By Tamar Runyan and Jessica Naiman, Chabad.org
Photos by Meir Dahan / COLlive.com
When someone is sick, loved ones pray for their health, recite Psalms and try to add a measure of goodness in this world in his merit. But for Rabbi Mendy Mathless, such efforts weren’t enough. Informed that someone he never knew was in need of a kidney, he gave him his.
Two months after the life-saving donation, Mathless – the new director of Chabad-Lubavitch of University Heights and South Mall in Albany, N.Y. – and his wife, Devora Leah Mathless, are in Israel to celebrate the newfound health of Yisrael Konstantini, a Chasidic father of three who doubted that he’d ever have a second chance of life.
After many surgeries 14 years ago, Konstantini’s kidneys took a turn for the worst. He began dialysis, an exhausting ritual performed three times a week, and looked for a donor in his native Israel. Doctors once thought his sister would present a match, but just before the surgery, ruled it out as impossible. Over time, hope gave way to emotional pain.
“It was very, very difficult,” says Konstantini, who lives in the coastal city of Netanya. “The waiting was worse than all the surgeries.”
The man turned to Europe and South America, but again, was told a match didn’t exist.
“By that point, I almost lost hope,” he says.
A friend called Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, who as a top official with Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of Chabad-Lubavitch, stays informed of projects and activities around the globe.
Kotlarsky suggested Rabbi Avrohom Lider, founder and director of Ahavas Chesed, an organization in Brooklyn dedicated to helping people with all types of needs. Lider invited Konstantini to come to New York.
“Come, I’ll take care of you,” Lider told the Israeli.
Konstantini learned of the Crown Heights Jewish community’s rallying for a similar patient, a father of nine who also needed a kidney.
Lider “greeted me with open arms, and took care of me like a friend, a father, a brother,” says Konstantini.
In New York, Lider and volunteers plastered walls and polls with signs urging people to consider kidney donation. Months went by, and Konstantini underwent dialysis in Brooklyn.
Meanwhile, Mathless, 27, had just moved to Albany. It was right before the Jewish New Year and he and his family were getting settled in an area not far from his father-in-law, Chabad-Lubavitch of the Capital District director Rabbi Israel Rubin.
The following month, Mathless’ sister-in-law, Esti Cohen, a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary in Manchester, England, suddenly passed away, and the rabbi took over teaching a Rohr Jewish Learning Institute course on medical ethics for Rubin. During one class, he was in the middle of discussing kidney donation when the idea struck him like a ton of bricks.
“It was Divine Providence,” he says of the occurrence.
Mathless, remembering the sings in Brooklyn, called Lider right away.
“I knew there was very little risk involved, no drawbacks for the donor aside from pain,” says Mathless, who was familiar with the story of how Rabbi Ephraim Simon, co-director of Friends of Lubavitch of Bergen County in Teaneck, N.J., gave his kidney to an ailing man in 2009. “I thought that I’d be saving a life, so I responded.”
During pre-surgery screening and tests, Mathless and Konstantini met by chance in the hospital and a few times outside of Lubavitch World Headquarters.
“Every time I saw him, I shook from excitement,” recalls Konstantini. “His faith is unwavering. He is so selfless.”
As the pair are not related, Mathless had to meet with a psychiatrist before doctors would operate.
“I explained that he’s a brother,” says Mathless, “We don’t know each other, but we’re part of a whole.”
After weeks of tests, Mathless and Konstantini were sedated in nearby operating rooms at Mount Sinai Hospital on Nov. 23.
As soon as he could get up, Mathless walked over to Konstantini and the two embraced.
“In recovery the morning after, his surgical team visited me and said I gave him a great kidney,” reveals Mathless. “It’s a great start, and I knew everything was okay, thank G-d. That was the main thing for me to hear; it made me very happy.”
Two weeks later, the pair met again at a celebratory meal organized by Ahavas Chesed on the fifth night of Chanukah.
“They sat together and they became a family,” says Lider.
On Monday night, another reunion included hundreds of people at a Netanya hall.
For Mathless, the experience has been eye-opening.
“With one decision you can save a person’s life,” he explains. “The potential is just amazing.
“It puts things in perspective,” continues the rabbi. “It’s just a matter of making a decision to donate. There are so many people looking for kidneys.”