Local rabbis beat the drum to support organ donations

At 31, Terry Meier was admittedly in "great physical shape" — the product of a health-food diet, an active lifestyle and Jazzercise — when she picked up a virus that sent her temperature soaring to 104 degrees.

Three days later, the Millbrae mother of three and Reform congregation member was rushed into the emergency room in shock. Her heart had been virtually destroyed by the virus.

"The nurse that took my blood pressure was in my Jazzercise class," Meier recalled. "It was so low it didn't even register."

A cardiologist told her husband she had "only a few hours to live."

Resuscitated by a state-of-the-art ventricular pump, the member of the Reform Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame balked when doctors tried to sign her up as a heart transplant recipient.

"I said, 'No way.' They gave me a little book to read and I refused to even look at it."

But Meier eventually agreed. Now, eight years later, she stumps for the California Transplant Donor Network. Her newest audience: groups of rabbis.

The Board of Rabbis of Northern California has received a grant to educate spiritual leaders about the religious status of the practice, once abbhorent to Jews.

The grant is from the Jewish Community Endowment Fund's Newhouse Fund, under the aegis of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

The rabbis' board and the California Transplant Donor Network are teaming up to reach out to rabbis in a series of breakfast discussions throughout this month and next, with an eye to increasing donor commitments during March — Organ Donor Month.

"Anyone who has any doubts about this being an extraordinary mitzvah should speak to" Meier, said Rabbi Mark Diamond of Conservative Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland.

After hosting a discussion at which Meier spoke, Diamond said, "I was very moved."

But the meeting also pointed out how much work lies ahead for the leaders in reversing the course of belief among the observant.

"The Jewish community, as a whole, has been told for thousands of years it is not acceptable to desecrate the body of a person who has died — no autopsies, you bury the person as soon as possible and that's it," said Vivian Salama, the board of rabbis' project manager.

Despite rabbinical decisions to the contrary, many continue to believe to believe Jewish law forbids any mutilation of the body.

Based on the principle of kavod hamet, "it has long been assumed among Jews that Judaism is opposed to organ transplantation," said Rabbi David Teitelbaum, executive director of the rabbis' board.

Many interpret kavod hamet, or respect for the dead, to mean absolute opposition to any mutilation of the body.

Actually, "Judaism teaches that profit may not be gained from human remains, nor must the burial of the dead be delayed," Teitelbaum said. "However, the principle of pikuach nefesh, the saving of human life, overrules all these prohibitions. All the branches of Judaism support and encourage organ and tissue donations to save a life, as a religious obligation or mitzvah."

Meier now urges people to complete the paperwork to become organ donors. However, when promoting organ donor programs at health fairs, she is often left standing alone at her table.

"Jewish people so often say, 'I can't,' and walk away " she said. "A lot of them just can't believe it's acceptable."

That is frustrating for Meier, whose children were 4, 7 and 9 years old when she fell victim to the deadly virus eight years ago.

"I say, 'I had a heart transplant and it's the only reason I'm alive. What if something like what happened to me happened to you?' They think for a while, then they say, 'Well, I would want it.' I'm really glad the board of rabbis got this grant."

Selling people on the mission may be particularly critical in light of a recent study that shows hospitals decline to broach the question of organ donation among more than one-third of the families of potential donors.

According to Salama, every three hours, a person dies waiting for a transplant. On any given day, 67,000 are in need of an organ.

It has been said that one donor can save eight lives, consigning heart, liver, pancreas, intestine, two kidneys and two lungs, as well as tissue transplants for eyes, skin, bone, heart valves, tendons and veins.

Salama said the turning point in Jewish interpretation of the law occurred in Israel in 1995. Alisa Flatow, an American girl, was injured when a suicide bomber drove his van into the bus she was riding to a Gaza settlement.

Doctors declared Flatow brain dead and asked her parents whether they would be willing to donate her organs.

Stunned, they declined, believing the procedure to be a violent contradiction to Jewish law.

But both of Israel's chief rabbis confirmed that saving a life takes precedence over all other laws.

"There's really been a sea change in Jewish law, but the vast majority of halachic scholars — including Conservative and Orthodox branches — believe this is, in fact, an obligation," Diamond said.

Added Salama, "The Torah says, to save a life is to save the world."

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.