Take my kidney. Please…
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Take my kidney. Please…

Transplant halacha

Would you donate blood?

What about a kidney or bone marrow?

Is live donation even permitted according to Jewish law?

And what does a kidney look like, anyway?

Junior high students at Yeshivat Ben Porat Yosef in Paramus devoted all of February 19 to exploring these questions, as part of the school’s Discovery Learning Day program, geared to making science, math, and technology lessons fun and hands-on.

Because new science teacher Aaron Kogut has a master’s degree in bioethics, he was asked to plan a Discovery Learning Day for sixth- to eighth-graders. He chose live organ donation as a non-frightening way to approach the subject.

“This is something they can relate to a little bit more, and grasp in a tangible sense – especially blood donation,” Mr. Kogut said. “We started the day talking about the general science and medicine to understand the role of blood, bone marrow, and kidneys in the body.”

The 40 children then heard presentations from kidney donor Rabbi Ephraim Simon and from kidney recipient Dana Tunick.

Rabbi Simon, co-director of Friends of Lubavitch of Bergen County, donated a kidney to a 51-year-old father of 10 in 2009. He told the children about the procedure, and why he opted to do it despite any risks or discomfort. “I spend my whole life as a rabbi trying to inspire people, and trying to teach people, but the people who I feel I want to inspire the most and teach the most are my own children,” he said.

To better understand the halachic (Jewish legal) issues involved in organ donation, Rabbi Pinchas Yarhi gave the students an overview. It was in Hebrew – BPY has a full Hebrew-language immersion approach.

As Mr. Kogut pointed out, live organ donation exemplifies how the halachic process responds to advances in science and technology. The main consideration involves weighing risks against the requirement to save another life.

“We showed them that as science and medicine developed over the last 40 years, and [transplant] surgeries became commonplace, halacha changed its approach from prohibiting live organ donation to completely permitting it,” he said. “They got to see how halacha evolved over time.”

The school arranged to host a Gift of Life bone-marrow donor registration drive that day. Though the children were too young to register, they watched as 18 staff members and parents did cheek swabs to submit samples, and they practiced swabbing the insides of their own cheeks as well.

With science specialist Jean Myers, the children typed synthetic blood, and with Mr. Kogut they dissected a sheep kidney. These hands-on labs were a hit with the students.

“It was cool to look at parts of the kidney and how they work,” a student said.

To reinforce what his pupils had learned, Mr. Kogut organized a debate on the pros and cons of live organ donation. He split the class into two, and each team researched their side of the argument. Math specialist Stephanie Goldberg helped them compile and interpret relevant statistics.

“This activity helped them absorb the information and pushed them to go beyond an academic standpoint to think about what it all meant to them,” said Mr. Kogut, who donned a white powdered wig to act as the judge in the ensuing mock trial staged at the end of the day. Not surprisingly, Judge Kogut ruled in favor of the “pro” team.

Idan Glickman, a sixth-grader from Teaneck, was on the con side. “It was hard to find an argument against live organ donation,” he admitted. “We found information on the chances of something bad happening, and tried to put that more convincingly, like a recent case of a man dying after receiving a kidney.”

Fair Lawn seventh-grader Yaelle Louk was on the pro side. “One point we made is that it helps other people, and even if there could be a chance of an infection, saving someone’s life is a great reason for someone to donate a kidney,” she said. “I would encourage people to do this because it’s important to restore someone’s life.”

BPY usually has two Discovery Learning Days per year for the entire school, but this year the fall topic on the five senses was geared specifically to the elementary grades, while this one was for the junior-high grades. The following week, the whole yeshiva enjoyed a learning day about catapults. (See story, page 8.)

“It’s a wonderful testament to the school that we can give opportunities to students to think out of the box and explore in such a complete way outside the classroom,” Mr. Kogut said.

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