|The Simon family: From left, in back: Esther, Eli, Chana’le, Sara, Chaya, Mendel, Shaina, and Rivka. In the front: Rabbi Ephraim, Nechamy, and on her lap, Michel.|
“The rabbi’s greatest sermon is the way he lives his life.”
Need a babysitter, a ride to Manhattan, or a kosher used barbecue grill? TeaneckShuls, a moderated listserv connecting people in the northern New Jersey area, can help you find what you need. Need a kidney? TeaneckShuls can help as well. Ruthie Levi, a moderator for the listserv, reports that “as a result of an e-mail posting on this list for someone seeking a kidney donation, Rabbi Ephraim Simon of Chabad Teaneck has … successfully donated his own kidney.”
“It’s not like I woke up one morning and wanted to donate a kidney,” said Simon, who serves as the Chabad rabbi in Teaneck. “My own children, ages 2 to 14, are my first priority.” He recounted how a woman named Chaya Lipshutz had been posting for years on TeaneckShuls about people who needed kidney donors. “I would read them, and sigh, and go on with my day. I have nine little children and it was not something I would envision doing.” However, one such posting touched him deeply. “In August 2008, [Lipshutz] had a post of a 12-year-old girl – how could I let a 12-year-old girl die? I have a daughter who is 12.”
The rabbi assumed that kidney donation was like bone marrow donation, where the chances of being a match would be slim, but he was willing to try. He soon learned that if the kidney donor and recipient have the same blood type there is a good chance of a match.
“I spoke to my wife about it. We discussed it intensely; we could not let a 12-year-old girl die.” When he called a few days later to offer to test for the youngster, the need had already been met. “My wife was very relieved. But for me, I felt if I could do this for her, I could do it for someone else in a similar situation.” He was tested as a donor for the next two postings, a 40-year-old mother of two and a 30-year-old male, but he did not match. “OK,” he thought. “I can’t give this kidney away.”
Then last spring, Simon, 41, learned of a 51-year-old father of 10 who desperately needed a kidney. “After Purim I was tested. About one hour before the [Passover] seder I got a call from the hospital: ‘Rabbi Simon, you match.'”
“Between Pesach and Shavuos there were a lot of medical tests to ensure I was healthy. An MRI, CAT scan, EKG, psychiatric evaluation. I passed all the tests with flying colors,” said Simon. “Since I’m a Chabad rabbi, in the summer we have summer camp to run. I asked if it was OK to wait until after camp ends.” Camp ended on Aug. 7, and the following week the two surgeries were performed at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center. According to Simon, the recipient’s medical insurance paid the costs for both operations.
Risks and rewards
“It’s very difficult to find altruistic donors,” said Simon. “Eighty thousand people need kidneys. The amount of people willing to donate is not that many. Live kidneys from living donors are healthier, and last longer” than kidneys from cadavers.
Although the outcome for the recipient is better with a kidney from a living donor, the process does pose some hazards for the donor. Some risks of kidney donation listed by the United Network for Organ Sharing Website (www.unos.org) include pain, increased risks of infection, blood clots, hypertension, kidney failure, proteinuria (greater than normal amounts of protein in urine), and death. But most of these complications are rare. Lipshutz reported that “99 percent of the time there are no complications for the donor. As for the recipient, there’s about a 5 percent chance that the kidney will fail.”
“I’m in touch with many donors,” said Lipshutz, who herself was a kidney donor in 2005. “We’re all doing great and wish we could do it again.”
Simon explained that he did extensive research. “There are risks,” he said, “but they are minimal. [A donor will go through] life with one kidney, but you have plenty of kidney function with one kidney to live a long, healthy life.”
“If you have one kidney and something happens to it, then you’re in trouble,” said Simon. However, he pointed out, most types of kidney disease affect both kidneys equally. In such cases, having two kidneys would not provide an advantage. “The two real risks are: If there’s a tumor on the kidney, and they have to take out your kidney, you’re in trouble, and if there’s an accident and you have damage to the kidney, then you don’t have another kidney to rely on.” Both of those scenarios are quite rare, said Simon, so the risks are small.
However, according to the National Kidney Foundation Website, the ability to obtain health or life insurance may be an issue. In some cases living donors had difficulty changing carriers and faced higher premiums or waiting periods before qualifying for coverage.
“If I put on a scale the risks and rewards, and I can save a human being, and give a father of 10 back to his children and a husband back to his wife, that reward outweighs the risk,” said Simon. “I can’t live my life afraid of tiny risks. Every time we get in a car we take risks. It is such a small risk to save a life.”
Simon reported that in the process of screening you are asked if you are getting any money to be a donor. “I responded I wouldn’t sell this mitzvah for anything in the world. My two motivations were to save his life and be an example for my children,” he said.
