Members of BMOB (Bais Medrash of Bergenfield) and the greater Jewish community can boast not one but two heroes in their midst, as two of its members donated their kidneys just two weeks apart. Bergenfield resident and mother of four Elana Kessler is one of those heroes who donated her kidney to a very grateful recipient and family on August 9.
Elana wanted to perform this act of chesed for a very long time and finally had the opportunity to do just that.
“I did this first of all because I always thought about it and second of all it was for my mom.” Her mother, Karen Jacobs, Chaya bat Yitzchok, z”l, had always wanted to be a donor; however, she herself had become sick and was never able to fulfill this wish.
“You want to hear something crazy though?” Elana shares with a joyous uptick in her voice. While sitting shiva for her mother, she was going through texts she had received from her mother while she was ill. “One of her last texts was the day I went for this crazy testing and her last text to me was, ‘I’m so proud of you for doing this.’”
“I did it for her…and thank God, for this guy who really needed it.”
When Renewal has a recipient in need of a donor, the organization will typically hold a Zoom call with the recipient and a past donor in order for the donor share their donor journey. In a surprising twist, Elana’s recipient heard about the donor journey from Aviva Breda, who is not only a close friend of Elana’s but also the person who initially inspired her to go and test. Soon after her mother passed, Elana was matched with a recipient. Telling Rabbi Moshe Gewirtz, Elana’s contact person at Renewal, that she was now more motivated than ever and it would make her mother so proud, Elana underwent a series of tests and a date was set for the transplant. She arrived at NYU Hospital on the morning of August 9 to undergo the procedure that would ultimately save someone’s life.
Rabbi Gewirtz was in the recovery room with her. He recalls how when he asked her how she was feeling, she immediately said she felt great but was more concerned about how the recipient was doing and wanted to make sure her kids got home all right.
Although Elana has yet to meet her recipient and his family, they are all indeed very eager to meet her. The family, who lives on Long Island, sent her a beautiful message while she was in the hospital: “My husband has been waiting for a transplant and some wonderful, selfless person donated a kidney to my husband. We don’t know who the person is but we are so so so grateful to her and to Renewal for helping us get that kidney that is going to save his life. His father died when he was thirty five because they didn’t have transplants back then. They didn’t have dialysis back then. He’s a grandpa whose kids love him and his grandchildren adore him and we are so so so lucky that we found Renewal and Renewal found this wonderful selfless donor that we are so lucky to have and thank you thank you, donor.”
The family expressed how Elana’s altruism gave the recipient “another lease on life’’ and thanked her profusely, not just for her donation, but for doing it during this time of Covid restrictions, which prevented her husband and family from being by her side as she underwent this procedure.
As for Renewal, Elana says, “I can’t even explain to you what Renewal is like…what they do for you…The amount of support they give is really unbelievable.”
Elana’s husband, Bruce, was “crazy supportive,” and although he was not permitted to be in the hospital with her due to Covid regulations, he proved to be extraordinarily helpful when she came home and all throughout her recovery. A couple of weeks later, following her kidney donation, Elana’s family (not her, she was still recovering) participated in a 5K race that was raising money for Hatzolah in memory of her mother. Elana sent the recipient’s family a picture of her at the race to reassure them how well she was recovering. The recipient’s wife responded with a beautiful message that brought tears to her eyes: “...every time I look at (my husband), in his face I see you. I wish you and your family L’Shana Tova. I can’t wait to meet you...I’m so happy and grateful for that. I have a lot to be grateful for. We are truly blessed and may the blessings of life in every way come to you…until we meet…I feel like you’re a sister I have always wanted to have but never did. So, when I think of you I cry.”
As for Elana, besides the fact that she is supposed to make sure she drinks a lot, she says she does not notice anything different since her donation.
“I don’t want to minimize and make it like it’s nothing, but really this is something that anybody can do…If anybody ever considers doing this to go for it and ask questions and to get more information…but really you can do this.”
Two weeks later, hero number two and BMOB member Avi Zimmerman, a 40-year old father of three, underwent surgery to donate his kidney to a 16-year-old girl.
It was after hearing Beth Aaron’s Rabbi Rothwachs speak about his own experience donating his kidney to Donny Hain that Avi began asking himself, “Is this something I would ever consider? What does that even mean?”
One night he attended a Renewal event with his wife at the Teaneck Jewish Center. Comedian Ashley Blaker was performing. “That was the night that things changed for me personally because there were a lot of donors walking around that you could actually speak to and it turned out that I knew some of those donors.”
Deeply moved by the video that Renewal played that evening demonstrating the tremendous impact that these donations were having on the recipients, Avi said, “I think that really hit home for me personally to see that not only are you giving something up but you are dramatically changing the life of someone else.”
So he got swabbed, and six months later Renewal contacted him to tell him they found a potential match. “And I distinctly remember turning to my wife at a certain point and saying if I wanted to do this, would I have your support and my wife said, “If you would be willing to do this then I absolutely support you.”
Avi was eventually matched to a 16-year-old girl recipient who had been on dialysis for three years, and this kidney donation could change her life. His sister-in-law, a registered dietician who works in a dialysis center, helped him understand what kind of impact dialysis has on someone’s quality of life, especially for a young girl. “If I wasn’t already dedicated and motivated, she really helped me better understand the type of life that this 16-year-old is living.”
Renewal’s Menachem Friedman shared that “Avi’s dedication to balancing helping someone he didn’t even know by donating a kidney and at the same time not ignoring the needs of his own family was really impressive.”
On the morning of August 23, 2021, Avi checked in to LIJ in New Hyde Park. With less than three hours of sleep, he made a video with Renewal that ultimately went viral when he reposted it on his Twitter account simply to raise awareness. “I’m very thankful to Hashem for giving me the opportunity to perform this act of chesed and very grateful to be on this side of the equation. I personally think I am getting off easy.”
Avi said he is also very thankful to his wife, Shira, a tenured public school special ed teacher, who became his nurse.
“You’ll learn that for a small amount of effort, you will have an enormous impact on someone’s life.”
He also wanted to share a quote from Rabbi Chaim Volozhin: “Know that you’re not created for yourself. People were created to help others.”
Three weeks after his donation he met with his support team. “They told me how amazed they were with Renewal and we openly discussed why there are so many people in the Orthodox community willing to donate a kidney…It was actually a beautiful kiddush Hashem.”
While he has yet to meet the recipient and her family, the girl’s mother sent him a lovely message before Rosh Hashanah in which she gave him a bracha, told him how he literally saved her daughter’s life and that he is now part of their family. But for Avi, the biggest challenge wasn’t the discomfort that he felt after the surgery or even recovery. It was missing Eitan Katz leading selichos Motzei Shabbos at Beth Aaron. “For two years I was looking forward to that Shabbos and that was my first Shabbos (after the surgery) and there was no way that I could do the walk. It was too much after just having donated my kidney. And that was honestly the most painful thing, I think.”
So Eitan Katz, if you’re reading this, maybe you can set up an encore? Or maybe a private concert for the Zimmerman and Kessler families?
By Ronit Mershon