(Left) Rabbi Jeffrey Kurtz-Lendner and (right) Eric Steger at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center a few days after the Jan. 7 liver transplant. (Robin Kurtz-Lendner)
(Left) Rabbi Jeffrey Kurtz-Lendner and (right) Eric Steger at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center a few days after the Jan. 7 liver transplant. (Robin Kurtz-Lendner)

Sunnyvale man, a serial organ donor, gives liver to rabbi he doesn’t know

Eric Steger donates a lot — not money, but parts of his body. And he gives them to people he doesn’t know.

In 2007, the 50-year-old Sunnyvale man donated bone marrow to a dying woman in Maryland, saving her life.

In 2010, he flew to Israel to donate a kidney to a desperately ill woman, but he was rejected when doctors diagnosed him with hypertension.

Last week, he donated part of his liver to a rabbi living in Iowa. And that’s after three previous attempts fell through.

“Maybe I’m a little crazy, but I’m crazy for the Jewish people,” said Steger, speaking from his hospital bed at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center while he was recovering from the Jan. 7 operation (he has since been released).

Noting that he’s helped non-Jews as well as Jews — he has donated platelets some 140 times at the Stanford Blood Center — he brushed off suggestions that a liver donation is serious business, carrying risks for the donor as well as the recipient.

“The risk to the recipient if I do nothing is death,” he pointed out.

“Eric is always looking to help people in a quiet way,” said Rabbi Yisroel Hecht of Chabad of Sunnyvale, who has known Steger for more than a decade. “He was really focused on the opportunity to do this, to save someone’s life. That’s the kind of guy he is — a real mensch.”

Eric Steger at the Chabad of Sunnyvale. (Courtesy Chabad of Sunnyvale)
Eric Steger at the Chabad of Sunnyvale. (Courtesy Chabad of Sunnyvale)

Steger, who teaches math at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, grew up Reform in San Jose but wasn’t involved in Jewish practice until he was introduced to a local Chabad rabbi 12 or 13 years ago. “We got to talking, and that conversation led to me showing up at a Chabad house on Rosh Hashanah,” he said. Since then he has become more observant, keeping Shabbat and praying daily, and is a regular at Chabad of Sunnyvale.

One of the Jewish values he took to heart is pikuach nefesh, the commandment to save a life, a mitzvah so great that a Jew must break virtually all other commandments to do so.

So, in 2007, working with the Gift of Life Marrow Registry, Steger donated blood marrow to a woman who had leukemia. The two exchanged letters afterward, but in line with the foundation’s privacy policy, their names and other identifying information had been redacted, so he still doesn’t know who she was.

That doesn’t matter, though. “He’s a very dedicated, committed, unassuming person,” Hecht said. “In his mind, if I can save another person’s life, why wouldn’t I?”

After that first successful donation, Steger was eager to do more. He decided to give away a kidney — after all, as he told reporters following his story, you don’t need both — and began searching for the right avenue. A friend told him about KidneyMitzvah.org, an organ-matching nonprofit run by Chaya Lipschutz of Brooklyn, New York, who donated her own kidney in 2005 and encourages other Jews to do the same.

Lipschutz, who doesn’t charge for her services, matches donors and recipients in the United States, Israel and throughout the English-speaking world, mainly by posting announcements on Jewish Yahoo groups. She matched Steger with an Israeli mother of a large family who was on dialysis. In December 2010, Steger flew to Israel, but doctors at Tel HaShomer Hospital diagnosed him with high blood pressure and told him he was not a viable kidney donor.

“I’m a little crazy, but I’m crazy for the Jewish people.”

With his typical optimism, Steger found the bright side, telling Israel National News: “Because I volunteered to fly around the world and donate my kidney, they found this unnoticed thing that could prevent serious complications for me down the road.”

Lipschutz didn’t hear from Steger for another eight years. Then, about a year ago, he contacted her with another proposal: He wanted to donate part of his liver.

Lipschutz had only recently begun doing liver matches. “They’re very rare,” she said. In 2017, according to the Mayo Clinic, about 8,000 liver transplants were performed in the U.S., but just 360 involved living donors. And while survival rates are higher with living donors than with cadaver transplants, the risks are grave.

But Lipschutz agreed to help and the search began. Neither of them anticipated that they would go through four potential recipients in less than a year.

The first was a man in New York. Arrangements began, and then the man’s sister offered her own liver.

Steger pressed on, so Lipschutz found another man, also from New York. The two men went for testing at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, a leader in the field of living donor transplants. Steger was cleared for donation, but at the last minute, one of the sick man’s employees stepped forward instead.

Steger returned home undeterred. The clock was ticking. Testing results are good for a year, so he wanted to find a recipient before the window closed. Lipschutz found a third potential recipient, a man already waiting for a liver at the Pittsburgh hospital, and the match was made. The surgery date was set. Then, a few days before surgery, a cadaver liver became available.

“I only had six months left before I’d have to get tested all over again, and I told Chaya, ‘Please find someone,’” Steger said. “She was out of recipients with my blood type. I’m Type A [negative], not the most common.”

Lipschutz turned again to her Yahoo groups, posting the offer on Jewish sites in Pittsburgh, Brooklyn and the tri-state area. A woman in Teaneck, New Jersey, saw the posting and called her brother, Rabbi Jeffrey Kurtz-Lendner.

Eric Steger (Courtesy Chabad of Sunnyvale)
Eric Steger (Courtesy Chabad of Sunnyvale)

Kurtz-Lendner, 53, was very ill with NASH, a severe form of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. He had recently left a pulpit position in Florida and had moved to Iowa with his wife, Robin Kurtz-Lendner. His disease was progressing fast.

Speaking to J. from her husband’s hospital room the day after the transplant (he is scheduled to be released in a few days), Robin was effusive. “Thank God for Eric,” she said. “It’s the most incredible gift he’s given. It was just going to be Jeff going downhill, waiting for a cadaver. This angel came out of nowhere. Who does something like this for a stranger?

“Eric is an amazing human being,” she continued, pausing to weep for a moment. “He saved my husband’s life.”

Steger is a very quiet person, both Lipschutz and Hecht said. A single man who plays chess in his spare time, he is not comfortable with attention.

“I’m not like a Superman,” he told J. “I’m just a regular guy, I do what I can. If you saw me in shul, you’d see I’m a regular guy. I don’t have a halo over my head.”

Pausing for a minute, he fishes something out of his wallet. It’s a small card with a photo of the Lubavitcher rebbe and the words, “Prepare for Moshiach with acts of goodness and kindness.” Chuckling a little, Steger says he keeps it with him always, next to his drivers’ license.

“We need to do what we can to spread positivity in the world,” he said. “With all the negative things going on, we have to do the opposite to counter it. We have to spread life, and spread hope.”

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].