Why I Gave a Kidney to a Stranger

Last month, I was wheeled into an operating room in Beilinson Hospital in Petach Tikva, an anesthesiologist said laila tov, and a surgeon removed my left kidney, which was brought to an adjoining operating room and put into the abdomen of a 23-year-old Israeli dental student from Georgia, FSU, whom I met for the first time three months ago.

I told very few people beforehand, mostly family and people with whom I had to cancel appointments to pursue the extensive medical and psychological testing and ethics review that Israel has in place to ensure that donors are not offering kidneys for personal gain, are not at high risk for medical or psychological complications, and have given sufficient consideration to the choice to become a living kidney donor.

While most people tend to express admiration for living donors, there is often an assumption that such a person is either a little crazy or exceptionally righteous. Indeed, just last year a mature and thoughtful student in my Talmud class used the example of “people who donate their kidney to a stranger” to illustrate the kind of person who is insufferably righteous. The testing and interview process exacerbated this sense that I must be either crazy or a saint. If there’s one thing that seemed potentially worse than going through life thinking you’re pretty weird, it’s going through life thinking that you must be better than everyone else.

So I’ve decided to write about my kidney donation both to call attention to the critical shortage of transplant organs and to explain my own choice to become a living donor.
the idea first came to me when, twice in several months, two of my children’s day schools sent out a notice about a parent who needed a kidney. I learned that there are simply not enough organs available from deceased donors to meet the needs of transplant patients; that kidney donation surgery has proven very safe; and that there don’t seem to be any long-term health effects of living with only one kidney.

Donating a kidney seemed like a straightforward opportunity to save someone’s life — an incredible privilege and an extraordinary mitzvah.

The issue of organ shortage is especially serious in Israel (for reasons that, it should be noted, go well beyond religious concerns). I decided to try to donate a kidney in Israel, where I am living this year. I began to see postings on a couple of e-mail lists about individuals who need a kidney, and that is how, ultimately, I found myself meeting the serious young student and his parents three months ago when we came to the hospital to do cross-match testing. He was a person in need of someone to step forward and save his life; I was a person who had the capacity to do that. The testing proved us to be a match, and in May I gave him one of my kidneys.

So what do I make of the fact that what seems so simple to me is something that most people would never think of doing?

Ten or so years ago, I heard the following Torah teaching at the Carlebach shul in New York: When someone does chesed [loving-kindness] for you, you want to find a way to reciprocate; in most cases you can’t. Yet you can pay this back by doing chesed for someone else. I have been the recipient of extraordinary chesed. Just around the time that I heard this, my family was dealing with a serious illness, and many people helped us in ways that I could never have imagined. I knew that there was no way I could ever reciprocate. But what I could do was try to take opportunities to do chesed for others.

I’m not scared by hospitals, I am not afraid of blood, I am not very sensitive to pain, I’m a bit of a risk-taker. For me, donating a kidney was a rather easy thing to decide to carry out.

There are endless ways in which other people do chesed that I may be less good at. Just as those people who helped our family might not be able to offer their kidneys, I might not be able to offer the kind of help they did, or even notice that that kind of help is needed. I am not saying I decided to donate a kidney in order to pay back the people who helped us. But I do believe that their acts of chesed enabled me to be more sensitive to the needs of others, and to imagine extending myself in the way I did.

As i was preparing to leave Beilinson, my husband and I went to say goodbye to my kidney recipient and his parents. The student and his father are shy, the mother effusive. She wants to buy me things, to send me presents, to send my family on a vacation to the Dead Sea. I have told her over and over that I don’t want anything, that I can’t take anything, but she persists. So finally I told her the Torah teaching that I’d learned, and I blessed her son and her and her husband with many years of good health full of many opportunities to do chesed for others. And suddenly this woman, who had been trying to shower me with chocolate and perfume, told me that her son had a plan for when he finishes school and becomes a dentist — that he would set aside one day each month, in my name, to treat people who can’t afford to pay. I don’t know whether he will do exactly that, but I did feel that my own act, like the acts of those who have done chesed for me and for my family, will generate more acts of chesed in the world.

Each of us has the capacity to do tremendous acts of chesed. If donating a kidney is not your path, know that you have ways to help someone that may be just as powerful and lifesaving. May we all be privileged to find our own path in the Torah of chesed.  

A version of this piece appeared in the New York Jewish Week.

Devora Steinmetz (desteinmetz@gmail.com) has taught Talmud and Rabbinics at Drisha, the Jewish Theological Seminary,  Havruta and Yeshivat Hadar. She is an educational consultant for the Mandel Foundation and is spending this year as visiting scholar  at the Mandel Leadership Institute in Jerusalem.