This rabbi from Montreal is preparing to donate a kidney to a stranger

Life and death converged on Jan. 13, 2020, in a way that Rabbi Yechezkel Rabbi Freundlich could never have imagined. Tragedy and hope came together that day.

The spiritual leader of Congregation Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem (TBDJ), Rabbi Freundlich had just returned home after hours at the hospital where the two-year-old child of congregants had died suddenly and without explanation.

Emotionally and physically spent, he collapsed. Minutes later his phone rang. “It was an unrecognizable number, which I usually don’t pick up, but I thought it was related to what was going on at the hospital.”

The exuberant caller said, “Mazel tov, you’ve been found to be a life-saving match!”

Rabbi Freundlich was stunned. The woman at the other end reminded him that, 13 months earlier, in December 2018 he had taken a swab test and registered with Renewal, a New York-based organization that identifies potential matches for Jewish people needing a kidney transplant, at an information event hosted by TBDJ.

“I would like to think I would have said yes anyway, but at that moment there was no doubt in my mind when she asked if I was still interested. I became very tearful. The woman said usually it’s the recipient who sobs when a match is found, not the donor.”

The match had been found in New York, a total stranger. That February, Rabbi Freundlich went to that city for a full day of tests. Before the second tier of tests could take place, the pandemic hit in March and hospitals shut down.

By June when New York hospitals were functioning again, the patient’s health had worsened and they were no longer a candidate for transplantation.

Within a week another potential recipient had been found—in Toronto. It was surprising that it was so quick this time because Rabbi Freundlich would learn that he has a specific sequence of antibodies that is hard to match.

So began the long journey to the transplantation scheduled for July 8 at Toronto General Hospital (TGH), after having been delayed repeatedly due to the backlog of surgeries caused by the pandemic.

Rabbi Freundlich spoke to The CJN from the hospital on June 30 during a break in his final pre-operative testing. Since being matched with a Canadian, he had to repeat the testing done in New York.

Rabbi Freundlich is an altruistic or non-directed donor, one of those rare people who give a kidney to save the life of a person in renal failure that they don’t know. Outcomes are better from a living donor than a deceased person.

Known as a modest and exceptionally kind person, Rabbi Freundlich is telling his story in the hope that perhaps someone else might do the same as the waiting list for kidneys is long.

It’s not a decision to be taken lightly. Rabbi Freundlich, the father of seven, has been fully apprised of the risks of an operation under general anesthesia, the pain and fatigue during the weeks to full recovery, and the potential—though slight—of long-term effects.

He is practising what he preaches: “Our sages say saving a life is as if you save an entire world. God gave us two kidneys, even though we can live very well with one. Each of us has the ability to literally save a life.”

Knowing the recipient would be Jewish did make it easier; the shidduch felt like it was not really with a stranger, but an extended family member.

He admits his own family was not as sanguine initially as he was, “but they saw early on that I was not going to change my mind.”

Rabbi Freundlich and his kidney’s recipient have been guided by Renewal Canada, a not-for-profit organization founded in 2009 that, besides matchmaking and liaising with the hospital, provides emotional and financial support.

Accepting any kind of compensation for an organ donation is illegal, but donors’ ancillary expenses, such as travel and accommodation, can be covered, which Renewal has done for Rabbi Freundlich.

Renewal told The CJN that the recipient is a woman in her 70s. Rabbi Freundlich was told her name, which meant nothing to him. He has no idea how much she knows about him. Whether they ever have any contact is up to the recipient.

Rabbi Freundlich will be on the same hospital floor, and he would be happy to meet her. He’ll be spending three days in hospital post-operatively, his wife Rifki accompanying him.

The rabbi has not only been busy preparing for this procedure: he has simultaneously been getting ready to start a new job in a new city.

After six years, Rabbi Freundlich, who came to Montreal from Atlanta, is leaving TBDJ to become spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Sholom in Lawrence, N.Y. His last Shabbat at TBDJ is Aug. 6.

“They say you leave your heart in San Francisco; I won’t say this is a parting gift, but I am leaving my kidney in Toronto,” said Rabbi Freundlich, who has not lost his sense of humour.

If someone cannot be a donor—and he personally knows four people in his Côte St. Luc community who need a new kidney—Rabbi Freundlich asks that a monetary donation for his and the recipient’s success be made to Renewal or to research into Sudden Unexplained Death in Childhood through the Ronnie’s Joy Foundation, created in memory of the little girl who lost her life the day his changed forever.

On July 5 at 7 p.m. at Chabad Côte St. Luc, Renewal Canada founder Shlomo Anhang and Rabbi Freundlich speak at a public information meeting about the need for living donors. Swabbing will be available. [email protected].