“My younger ones don’t completely understand. The older ones said, ‘Wow, that’s amazing.’ The real hero in all this is my wife [Nechamy]. My wife has been very supportive from the minute I came to her with the [need for a donor for the] 12-year-old girl…. For my wife it’s a much bigger sacrifice. When you have nine children you need both parents hands-on…. I live to make life easier for my wife. and this will temporarily not make life easier for her.”
A major goal of Simon’s was the lesson he could provide for others. He was disturbed by the recent scandal involving Jews selling kidneys. “Sometimes the pressures of having to support institutions lead some down a perilous road. The chillul HaShem, desecration of God’s name, is unfortunate,” he said referring to the arrests last month of Jewish community leaders in New Jersey and New York. “Rabbis have to realize we are in a spotlight and we are supposed to be a light unto the nations.
“I hope that my operation taking place at the same time will show that there are good people as well, and it will be a kiddush HaShem [sanctification of God’s name].
“I’m a rabbi and I teach my congregation and children how important it is to give,” he continued. “HaShem put us here to help others…. My children should see what it means to be a Jew and to sacrifice for others. I told my older children, ‘You all are one of my main motivations for doing that, so that you should have an example.’
“My whole life I live to inspire others to be better,” said Simon. “The rabbi’s greatest sermon is the way he lives his life.”
Simon met the recipient, who wishes to remain anonymous, during the initial testing and right before the operations. Both surgeries, done in tandem by two separate surgeons, went smoothly.
“The kidney started working right on the operating table for him. In 48 hours he had completely normal kidney function,” Simon reported. Since they were in the same hospital as the recipient, Simon and his wife went to visit him before Shabbat. “His surgeon walked in while I was there and said, ‘You gave him a fantastic kidney. I would have thought it was from a brother.'”
“It was just an amazing experience, right up there with the birth of my nine children,” said Simon.
“Here’s a man who was dying and now he’s a healthy man. It’s so rewarding to see that and to see the looks on his and his wife’s faces. They said, ‘What can we say? What is thank you? It doesn’t begin to touch the surface.’
“I told him, ‘Thank you for giving me this wonderful opportunity,'” said Simon. “I really feel that way. I don’t want him or his wife to feel any obligation. It’s my incredible honor. He shouldn’t feel that he owes me anything ever.
“I left up to him if he would like to stay in touch,” Simon continued. “When he’s fully recovered he wants to bring his entire family to meet my family.” He reflected, “God could have just as easily made me the recipient.”
Perspectives on the selfless act
Raised as a secular Jew in California, Ephraim Simon was a college student when he was motivated by radio talk show host Dennis Prager to learn more about Judaism. “I became more inspired by the teachings of Chabad and the message of the Lubavitcher rebbe. I ended up in a Chabad yeshiva in Morristown, the Rabbinical College of America.” After seven years in Coconut Grove, Fla., he moved to Teaneck, where he’s been the Chabad rabbi for the past six years.
Lawrence Milstein, a Teaneck resident who attends a class offered by Simon, said that the rabbi’s deed has inspired others in the community. “When I visited with him after the surgery he was so happy that he could donate his kidney and help this person it was as if he was a bride on her wedding day with a glow about him,” wrote Milstein in an e-mail. “We have all in certain situations turned to each other and said, ‘If Rabbi Simon can donate his kidney, I can at least do such and such’. For some it is stretching to give more time and or money to worthy causes at a time when we are all feeling the economic pinch, or it is committing to being a better parent, spouse, or friend.”
“Frankly, some of us [in the class] are even talking about following in his footsteps and donating a kidney, and although in reality I believe that it is unlikely that any of us will muster the courage to actually do it, we are certainly taking other actions in our own lives to make a positive impact,” Milstein wrote.
“There is a special place in heaven for people like Rabbi Simon. He has literally given a piece of himself to save another person,” wrote Teaneck Mayor Kevie Feit in an e-mail. “It is truly inspiring. Donating a vital organ is not for everyone but I hope this act inspires people to at least be more aware of the need, and possibly consider filling out a donor card.” He suggests that people check the organ donor option on the back of a driver’s license, or register as a Halachic Organ Donor. (For more information on the Halachic Organ Donor Society, go to www.hods.org.)
Lipshutz, whose posting on TeaneckShuls led to the donation, commented on Simon’s extraordinary act. “Every time he would see a posting he would ask, ‘What about me?’ He just wanted to save everybody’s life.”
Levi, moderator of Teaneckshuls, summed up the accomplishment. “We all have favorite, weird, legendary, entertaining, etc., TeaneckShuls posting tales to tell. But this is the purpose of this list – members helping others.”
For more information on Lipshutz’s kidney-matching project and to become a Halachic organ donor, here are some sources:
www.kidneymitzvah.com, e-mail KidneyMitzvah@aol.com.
United Network for Organ Sharing Website is at www.unos.org.
Teaneckshuls is a listserv sponsored by YahooGroups. Information on membership can be found at www.teaneckshuls.org.
Information on the National Kidney Foundation can be found at www.kidney.org.