Giving a kidney not as hard as it seems, and fulfills the ultimate commandment

In his opinion piece “Selling your kidney –– a mitzvah?” in the July 31 j., Jeff Stier, the associate director of the American Council on Science and Health, stated, “Clearly the incentive to save a life isn’t enough, or synagogues would be sponsoring kidney drives alongside their blood drives.”

Tish Levee

What an excellent idea!

Not only do we already have blood drives, of course, but several synagogues around the Bay Area recently have responded to the critical need for stem cell transplants by having bone marrow drives.

So why not a kidney drive?

Actually, my synagogue did just that. Four years ago, on Erev Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi George Schlesinger announced that the father of a congregant needed a kidney.

Congregation Beth Ami in Santa Rosa isn’t large — just 220 families — but without even knowing who the congregant was, five people volunteered to donate a kidney. Unfortunately, health concerns precluded all but one of them from donating.

At age 66, however, I was deemed healthy enough to do so, which was very life-affirming.

When asked why I was doing this, my reply was, “Why not? HaShem has given me life and health and a spare kidney. The chances I’ll ever need it are remote. There is a person who needs a kidney in order to live. So why shouldn’t I give him one of mine? I can spare it.”

Perhaps a more appropriate response, however, would be to explore “why I should” rather than just say “why shouldn’t I?”

The Jerusalem Talmud tells us that “he who saves a life, it is as if he has saved the whole world.” Rabbinical authorities from all streams of Judaism view posthumous organ donation as a mitzvah, a commandment or obligation, not just a good deed.

In Judaism, pikuach nefesh, the commandment to save a life, overrides all others. We do not really have a choice about doing this mitzvah. However, because saving our own life comes first, not all rabbis feel that living organ donation carries the same weight.

But the risks when donating a kidney are extremely low; it’s roughly comparable to the annual risk of dying in a car accident while commuting.

A donor must pass a rigorous health screening, and advances in transplant surgery — especially in laparoscopic surgery (“belly button surgery”) to remove organs — means recovery time is brief. Even at age 66, I was back at work managing a residential facility less than two months after surgery. My friend Dee, also 66 years old, returned to her law practice in three weeks. Younger people have even quicker recoveries.

Longitudinal studies have shown that living kidney donors have as good or better physical health than the general population — and their emotional and spiritual health is much better.

Over the last 10 years, the number of people waiting for a kidney has risen 86 percent, but the number of transplants has grown only 31 percent.

Of the 103,000 people currently waiting for a transplant, 80,600 are waiting for a kidney, according to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network.

Any of them could receive a living kidney (a transplant from a living person), which is one possible treatment for someone who has kidney failure, often called end-stage renal disease. Other options are dialysis and a transplant from a deceased person.

But a living kidney, which will keep working for an average of 18 years, is the best possible treatment.

Unfortunately, the shortage of donors means that the average patient waits seven and a half years for a kidney. Each year, 4,500 people — half of them older than 60 — die while waiting.

The National Kidney Foundation recently announced a comprehensive initiative called End the Wait! Implementing its recommendations, including the removal of disincentives for living donors, could “end the wait” by 2019.

One big disincentive for potential donors is financial — the thousands of dollars many donors must spend for travel, lost wages and other out-of-pocket costs. HR 218, the Living Organ Donor Tax Credit Act of 2009, would give living donors a non-refundable tax credit up to $5,000 for these expenses.

Including living organ donors in the Pre-existing Condition Patient Protection Act of 2009 (H.R. 1558, S. 623) as part of the Obama administration’s health care reform package would remove any fear that donors would not be covered if they had to change insurance policies.

Urge your representatives in Congress to support both of these resolutions.

Last year nearly 30 percent of the more than 16,000 kidney transplants came from living donors. Doubling that number could save thousands of lives plus hundreds of millions of dollars annually in dialysis costs –– costs paid by taxpayer dollars through Medicare. For more information, visit

The second weekend in November is designated as National Organ Donor Shabbat. Information packets are available from the California Transplant Donor Network by calling (510) 251-7010 or sending an e-mail to [email protected]

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our rabbis spoke about the mitzvah of being a living organ donor and donating posthumously on that Shabbat, and our synagogues had a “kidney drive” that Sunday?

Tish Levee lives in Santa Rosa, where she is a member of Congregation Beth Ami. She writes “Mitzvah Moments,” a column in the West County Gazette, and can be reached at [email protected]