Organ donation called a mitzvah
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Organ donation called a mitzvah

A fact sheet published by the NJ Sharing Network in preparation for National Donor Sabbath, Nov. 10 to 1′, calls organ and tissue donation "a person’s final act of charity."

The group, which acquires and coordinates placement of donated organs for patients on national transplant waiting lists, seeks to educate the public about transplantation and increase the number of organ donors.

Across the United States, more than ‘8,000 organ transplants were performed in ‘005, but more than 9’,000 people are on the organ transplant waiting list, according to a statement from the New York Organ Donor Network, which reported that 7,000 of these people are in the greater New York metropolitan area, where there were only ’61 organ donors last year. In addition, said a statement from the group, "each day, as many as 17 people die in the United States because of the lack of life-saving organs."

The organizers of National Donor Sabbath, who count among their supporters the leaders of many faith communities — including many Jews — are asking those who head houses of worship to discuss the issue of organ donation during religious services in November.

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, religious leader of Ahavath Torah in Englewood, is among the Jewish leaders supporting the venture, although he will not deliver a formal sermon on the issue, as he did last year, but he will speak about it from the bimah.

Goldin told The Jewish Standard that it is important to correct "common misconceptions" about organ donation.

First, he said, the teaching that we must treat dead bodies with respect does not preclude either autopsies or organ donations where those acts will save a life. Acknowledging that there had been "a kind of mysticism" surrounding the issue of death, he said, "people are more educated now."

In addition, he said, the traditional view that organs could only be donated "based on the concept of lifanenu, that the person we help must be known to us," is no longer compelling, given the vast communication network that binds donors in real time with people in need of organs.

A member of the Halachic Organ Donation Society — established in ‘001 to "save lives by encouraging organ donation from Jews to the general population," according to its Website — Goldin echoes the position of HODS founder Robbie Berman, who maintains that "unnecessary deaths can be avoided" if Jews become more familiar with the medical facts and Jewish law on the issue.

While Orthodox leaders such as Rabbis Norman Lamm and Moshe Tendler have spoken in favor of organ donation, Goldin agrees that defining when life ends — with some linking death to irreversible cessation of autonomous breathing (as confirmed by brain-stem death) and others believing that life ends with the irreversible cessation of the heartbeat — is still a "raging conflict."

At the annual convention of the Rabbinical Council of America in June, the RCA approved organ donation as permissible from brain-dead patients, putting the group at odds with other Orthodox authorities who argue that the cessation of brain function does not indicate death according to Jewish law. A Jewish Telegraphic Agency report of the meeting said the group affirmed that saving a life is of the utmost importance and that "no barriers exist to donation of the organs of the deceased if they are harvested in accord with the highest standards of dignity and propriety."

"Since organs that can be life-saving may be donated, the family is urged to do so," said the RCA. "When human life can be saved, it must be saved."

Goldin pointed out that the HODS donor cards allow carriers to check off their preferred definition of death and said he is confident that "the controversy [surrounding the issue] will be resolved."

The rabbi also noted that last year he devoted his talk on Shabbat Shuvah to the issue of organ donation. "We’ve got to break down the myths," he said.

Pointing out that National Donor Sabbath this year falls close to the date of Kristallnacht, Nov. 9, Rabbi Neal Borovitz — religious leader of Temple Sholom of River Edge and head of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis — said he sees "a very important connection between this date and organ transplantation, which to me is the antithesis of the horrific medical experimentation of the Holocaust."

Said Borovitz, "Organ transplantation is a life-saving measure, and the donors are truly exhibiting the greatest level of both tzedakah and chesed."

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