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The Competition to Save Lives with Kidney Donations

by Maj. A.Y. Katsof
January 21, 2019

(photo credit: Matnat Chaim)

Avraham Rahamim of Yitzhar will never forget the moment when he met the man who received his kidney.

Several years ago, Avraham heard about kidney donation, and the idea intrigued him; he could save someone’s life by donating an “extra” organ. A friend of his donated, and he better understood the recovery process and decided he wanted to donate too. Initially, he did not want to tell anyone about his plan, but he realized that with a month-long recovery period, his wife would need help with his kids, and so he told his friends and neighbors about the donation. As word spread in Yitzhar, slowly but surely, more and more people began donating in his community.

Avraham Rahamim from Yitzhar, in the Heart of Israel

Avraham’s kidney recipient is a 34-year-old man who has been suffering from kidney trouble since he was just nine months old. When he was a baby, his kidneys failed and he had to go on dialysis. A few months later, they regained function, but at age nine they once again failed, and it became clear that he would need a donation.

At that time, only first degree relatives could donate – but no one in his family was a match. His family appealed, and they allowed his uncle to donate to him. At age 30, they failed once again, this time his mom, who was not a match, donated to him. Because she was not a match, the transplant did not take, and once again, he was on dialysis and waiting with the hopes of finding another match. Two years after the kidney transplant from his mother failed, he received Avraham’s kidney and has been healthy for the last four years.

When people think of organ donation in religious communities, many people think that the subject is taboo. In these Israeli settlements, you couldn’t be more wrong. In fact, there is a running “competition” between two of Israel’s settlements, Yitzhar and Itamar for being leaders in living organ donation. It is a very common practice in these communities to donate kidneys to those in need. 97% of living donors in Israel come from the Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox sectors, with a substantial percentage of those donors coming from settlements.

The Community of Yitzhar in the Biblical Heartland

Meir Barali, a resident of the settlement Asael (named for one of King David’s generals) was admitted to Ichilov Hospital to donate a kidney to a stranger. The night before his donation, he was joined by his wife and 11 children for an evening of song and prayer, beseeching God to make the donation go well on both sides. The operation was a success, and in a few days, Meir was sent home to recover. Donating an organ is a completely altruistic task – live organ donors like Meir are literally giving part of themselves in order to save someone’s life.

The number of organ donation to strangers has gone up in recent years. While it is common for people to agree to donate their organs after their death, it is a challenge for someone to donate an organ in the peak of their health. This exceptional act of kindness is becoming more and more common, particularly in the settlements Yitzhar and Itamar. The residents of these towns joke that they are in a competition to save lives.

“It is not really a competition,” said Yochanan Goldin from Itamar, “The moment a person donates, it brings in more donations. People come and ask him questions and see that kidney donation is a real possibility.”

Michelle Grafstein saw an ad in the newspaper posted by Linda, age 53, who was looking for a kidney. Michelle, who was also 53, felt Linda was speaking straight to her. Linda, who had been suffering for six years, was at a loss of words, overwhelmed by the most generous gift that she finally received.

Uriah Cohen and Avraham Rahamim of Yitzhar felt similarly. While Rahamim was hospitalized after his kidney donation, Cohen took care of him and realized that he too could take part in this exceptional act of kindness.  Together they realized that it is easy to spread this feeling in a small, tight-knit community like Yitzhar. People in settlements like Yitzhar and Itamar tend to be idealistic people – they have chosen to live in the Biblical Heartland, on the land where their forefathers walked, the region where the stories from the Bible took place – even though there are some members of the international community who wish to exile them and build a Palestinian state there instead. These idealistic people believe in strengthening the Nation of Israel through whatever means they can, including saving Jewish lives.

“In general, people living in Yitzhar do this out of a sense of mission, even relative to other communities, and the residents here contribute in all kinds of fields – some have foster children, some have raised all kinds of projects” said Cohen, “There is a joke here in the community, they say that it will soon be unpleasant to walk around here with two kidneys.” If you walk into the supermarket and look around, you’d end up feeling embarrassed that you are the only one that still has both kidneys.

Right before surgery, Yinon smiles with Lirit, who will be receiving his kidney. (photo credit: Matnat Chaim)

Meir Barali believes that it is no coincidence that such a high number of donors are from Judea and Samaria. Through his donation, he feels connected to the Religious Zionist doctrine that he believes in. He described the generous home he grew up in, as well as the connection between giving, serving in the army, Bible study, and kidney donation. Yochanan Goldin shares how his choice to live in Itamar is, in a way, a struggle and a sacrifice. It is far from Israel’s center of employment, family and friends are afraid to visit him in his home due to the risk of terrorism, and yet he is willing to make this sacrifice for his beliefs. It is the Jewish Homeland, as described in the Bible and this Biblical Heartland is vital for the Jewish People. The region can only stay in Jewish hands if people like Goldin, Barali, and Rahamim are willing to live there.

They all feel that being willing to donate a kidney to a stranger is directly connected to their overall lifestyle of sacrifice and charity to the Jewish Nation.

Rabbi Heber, Avraham and his kidney recipient

The overwhelming growth of kidney donors in the religious community came due to the work of Rabbi Yeshayahu Heber. He was sick on dialysis when he met a young man who was also having dialysis treatment. This young man had already received a kidney but needed another to save his life. The two became very close, spending four hours a day, three days a week together. Heber received news that a match had been found for him and that he would be getting a kidney. His friend responded teasingly, “What about me?” Heber could not get that response out of his head and so he scrambled to try to find a donor for his friend, and he did, but it was too late. Two weeks before the scheduled transplant, his young friend died. In honor of his friend and in order to save lives, Heber started the organization Matnat Chaim, which means “The Gift of Life.”

Penina, second from the right, was thrilled to have just finished her last dialysis treatment, as Yonatan, on the far left, gets ready to donate his kidney to her. Penina waited many years to find a good match and Yonatan, through Matnat Chaim, came to save her life. (photo credit: Matnat Chaim)

“Without the intention of it, a whole community of donors was born here,” said Mordechai Mintz, a resident of Itamar. On his 30th birthday, Mintz decided that he would join the ranks of Itamar’s kidney donors. He was inspired by members of his community like Yochanan Goldin, but what really drove him to donate was the Head of the local Yeshiva, the late Rabbi Avichai Ronsky. Rabbi Ronsky was told that he was not eligible to donate, but he still wanted to. He went from doctor to doctor trying to find someone to agree to allow him to donate. During some tests to see if he would be an eligible donor, a tumor on his liver was discovered. Doctors told him that if the tumor was found later on, he likely would not have survived. Rabbi Ronsky’s desire to save a life is what saved his own.

Hundreds of people have joined the community of donors, saving lives of strangers, and in cases like Rabbi Ronsky, saving his own life.

And for Avraham Rahamim of Yitzhar? “If I could do it again, I would. It truly is a great feeling.”