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

Local cantor is living donor for beloved congregant

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Harvey Jaffee, left, and Cantor Eric Wasser

It’s fairly easy to say “I hope you feel better” to a sick friend.

It’s much harder to put your kidney where your mouth is, but Cantor Eric Wasser of the Fair Lawn Jewish Center did.

On February 19, he donated a kidney to his friend, Harvey Jaffee of Garfield.

Mr. Jaffee was in what his doctors “were starting to call end-stage kidney failure,” he reported. He now has a functioning kidney and will be able to resume his life, and Cantor Wasser will be able to return to his. Both, they say, feel enriched and ennobled (if temporarily weakened) by the experience.

Mr. Jaffee’s kidneys had been failing for some time, and he had trekked from doctor to doctor as he tried to get on the registry for a transplant. The screening process is extraordinarily thorough. “It’s one of the most daunting things in the world,” he said. “They send you to doctor after doctor, to check every orifice you have – and some that you don’t. Sometimes I was seeing four or five doctors a week.

“I started trying to get on the registry in May, and I didn’t get on it until October,” he said.

He also knew that once you’re on the list, you can wait for years; many people die waiting. He also knew that it would be far better for him to have a transplant before he would have to go on dialysis, a procedure that extends patients’ lives but wreaks havoc on them nonetheless. Once you’re on dialysis, a transplant, while not impossible, is harder. He also knew that before long, if nothing changed, he would not be able to avoid dialysis.

“My kidney function was dropping rapidly,” he said. “I was concerned that I wouldn’t get a kidney in time.”

Mr. Jaffee is an active volunteer in many organizations and he teaches Hebrew school. “When I got on the list, the first thing I did was send an email to every organization whose board of directors I’m on – which is many – and to every synagogue I’ve worked in,” he said. “I’m a professional volunteer – I have been for most of my life.” Those groups included the Pine Brook Jewish Center in Montville, Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, where he has taught, Jewish Family Services of North Jersey, the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning and its Synagogue Life Initiative, on whose boards he sits, along with many of its subcommittees, and his own shul, the Fair Lawn Jewish Center – he is a past president of the shul. He also emailed his family, his friends, and his clergy.

He asked all of them to consider donating a kidney.

People responded to him.

“My rabbi” – Ronald Roth – “put it in our weekly bulletin, and copied my letter to him,” Mr. Jaffee said. “He’s a real mensch. When you are on the board, you get caught up in the naurishkeit” – the nonsense – “and you can forget how good people are. How good things can be.”

His doctors at the Living Donor Institute at Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston tested potential donors one at a time, Mr. Jaffee said. “They send you a tube, and you have to find a phlebotomist. They pay for it; they send you the mailing labels, but the only way that I knew that people weren’t a match was when they called and told me ‘I was just rejected.'”

Mr. Jaffee has a clear penchant for finding the good in the bad. “I heard that so many times,” he said. “It was humbling to know how many people were interested in helping me.”

He happened to be one of the few guests at a small wedding when “Eric” – Cantor Wasser – “turned to me and said, ‘What exactly does this entail? What do I have to do?’ I said it was just a small blood test, and Rachel, his wife, said, ‘Do you think I should do it too?’ I love egalitarianism. And I love them both so much.

“So Eric called me two weeks later and said he hadn’t received the test tube yet. There was a queue. So I said, ‘If you’re really serious, call them up and say you want to be next.’

“Well, apparently he did. We already knew that our blood types would be a match, but we didn’t think very much past that. And then Eric texted me to tell me that he had an appointment at Saint Barnabas the next day for tissue typing.

“So I said, ‘Eric, listen, I didn’t even realize that this was part of the process. Is it a big deal?’ and Eric said, ‘I offered to do this, and I am doing it.’

“And then Eric called me up one day and said, ‘So you really want my f***ing kidney?'”

It turned out that the two men’s tissue typing was unusually closely matched. “One doctor said your match couldn’t have been closer if you were brothers,” he said.

“Then they took blood from him and from me and commingled them, had them live together for a week to see what happened. And then he got clearance and then I got clearance, and then he said, ‘If you want my f***ing kidney, it’s yours, Harve.’

“And I said, ‘Get serious.’ And he said, ‘I am serious.'”

Mr. Jaffee and Cantor Wasser had lunch together on the day before the surgeries. Emotions ran high; there was some crying. The two had been friends since before the cantor first got to Fair Lawn nine years ago – in fact, Mr. Jaffee had been on the search committee, and had decided that he wanted to hire Cantor Wasser after the first interview, when Cantor Wasser still was in Chicago. “I didn’t want a cantor who would perform,” Mr. Jaffee said. “I wanted a cantor who could teach us to sing.” So the emotional connection between the two was longstanding and ran deep.

“Eric said we will have fun together,” Mr. Jaffee said. “We will lay tefillin together. We will be in rooms close to each other, so we will have fun.

“At lunch, I said, ‘I can’t thank you enough for what you are doing. You know you will have to go through hell,'” Mr. Jaffee remembered. “And he said, ‘I don’t care. What I am doing for you is nothing compared to what you are doing for me.'”

Mr. Jaffee, Cantor Wasser said, was allowing him the chance to give, to understand what giving could mean, and to know that he was capable of giving such a gift.

Mr. Jaffee knows about giving. For years, he raised money and used it to buy toys and sweets for Israeli children in Shaarei Tzedek hospital; he delivered them himself, using his own money. It was a project he created and implemented on his own, and with no publicity. “The beauty of Shaarei Tzedek is that it’s totally nonsectarian,” he said.

He has made friendships with patients there that have lasted for years; he has seen children saved by medical science and others maimed by terrorism and blind hatred. “I don’t understand the hate,” he said. “I don’t understand why hate is so powerful, so powerful that it can get in the way of love. In some small way, I had to do what I could.”

