butterflies in my stomach. As surgery drew closer, everyone was asked to leave; it was me and G-d. I asked if I could wear my beret under the surgical cap to ensure that my hair remained covered; my request was denied. But as they took me back, a young nurse approached and said, “I used to be an Orthodox Jew, but I’m not practicing anymore. I’ll make sure you are covered during surgery.” I was floored! At that moment I knew that G-d would watch over me.
The third gift I received is connection to community. It was extremely humbling to experience the outpouring of communal support and love after surgery. For many years I was uncomfortable with people putting themselves out for me; I shied away from offers of help. One of the most meaningful aspects of the months prior to the surgery was the countless hours that Menachem Friedman from Renewal spent on the phone, encouraging and educating me. He played an enormous part in my kidney donation; I cannot express the depths of my gratitude to him. He introduced me to many donors, including a chassidishe woman from Williamsburg named Malka.
Menachem Friedman told me he wanted to come for the surgery, but it would mean Shabbos away from his family. I was so moved that he even considered it! Instead, he surprised me and flew Malka down for Shabbos to support me. I was speechless and emotional when she arrived. A woman who didn’t know me left her children… for me! Friends took my children for the Shabbos after the surgery, enabling my husband to stay with me. They organized meals and I felt loved – rather than awkward – and grateful. I realized that the transplant wasn’t about me; others wanted to be a part of it. I was approached by many people who shared changes they’d made to their lives, inspired by my donation. I received flowers, gifts, heartfelt cards, donations in my honor, offers for grocery shopping, and help with my little girl, Sara. This time was a humbling, heartwarming, tremendous gift. People have called me a hero. Truthfully, this process transformed me; I may be a donor, but I’m also a recipient of the greatest gifts imaginable. A special donor said something that I can only now understand: “My only regret is that I can’t do it again.”
Rabbi Moshe Gewirtz
Renewal had always been a blip on my radar. The ads publicizing the need for a kidney would tug at my heart – each represented someone in need – but I never took action.
Five years ago, my opportunity presented itself: an awareness event. I listened to donors’ stories, learned about risks and statistics, and joined the Renewal database. Then… five years of radio silence. Several months ago, I finally got the call: there was a potential match. I refreshed my research, got an enthusiastic go-ahead from my family and Rav, and decided to proceed. To my disappointment, I was not compatible; I resigned myself to another long wait. But two weeks later, Renewal called again: I was successfully matched to a 33-year-old mother of three young children. I felt like I’d won the lottery – a chance to help a young family! There was just one problem. Due to scheduling conflicts, I’d need to undergo surgery by a specific date; if not, we’d have to wait another six months. Hospitals typically do not account for patients’ schedules. With Renewal on my side, the transplant took place three weeks later, on the exact date I’d wanted. In the wee hours of transplant day, I made initial contact with my recipient: heartfelt letters from her and her children (“Now my mother will be healthy for my bar mitzvah”) that filled me with emotion and renewed confidence.
It’s been three weeks since surgery and my recipient constantly updates us on her reclaimed life: her food no longer tastes metallic; she has the energy to cook nutritious meals and send her kids off to school. I am back to driving, giving classes, and running programs as a rabbi in Marlboro, NJ. While I felt pain, it was good pain – the pain of saving someone’s life.
I'd struggled with obesity since the age of 9. It’s a difficult life for a kid; my friends would joke about my weight and my older brother tormented me. By 18 years of age I topped out at my current height of 6’and weighed 230 pounds. As life got busier, I lost sight of my physical wellbeing and thoroughly convinced myself – as I had always done – that I was not fat, simply well built.
At the age of 27, I experienced episodes of shortness of breath and numbness in my chest and left arm, especially when doing simple tasks like climbing a flight of stairs. After several trips to the doctor and a failed stress test, a cardiologist determined that I may have had a blocked artery due to my obesity. I weighed approximately 270 pounds and my cholesterol was high. I underwent an angiogram – yes, an angiogram, at age 27! – to search for the culprit.
To everybody’s surprise I, Thank G-d, did NOT have a blocked artery! The doctors determined that my weight and a pinched nerve were causing my discomfort. I tried losing weight through a fad diet but never incorporated real lifestyle changes or proper exercise. As a result the weight loss was only temporary and I soon gained it all back – and then some.
A couple years later, I attended my older brother’s wedding. I was at least 285 lbs. (possibly more); I was thoroughly ashamed of how I looked in the pictures but once again I was “well-built.” My doctor tried to convince me to take care of myself. He suggested getting down to 215 pounds. I thought he was nuts, that a guy of my build would look emaciated at that weight, and continued deceiving myself. My cholesterol was in the mid to high 200s, my 8-hour fasting triglycerides were over 300, my
blood pressure was always 140/90… yet I continued to believe that I was in shape. The next year, my father-in-law suffered kidney failure as a side effect of his congestive heart failure. The doctors were discussing dialysis and possible organ donation. I immediately offered to test for compatibility. His doctor wrote me a prescription for the necessary blood tests, which I put in my wallet in anticipation of going to get tested the following week. Later that week I got the news that inexplicably his kidney function was improving and they would delay dialysis. I never took the compatibility tests.
