Pikuach nefesh is a sacred principle in Judaism, taking precedence over almost every other religious act or consideration. A single organ donor can save up to eight lives, and one tissue donor can save or enhance the lives of up to 50-70 people. As such, all denominations of Judaism view organ donation and tissue donation as a sacred act of pikuach nefesh. And yet, there is much resistance to deceased donation in the Jewish community, usually based on concerns surrounding brain death and burying the body whole.
On Tuesday, May 24, from 7:30-9 p.m., the Westchester Jewish Council is co-sponsoring a virtual symposium entitled “Judaism and Organ Donation: Issues and Answers.” This is the second year that the forum is being presented. Last year’s virtual symposium was so successful that this year the symposium is being co-sponsored by 23 different organizations including four Orthodox institutions, Young Israel of Scarsdale, Hebrew Institute of White Plains, Congregation Anshe Sholom and Westchester Day School.
The symposium, which is free and open to the public, will engage and educate the Westchester Jewish community about organ and tissue donation and the life-saving power of organ donation. Significant time will be allotted for participant questions and answers. Guest speaker Rabbi Ari Perl, vice president of multicultural engagement at LiveOnNY, will provide a statistical overview, demystify the process of deceased organ donation and address relevant halachic issues against a backdrop of Jewish law, ethics and values.
“For 3,000 years Jewish tradition has emphasized the value of human life to its very last moment and has insisted on the dignified return of an intact human body to the earth. The fact that some segments of the Orthodox community have a principled halachic objection to brain death adds another layer of complexity. As a result, it’s understandable that Jews have hesitations and concerns when it comes to donating organs,” said Rabbi Perl.
Because every Jewish family encounters death at some point, most families are very familiar with the Jewish values that emphasize dignified treatment of the deceased. At the same time, very few Jewish families are familiar with the opportunity to save lives through organ donation. And because all denominations of Judaism affirm the supreme importance of saving human life, Rabbi Perl strongly believes that organ donation needs to be an integral part of the Jewish end-of-life conversation. Rabbi Perl tries to help the Jewish community understand that organ donation is not a negation of timeless Jewish values but rather upholding and embracing the fundamental value of saving a life.
“When a family has just experienced the loss of a loved one, it’s very difficult to think rationally about the hierarchy of Jewish values, which is why it’s so important to have community and family conversations about organ donation ahead of time,” Rabbi Perl noted.
Myths about organ and tissue donation exist across all denominations in the Jewish community. Among the myths that Rabbi Perl will address are the beliefs that a Jewish body must be buried without any parts missing and that organ donation negatively affects the deceased’s ability to be buried in a Jewish cemetery or chances for resurrection.
Rabbi Perl, in addition to educating the New York Jewish community about organ and tissue donation, is involved in every aspect of a Jewish patient’s donation process, providing pastoral support to the patient’s family in the hospital, helping them consider the donation opportunity and even accompanying a deceased donor to the operating room during the organ recovery surgery. His goal is to understand the family’s religious and emotional needs and then to work with the care team to make sure that those needs are met throughout the process.
In addition to Rabbi Perl’s keynote address at the upcoming symposium, Westchester resident Andrea Danziger will share reflections on her own family’s decision to save lives while grappling with tragic loss.
For more information on Judaism and Organ Donation, visit www.liveonny.org/judaism.
To register for this free symposium, visit https://tinyurl.com/yc6bmrhe
For more information visit [email protected] Org
Susan R. Eisenstein is a longtime Jewish educator, passionate about creating special, innovative activities for her students. She is also passionate about writing about Jewish topics and about Israel. She has two master’s degrees and a doctorate in education from Columbia University.