Swabbing for life

Swabbing for life

Ezer Mizion Bone Marrow Registry will be in Englewood to encourage the formation of a community donor pool

Israel Defense Forces soldiers swab their cheeks to provide samples for the Ezer Mizion Bone Marrow Registry.
Israel Defense Forces soldiers swab their cheeks to provide samples for the Ezer Mizion Bone Marrow Registry.

On the day Israeli teenagers begin their compulsory military service, one of the myriad things they are asked to do is provide a cheek swab for the Ezer Mizion Bone Marrow Registry, the world’s largest Jewish bone-marrow registry.

In fact, more than 60 percent of the 965,423 people now listed in the registry are former or present soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces.

Ezer Mizion chose to collect samples from IDF soldiers because they are young, healthy, and genetically diverse, according to Ryan Hyman, the group’s national director of development. “One of the major advantages of swabbing soldiers is that they’ll remain in the registry upward of 40 years, so it’s a phenomenal return on investment,” he said.

The Israeli organization is coming to Englewood on March 29 to 30 for what it calls the “Shabbat of Heroes.” It will highlight the way in which Israeli soldiers not only defend the State of Israel but also partner with Ezer Mizion to save lives internationally, he said. If they establish a community-wide donor pool, Englewood residents will have the opportunity to be a part of this.

Mr. Hyman, who lives in Teaneck, said it costs $50 to process each cheek swab sample for the registry. Over the last 20 years, the registry has facilitated 3,100 transplants in Israel, the United States, and 45 other countries.

An individual or a community with a minimum of $30,000 to underwrite the cost of swabbing a cohort of 600 IDF soldiers can start a community donor pool. If a transplant is facilitated from a match found among the pool’s sponsored samples, the donors will learn that they have just saved a life.

A community donor pool allows people of any means to contribute whatever amount they can afford toward the $30,000 minimum.

“We believe in a close connection between our financial donors with the soldiers being swabbed and ultimately with the bone-marrow or stem-cell recipient,” Mr. Hyman said. “We call it the triangle of life.” (Today, almost all marrow transplants are done with stem cells, extracted in a simple procedure similar to the one used for blood plasma donation, rather than using mature bone marrow.)

“When a donor pool sponsor gets that phone call, and I’ve had the privilege of making those calls, they are always moved to hear that there is somebody in the world who owes their life to them through the soldier they sponsored,” Mr. Hyman said.

The month of February set new records for the registry, he continued. “We facilitated 39 transplants in that one month, 33 of them from donor pools. The patients were in France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Spain, Turkey, and the U.S.”

New York-based philanthropists Ira and Ingeborg Rennert have facilitated 146 matches through their Ezer Mizion donor pool. The Brazilian Jewish community’s donor pool has celebrated 155 matches since 2007, two of them in February 2019.

Mr. Hyman said individual and community donor pools are active in Brazil, Canada, Mexico, Israel, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Ezer Mizion, the sixth largest bone marrow registry worldwide, helped Rita Soyka of River Vale find the match that saved her life.

“I had mantle cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and was treated at Sloan Kettering,” Ms. Soyka said. “I had a certain mutation so the only thing they could recommend for me was a transplant, but they had trouble finding donors.”

A few potential donors didn’t work out, but then, in 2016, on Thanksgiving weekend, Ms. Soyka got a phone call. She was told that a perfect match had been found on the Ezer Mizion Bone Marrow Registry. It was from a 28-year-old Orthodox rabbi from Israel.

Sloan Kettering sent a representative to Israel to retrieve the stem cells, which were transplanted into Ms. Soyka in New York on November 30, 2016. International bone-marrow registry policy dictates that donors and recipients may not meet until a year after the transplant; they are given the option to meet.

“My donor was coming to the area so we jumped at the opportunity to meet, and he was amazing,” Ms. Soyka said. “I was extremely fortunate to get a match in a relatively short time.”

Like most of those who find matches through Ezer Mizion, Ms. Soyka is Jewish. However, because of the ethnic diversity of donors, especially Israeli soldiers, some of whom are Druze, Christian, or Muslim, the registry is not exclusively for Jewish patients, Mr. Hyman pointed out.

“When it comes to simple genetics, the chances of a patient finding a match are greatly increased by searching among people within their own ethnicity,” he said. “But even within the Jewish community there are many differences. Recently we did a drive in Israel for a young Ethiopian woman. We swabbed 8,000 Ethiopians to find a match, because this ethnic group is underrepresented in the genetic community.”

Another case involved a half Yemenite, half Moroccan Israeli for whom there was no match in any registry. “So on one Sunday in Israel we swabbed 16,000 people and hundreds more in other parts of the world,” Mr. Hyman said.

That was not even Ezer Mizion’s largest emergency drive. “About two years ago we did a campaign for a young girl in Israel with no match,” Mr. Hyman said. “We had a world record-breaking 64,000 people who came out for that over the course of a week.” At $50 per sample, that drive translated into $3.2 million in genetic testing costs.

Hence the need for fundraisers.

Often, these events are highlighted by a donor-recipient meeting, “which is very emotional,” Mr. Hyman said.

The Englewood weekend will feature appearances by two prominent visitors from Israel: former Israeli Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau and Cantor Meir Helfgot.

While the bone-marrow registry is Ezer Mizion’s best-known project internationally, within Israel it does much more. Reportedly the largest healthcare support service in Israel, Ezer Mizion — “Aid from Zion” in Hebrew — offers an extensive range of medical and social support services to help Israel’s sick, disabled, elderly, and underprivileged populations.

Since its founding in 1979, Ezer Mizion has grown to include 3,000 employees and 30,000 volunteers. It has an annual budget of $130 million and benefits about 750,000 people every year through various free programs, including nearly 650,000 hot meals provided annually to families with children in the hospital, Holocaust survivors, and others. Its Oranit Center near major Petah Tikva hospitals, including Rabin Medical Center and Schneider Children’s Hospitals, enables families to stay near their hospitalized loved ones at no charge.

See the information below for details about Shabbat of Heroes.

What: Shabbat of Heroes, awareness and fundraiser for Ezer Mizion Bone Marrow Registry

When: March 29 to 30

Where: At two Orthodox shuls in Englewood; Congregation Ahavath Torah and the East Hill Synagogue

Schedule: March 29, 7 p.m., Kabbalat Shabbat at Ahavath Torah, 240 Broad Ave.; former Israeli Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau to speak at Sephardi minyan; Cantor Yitzchak Meir Helfgott in main shul

March 30, 9 a.m., shacharit at Ahavath Torah with Rabbi Lau and Cantor Helfgott, followed by kiddush sponsored by Ezer Mizion

March 30, 6:15 p.m., mincha and seudah shlishit at East Hill Synagogue, 255 Walnut St., with d’var Torah from Rabbi Lau

March 30, 8:45 p.m., musical havdalah with Simcha Leiner at Ahavath Torah; Israeli wines, halva and cheese from Machane Yehuda Market, Jerusalem

To RSVP for Saturday night or for more information: Go to Shabbatofheroes.com

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