BY BOB GROVES, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)
Even before Rabbi Ephraim Simon of Teaneck, N.J., gave one of his kidneys to a total stranger from Brooklyn, N.Y., he felt they would be a good match.
“This was a father of 10, I’m a father of nine — we matched already,” Simon said.
Both men are also Hasidic Jews, though of different sects: Simon is Chabad and his kidney recipient is Satmar.
The surgery last month at Cornell Medical Center was successful. Simon, 41, says he and the 51-year-old organ recipient, who declined to be interviewed, are both doing well.
Simon was moved to donate a vital organ last year when he heard about the plight of a desperately ill 12-year-old girl. He learned about the child from Chaya Lipschutz, a kidney donor from Brooklyn who has become something of a kidney matchmaker through her e-mail posts about people in need.
“I have a 12-year-old girl. If it was my daughter, I’d call someone to step up,” Simon said. “I couldn’t let a 12-year-old suffer and die without giving everything I had to save her. So I called Chaya and said ‘I’ll do it.’ ”
The girl found another donor and is reportedly doing well. But Simon stayed on Lipschutz’s list. In the following months, he volunteered to donate a kidney to a woman with two children and to an Israeli man — but blood and tissue tests showed he was incompatible for both.
In March, Simon learned of the Brooklyn Hasid who was facing dialysis unless he found a kidney donor. The two men met briefly in a hospital hallway before being tested.
“Are you the donor?” the man asked Simon.
“I said, ‘God willing,’ ” Simon recalled. “‘It’s all in the hands of God. Hopefully, we’ll match, and if we match, you have my word, I’ll be there.'”
Donating a kidney filled a broader spiritual need for Simon.
“It’s an obligation of love and helping your fellow man,” he explained recently during an interview at his Teaneck home. “I certainly felt the incredible awesomeness of saving or improving a life.”
The transplant took about 3 1/2 hours. The procedure involved an incision through Simon’s navel to allow surgeons to insert laparoscopic instruments, cover one of his kidneys in a slippery sack and remove it through the small opening. “Modern medicine is just phenomenal,” he enthused. “It’s an amazing procedure.”
Some potential donors are put off by fear of pain or of living life without a spare kidney in case the other goes bad, Simon said. But pain can be controlled by medication, Simon said. The risks of losing a remaining kidney are “extremely negligible,” and donors “move to the top of the (recipients) list,” if they need a transplant, he said.
A little more than a third of the 14,000 kidney transplants performed each year in the United States are from live donors, according to federal health data. A live donor is a better source for a kidney than a cadaver. “There is always some injury (to the organ) involving a deceased donor,” said Stuart Greenstein, a kidney transplant surgeon at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx.
For Jewish donors, giving a kidney is not only a mitzvah — a good deed performed out of religious duty — but also “an act of kindness and goodness, like charity giving,” Greenstein said.
For Simon and the man who now has one of his kidneys, it was an act of kindness worthy of coverage by the Jewish newspapers worldwide. The two sects, among the largest and most prominent ultra-Orthodox groups, have a history of tense relations over Zionism and their views about how much to engage with non-Jews.
The transplant was much better press than the news in July, when a Brooklyn rabbi was arrested for allegedly selling human kidneys. He had told a federal informant that he brought in donors from Israel, buying their organs for $10,000 and selling them to patients in the United States for as much as $160,000.
“It’s incredibly unfortunate that somebody would utilize somebody else’s pain and suffering for their own financial gain,” Simon said.
As part of donor screening, a psychiatrist asked Simon about his motivation. Simon took out a photo of his family.
“I had two motivations,” he said. “One is to save a life, if I can give a father of 10 back to his children, and a husband back to his wife. And, as a rabbi and a father, I wanted to teach children how to sacrifice for others. God didn’t put us here for ourselves, but to make the world a better place and to help other people.”
Simon’s wife, Nechamy, was relieved when the little girl found another donor. But she realized she had to accept that he still wanted to save a life. “I had to catch up with him,” she said.
“My wife is the real hero,” Simon said. “It was our kidney we were giving away that, God forbid, if one of my children needed, someone else would have to step up.”
Donating a kidney was as awesome as the birth of his nine children, Simon said. In a sense, the donated organ was like a 10th child.
“It’s doing its job, filtering impurities and toxins,” he said. “I’m so proud of my kidney. I did such a good job of raising it. Now I sent it off to live in another home.”