The following year I attended another brother’s wedding. During the dancing I felt a serious pain in my knee, which began to swell. The doctor advised that my ball playing once a week without any other exercise was the cause of the pain and that most likely I would never be pain-free again. He also believed that if I continued to carry such weight and play ball we would likely be replacing the knee within 10 years. He suggested that I stop playing ball permanently unless I wanted to live a life of pain.
Finally, the implications of my weight set in. That’s what did it for me! The idea that I would not be able to play ball with my son did not sit well with me. I set out on a life-changing journey. I immediately started a healthy diet regimen while attending physical therapy for my knee. Within half a year I was going to the gym 5 times a week and I weighed in at 191 pounds, with my cholesterol and blood pressure consistent and normal. I was also pain-free in my knee and continued to play basketball at a level that I never had in my entire life. Now I was truly well-built.
Shortly thereafter, we received the news that my father-in-law’s kidneys were failing again and dialysis was imminent. Again, I offered to test. I was shocked to learn that kidneys don’t necessarily need a genetic match and can be done in many cases on blood type match alone. I was type O and he was AB which meant the odds were in his favor. I was also a 2 out of 6 genetic point match, which helped. What I did not know was that most living donors get rejected due to their own physical conditions and limitations to go through surgery.
Not two days after finding out that I was a qualified candidate, I was going through my wallet when I came across a piece of paper that I had forgotten all about. It was the original prescription for the kidney cross-matching blood work. I now know that had I tested back then, I would have been a blood type and genetic match; however, I would have been rejected due to my physical condition and would have assumed I would never be a possible candidate for donation.
It almost seems surreal that inexplicably his kidney function returned within normal limits and I subsequently got healthy with no thought of donation whatsoever, yet the two are so cosmically intertwined it is almost unbelievable. Being a religious person I know the truth: God gave my father-in-law two extra years of kidney function so that his donor would be able to go through the life changes necessary to save both of our lives.
On February 2, 2005, we both entered the hospital for the transplant. Thank God, all went well and his body accepted my kidney. My strength returned quickly and I resumed my workouts shortly thereafter.
Today, I am a father of four and grandfather of two. I maintain – and enjoy – a healthy lifestyle, starting my day at 5 by going to Kollel. I exercise regularly, cycling over 4,000 miles a year, and have participated in the last seven Bike 4 Chai 180-mile cycling events. I am involved in many tzedakah campaigns and have realized my dream of spreading awareness to other potential kidney donors, advocating for living kidney donation.
Donating a kidney was never on my list of things to do. After all, I was the person who endlessly procrastinated on doctors’ visits; I fretted over routine checkups. But about two years ago, much to my own surprise, I became a kidney donor.
Several months after the birth of my son, my wife’s first cousins welcomed a little boy of their own. Their son, however, was born in poor health. A year or two later, his parents began seeking a kidney for him; unfortunately, the search was difficult and fruitless due to his uncommon blood type.
I did not consider donating; it was never on my radar. But on a rare visit to the doctor, I asked him what my blood type was – I didn’t even know my own blood type! – and was shocked to discover that it was the same type as our young relative. I took that as a sign from Above and went for further testing. All tests showed that I was a good match, but my kidney was a tad too large for his small body.
Undeterred, Renewal initiated a complicated kidney swap. In a typical swap, a donor gives a kidney to a third party contingent on a specific person – a friend or relative – receiving a
kidney in an exchange of sorts. This swap turned out to be more complex, involving approximately 15 donor/recipient pairs throughout the United States, but that little boy got his kidney; the transplants took place simultaneously.
I don’t know the identity of my direct recipient; I don’t want to know. I see myself as the donor of my cousin’s kidney. It is incredibly poignant to watch him grow and thrive, learn to walk and talk, and go off to school like any other child – it’s like seeing my own child grow up. I had never thought that I’d be a kidney donor…but now that I did, I wonder why I didn’t do it sooner!
My story starts over a decade ago, several thousand miles away. When my mother came to visit my older brother and me in Israel, she noticed that my brother didn’t look well and insisted he see a doctor; shockingly, he was diagnosed with unexplained double kidney failure.
Upon his return to the US, he started dialysis and we began the feverish search for a donor, a daunting task in those pre-Renewal days. An altruistic donor was located and surgery scheduled for two months later. During the wait for surgery, women from the community gathered at our home for an Amen party, where thousands of brachot were made and answered in my brother’s merit. Just three days later, a recently deceased donor came through – and this one was a perfect 6-point antigen match, a one in ten million occurrence!