For many years, he gave anonymously, but now, he has chosen to talk about his own giving as he worked to convince his friend and donor, Cantor Wasser, to step forward. “I all of a sudden realize that you shouldn’t always give anonymously,” he said. “Names have power.

“We decided to put it out in the community.

“We realized that we could teach what community is about. People shouldn’t be leaving synagogues – they should be joining in droves. The outpouring of love has been amazing.”

Cantor Wasser filled in some of the story of Mr. Jaffee’s charitable work as he talked about his decision to donate his kidney.

“For many years, he ran something called the Harvey Jaffee Mitzvah Tour,” he said. “He collected from here and distributed to various tzedakot in Israel. He was able to help some very worthy charities in the Holy Land, and he did it all on his own.

“It was a very magnanimous gesture. He is a very giving person; a person who loves Judaism, and loves sharing his passion with others. We have shared Shabbat meals and kibbutzing, talking about synagogue and community. We have a close relationship, and he is a wonderful human being.”

When doctors told him “they were surprised that the match was as strong as it was, it felt amazing, and somewhat surprising. Who knew that it would be something that we could move forward with?

“When I first said to Harvey that he could have my kidney, it was perhaps half seriously and half in jest. I didn’t know that I possibly could be a donor for him. After the first few weeks of testing, when they called me back and said there was a strong potential match, I was surprised. It sort of made the process more real. More concrete.

“But I didn’t have any moment of ambivalence about being able to do this for my friend – who is a unique individual in our community.

“My wife and kids were extremely supportive, and helped me through the process of the surgery, and now the recovery. It’s something that can’t be done by an individual. It takes a group effort.”

Rabbi Roth and the entire community all have been extremely supportive, he added.

Although at first he was hesitant about going public with the donation – he hates the idea that anyone could possibly think that he had done it for the glory, as if abdominal surgery could be considered glorious -“ultimately I decided that this was an educative opportunity for us,” he said.

“We could have done it under the radar in theory, but these kinds of things tend to get out. And anyway, I thought it was important.

“As educators, as clergy, we try to teach people through our lives, through our actions, what the right thing to do is. This is a learning opportunity.

“It’s a way of practicing what we preach, of giving to others.”

“It is an extraordinary act of chesed,” Rabbi Roth said. “I didn’t think any of us were expecting this.

“First of all, people should realize that organ donations are very much considered a mitzvah in Jewish tradition.

“Many people don’t understand it, but we all should be signing our donor cards. It is a shame that in the United States, unlike in many other countries, it’s not the default option. Eighteen people die every day because they are waiting for an organ transplant.

“The mitzvah of helping someone to live overrides the general Jewish value of not disturbing a body after death. And to be a live donor goes beyond that.

“No one is going to say that you are required to do it. You are bringing some pain and some danger onto yourself, even though it is true that these operations are much less dangerous today. Being willing to do it is a tremendous act of chesed.

“It is awe-inspiring.”

It seems miraculous that Cantor Wasser and Mr. Jaffee, who, after all, were unrelated, were such a good match, but according to nurse-practitioner Marie Morgievich, the director of the Living Donor Institute, 65 percent of living-donor kidney transplants are direct, as this one was. The other 35 percent are “alternative living donor transplants.”

“In most cases, the donation is from a family member or a friend,” she said. “Sometimes we have people come forward to donate to anyone in need.”

Just as the process the would-be recipient goes through is taxingly complete, so is the donor’s. “We do extensive medical and psychosocial evaluations; we don’t only look at them physically but also we make sure that they’re making the right decision for the right reason,” she said. Each donor also works with highly trained nurses whose time is dedicated to them, and to donor advocates, “who sit with the donors to make sure they are fully educated.” If the advocate thinks that the potential donor has not fully internalized the potential risks as well as the rewards, the staff begins the education process once again. The advocate’s job is to make sure that the donor is clear-eyed about the choice.

If donors turn out to be incompatible with the patients for whom they have begun the process, the hospital can work with them on what is called pair donation. “They can be entered into a swap program in exchange for receiving a kidney for their recipient,” Ms. Morgievich said. “We can do this at Saint Barnabas or in a national database.”

It is now possible to do kidney transplants even if the donor and the recipient are not fully compatible. “We can cross the blood group barrier, and in some cases we can do tissue-type incompatible transplants,” she said.

If family members are willing to donate organs, they are tested first, because they are more likely to be more compatible, but it is not at all unusual for friends to be compatible enough with each other for the transplant to work, she said. “That’s because of the advances that have been made in understanding the immune system.” New medications and a more sophisticated understanding of how the immune system works permit a wider range of donors.

“In the last 15 years, we have seen great advances in transplant medications,” she said. “Donor surgery is done laparoscopicly – it’s called laparoscopic nephrology. The hospital stay typically is one or two days. We have trouble keeping them in that second day, although I encourage them to stay. They can go back to work in two weeks, although we encourage them to stay home for three, and they can drive after a week.

“Donors’ number one complaint is fatigue, not pain. We have made great advances in pain medication.

“Donors are carefully screened. They usually range from their mid 20s to about 70. Some of the main risks that would rule someone out is being diabetic, having uncontrolled high blood pressure, or obesity.”

Most of the donors she sees make their choice based on “seeing their loved one suffering – seeing the devastation of dialysis. They are mourning for the life that the recipient had, and maybe for the life of the family.

“They also receive a tremendous emotional benefit from helping another human being.”

Cantor Wasser agrees with that. “I am blessed with good health, and this was a very real opportunity to help someone else out.”

Mr. Jaffee will be able to continue with his life, which always has involved giving at least as much as he is given.

And together, both men hope that someone else will see and seize the opportunity to give this extraordinary gift of life, to pay it forward.

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