Adam Levitz urgently needed a new liver.
The 44-year-old father of three from Syosset, Long Island, was on liver transplant lists in three states since March 2017. Twice he was disappointed when cadaveric livers failed to be the right match for him. He knew that a liver lobe from a living donor is the best option, but he never expected that a total stranger from Teaneck would step up to be that donor.
“To have someone I didn’t know be willing to put his life in jeopardy to save my life was the most unbelievable thing I ever heard of. Why would someone want to do this?” he recalls thinking.
And when he found out that the altruistic donor was a Chabad rabbi with nine children — Ephraim Simon, director of Friends of Lubavitch of Bergen County — Mr. Levitz was even more amazed.
“You always hear a myth that Jewish people aren’t donors,” Mr. Levitz said. “And here’s a rabbi ready to sacrifice his family and his well-being to help save the life of another human being. I’m still trying to wrap my head around it.”
What’s even more remarkable is that this is the second time Rabbi Simon has donated a part of his body to someone who was gravely ill. In 2009, he donated a kidney to a 51-year-old father of 10.
The Jewish Standard spoke to Mr. Levitz and Rabbi Simon two weeks after the procedure, which took place December 20 at the Cleveland Clinic. Both were still in Cleveland for outpatient monitoring before receiving clearance to go home.
“The experience of donating a kidney was so powerful and amazing that I wanted to see how I could do this again,” Rabbi Simon said. “I spoke about kidney donation publicly and encouraged others to do so. My story went viral on the internet and a lot of people wound up donating kidneys as a result. But I wanted to do something even more tangible.”
Obviously he couldn’t donate his remaining kidney. He found out, however, that it is possible for a person to donate part of his or her liver because the liver has a unique ability to regenerate itself after a few months.
So in 2012, Rabbi Simon got in touch with Chaya Lipschutz of Brooklyn; it was through her nonprofit organization, Kidney Mitzvah, that he had been matched with his kidney recipient. He asked if she could help him find someone in need of a liver transplant.
Ms. Lipschutz said that a request to become a double donor is extremely rare, but she agreed to use her vast social network to help Rabbi Simon. Finding a potential recipient turned out to be much easier than finding a hospital willing to accept a liver donor who already had donated a kidney.
For a long while, it seemed that the rabbi’s wish would go unfulfilled.
“I tried to match him up with numerous others who needed a liver donor, but their hospitals wouldn’t allow it,” Ms. Lipschutz wrote on Facebook. “Thank you to Cleveland Clinic, one of the very few hospitals in the USA — or world — that allow kidney donors to also donate part of their liver.”
Neither donor nor recipient was deterred by having to fly to Cleveland for the procedure.
“Rabbi Simon was willing to go anywhere in the world to save another life! What a very special person he is, to say the least!” Ms. Lipschutz posted on January 1.
Rabbi Simon, 50, acknowledges that some people were incredulous at his decision. “Several people said, ‘It’s crazy, why would anybody do this?’” he reported. “‘You’ve done enough; you don’t need to do more.’
“And a lot of people who love me were really afraid for me to do this.”
Indeed, while the kidney removal was done laparoscopically and involved a relatively short recovery period, donating part of a liver — in this case, the left lobe, or about one-third of the organ — requires open surgery that comes with greater risks and a longer hospital stay and recovery. Furthermore, Rabbi Simon knew from his previous experience that opioid pain relievers are not effective for him, and he’d have to soldier through the inevitable post-op pain.
With all that, why was he so determined to donate?
“It’s a combination of two factors — first and foremost, the ability to save another human being’s life,” he said. “I believe very strongly that Hashem blesses us with various resources in life and not everything He blesses us with we’re meant to hoard.
“I was blessed with good health and as a thank-you to Hashem, if I can give some of that health to another human being and restore his or her life, it’s a powerful motivating factor. Sometimes when somebody is ill there is nothing you can do. Here I had two situations where people were suffering terribly, and I could do something about it.”
His second motivating factor, he said, is his children.