A decade after the transplant, my brother’s kidney function began to decline. His health was not in immediate jeopardy, but his quality of life was markedly reduced and the doctors recommended seeking a new donor. We contacted Renewal – AJ Gindi is a family friend, and my mother has been a part of the kidney “community” since the first transplant – and I immediately volunteered for testing. Since I’d been too young to donate the first time, I had never been tested. Incredibly, the test results showed that I, too, was a perfect 6-antigen match for my brother!
Surgery went smoothly for both of us; the kidney is functioning beautifully, and my brother’s levels are better than they’ve been since the very start of this saga. We know that Hashem prepares the cure for every illness – the refuah before the makkah. In our case, I was the refuah from the moment I was born, and I am so grateful for the chance to provide my brother with another chance at life.
For some kidney donors, the inspiration to donate comes in a flash: an ill relative, a heart-wrenching story, a chance meeting. For others, the decision is gradually influenced: a donor’s account, a friend’s transplant, a vague awareness of need. In my case, it was a combination of several factors. Three years ago, my shul and community of Merrick, NY was treated to a presentation by a family who had been through a familial transplant with the help of Renewal. Their story touched me personally; my father, Beno, a”h, had been a dialysis nurse for nearly 30 years, and I’d grown up with acute awareness and understanding of the hardship of dialysis.
On that day, I realized that donating a kidney would be the ultimate honor to my father’s memory; I told my wife that I intended to become an altruistic donor when the occasion arose. The matter of kidney donation lingered quietly in my consciousness, constantly bolstered by my work in the international healthcare arena. I assist patients from abroad in obtaining medical care – pediatric care, cancer care, transplants, and other complex treatments – in excellent medical centers in the United States. Many of these leading medical centers, including NY Presbyterian Weill Cornell (where I eventually underwent transplant surgery), are my business partners.
As a native Israeli, I also work regularly with Freddy Rosenfeld of HAREL/DIKLA Insurance. Freddy is one of my mentors as well as a client; he is responsible for coordinating transplants from Israel and works closely with Renewal. The prospect of a transplant never strayed far from my mind. A year after the original presentation, I learned that my rabbi and spiritual leader, Rabbi Ebbin of Ohav Sholom, donated his kidney through Renewal – he’d beaten me to it! With that extra motivation spurring me on, I called Renewal to begin the process.
In March of 2017, I joined the ranks of the living kidney donors, giving my kidney to an unrelated, still-anonymous woman. My wonderful wife, Bella, and our three children, Ben, Aaron, and Maytal, unwaveringly supported me throughout. My mom Zipora traveled from Israel to be by my side; I know that my father is proud and I cannot think of anything more appropriate to honor and memorialize him.
I am grateful to Hashem and humbled by my experience. I’d originally intended to keep my journey to myself; however, after hearing about my recipient’s renewed quality of life and seeing how inspiring my story was to my family, I recognize the importance of spreading awareness of Renewal’s work and the effect of living kidney donation. Every donor’s impetus is different; the impact remains the same.
Daughter of a Donor, Age 16
MY FATHER, MY TEACHER
On an ordinary day in an ordinary week I arrived home from school for what I expected to be a relaxing evening, when my parents said they had something they wanted to discuss with me. They explained to me that there was someone in the community who needed a kidney. My parents are always responding to the needs of people in our community so I didn’t quite understand why we were having this talk. They continued to explain that to help someone who needs a kidney, you need to be a match. My father explained that after learning about the need he decided to see if he would be a match and they had just found out that indeed he was. It was clear to my father that if his tests proved he was a match that he had no choice but to move forward. I had a number of questions, but before I could ask my father allayed some of my concerns by explaining that while he would only have one kidney, our bodies are capable of working with only one. I still had many questions about the procedure and the recovery. He told me that it would be a short recovery and there would be no after effects.
When I saw him a few hours after the surgery, he looked very uncomfortable, but by the next day he seemed back to himself, visiting with the recipient in his hospital room. As soon as I got to school, people came over and told me that my dad was a hero, that what he did was amazing and that I must be so proud of him.
My father has been my teacher from the day I was born. This time he was teaching by example. This experience has gotten me thinking. Much of what we do to help people in need, comes pretty easy to us. We give charity, we pray, we shop and cook for people who are in need. But how many of us respond when the need makes us uncomfortable or requires our changing schedules or requires our putting ourselves at risk? And how could I learn to reach that level of giving?
All people matter, no matter who they are, how smart they are, what they look like, how observant or how wealthy they are. And how do I keep this in mind as I meet and interact with people on a regular basis.
My father, my teacher, and yes my hero has set the bar high. I feel that this experience, beyond making me proud to be his daughter, has challenged me to be the best that I can be.
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