“I live my life to inspire my children and, secondarily, my congregation and community, to live meaningful lives,” he said. “I educate them that our lives are very fleeting and in the time we have we must try to make a difference in the world. Our kids look much more at what we do than what we say, and I have said before that a rabbi’s greatest sermon and a parent’s greatest lecture is how they live their life. That for me is incredibly motivating.”
He said that his kids were all supportive of the liver donation. When somebody asked his youngest, a 12-year-old boy, if he was scared about his father’s health, the child replied, “I was nervous, but my father told me he’s going to be okay and I trust him.”
Before beginning the operation, Rabbi Simon’s transplant surgeon, Dr. Federico N. Aucejo, asked if there was anything the rabbi wanted to tell him before he was anesthetized. Thinking of his son, Rabbi Simon said, “I have nine children at home. Please make sure I get back to them. My 12-year-old trusts my word that I’ll be okay.”
Two weeks after the surgery, Rabbi Simon reported feeling well. He was expecting to go home on January 9. “For me, it’s only a few weeks of pain and discomfort and then I’m back to my regular life,” he said. “But for the recipient, who was so sick, he now looks healthy and has a long life ahead of him. I’ll take that trade.”
Mr. Levitz was told that the donated liver lobe began functioning as soon as it was transplanted into his body. The next few months will be critical in the recovery process, but he’s very optimistic, based on the post-op monitoring thus far.
“There is no better person in the world than Rabbi Simon,” Mr. Levitz said. “We were amazed that he was thanking me for the opportunity to save a life. He told me the first time we met, ‘Adam, I’m 100 percent yours. I’m not going to back out. I promise you this is your liver and you have nothing to worry about ever again.’ And now I have a new lease on life. I’m going to be 45 this month and I have long years ahead of me.”
The perception that Jews don’t usually donate organs stems from the relatively low percentage of Jews with signed organ-donor cards, according to the Halachic Organ Donor Society, which works worldwide to correct “a widespread misperception … that Jewish law categorically prohibits organ donation.”
However, in terms of living donation, altruistic kidney donor numbers have been rising particularly among religious Jews. (We could not find statistics on living Jewish liver-lobe donors, but such donations are much rarer anyway. According to the American Transplant Foundation, in 2017 there were only 367 liver transplants from live donors, compared to 5,811 living kidney donor transplants.)
The Brooklyn-based nonprofit organization Renewal reports that Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews make up more than 15 percent of living altruistic kidney donors, even though Jews make up only about 2 percent of the U.S. population, and Orthodox Jews are just one-tenth of that 2 percent. Moreover, in Israel a recent research study found that the majority of Israeli altruistic kidney donors are religious Jews.
This makes sense to Rabbi Simon. “When you believe in a higher truth and a God who asks us to emulate him, as he gives chesed — kindness — to others, we do too,” he said; being merciful is traditionally considered a sure sign of Jewishness, he added.
And he feels that he has been on the receiving end of great mercy from his family and community. “Saving this man’s life was not me alone,” he said. “I could not have done this without many partners. The Teaneck community is one big partner. They supported me emotionally and supported the Chabad House financially, because I raise all the money to keep it going and when I am not there the responsibility falls on others.”
One of his congregants, Juda Engelmayer, started a GoFundMe crowdfunding campaign on January 2. The goal is to raise $100,000 for Friends of Lubavitch of Bergen County. Youth and teen director Rabbi Michoel Goldin has been handling day-to-day operations at the Chabad House in Rabbi Simon’s absence.
“The other big partner is my incredible children,” Rabbi Simon continued. “We have two married children and seven still at home, aged 12, 14, 15, 17, 19, and 22. Our 19-year-old daughter, Sarah, and our 22-year-old son, Mendel, basically ran the house while my wife and I were gone.”
Rabbi Simon said that his wife, Nechamy, is “the real hero behind this whole story. When I told her I wanted to do this — a major operation with a huge recovery period — she was so supportive. I was in the ICU for 24 hours and in the hospital for six days. The Cleveland Clinic required a caretaker to be with me, and she volunteered to do that and did it with grace and beauty.”
Asked what he looks forward to upon his return home, Rabbi Simon said, “When I get back to Teaneck, the first thing I’ll do is hug my children.”