Organ donation: ‘highest form of mitzvah’

Organ donor Mindy Halper [Jennifer MacLeod photo]

TORONTO — “I am a very lucky lady, I am a miracle,” Chaya Levinson says.

The 57-year-old nurse, mother and grandmother might have died of kidney disease six years ago if not for Mindy Halper, a fellow nurse but near-stranger who offered one of her two healthy kidneys.

“Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over, it turned into a butterfly,” Levinson said at Beth Tzedec Congregation on May 22.

Yes! You Can Donate! was the theme of an evening on “Jewish Perspectives on Organ Donation” and sponsored, in part, by National Council of Jewish Women, Toronto section, which has taken on the challenge of registering 200 new donors from the Jewish community.

Levinson, Halper and other speakers offered halachic, statistical and emotional views on the current organ crisis in Ontario. Some 1,500 people here desperately await organ donors, said Versha Prakash of the Trillium Gift of Life Network (TGLN), and although one donor can save up to eight lives and enhance 75 others, someone dies needlessly every three days waiting for an organ.

Eighty per cent of us support organ donation in theory, Prakash said, but only 21 per cent have registered their consent to be donors, and at 14 per cent, the GTA has one of the province’s lowest rates of registration.

Rabbi Miriam Margles said that may be due to the inclination many of us have, when facing uncomfortable conversations, to spit three times and change the subject. Each speaker stood up hoping to change minds and open the door to those important conversations.

It’s never been easier, Prakash said. Signing up at TGLN’s website takes two minutes and requires only your health card. Even if you’ve already filled out an organ donor card, you should register there – cards are rarely available when needed, whereas the TGLN central database is available 24/7.

Prakash addressed myths surrounding organ donation. There is no upper age limit, for example, to be a donor: Canada’s oldest organ donor was over 90. Others may fear that doctors won’t work as hard to save the lives of known donors – this is not true, she said, because the TGLN database is confidential and only accessed at the point where saving the donor’s life is no longer an option.

Many of the strongest objections, however, come from people who believe their religion does not allow organ donation. In fact, Prakash said, every major religion in Canada permits organ donation.

Offering Jewish legal background was Beth Tzedec’s senior rabbi, Baruch Frydman-Kohl, who spoke of astonishing consensus: almost all movements not only permit, but praise the decision to arrange to donate organs while alive, and also to permit organ donation after death, a “gift to the deceased as well as to those who will continue to live.”

The Rabbinical Assembly, the Conservative movement’s association of rabbis, has said organ donation is “a new means to fulfil an ancient, eternal religious duty, a mitzvah of the highest order,” while the Union for Reform Judaism, as far back as 1968, affirmed it as “a positive act of holiness.”

It’s true that a dead body has sanctity in Judaism, Rabbi Frydman-Kohl said, mentioning the Israeli organization Zaka, which gathers human blood and tissue for burial following bombings.

“We have tremendous regard for the integrity of the body,” he said. That’s why we limit autopsies and conduct funerals as soon as practical. Yet, he added, “all rabbinic authorities came to an agreement – Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, New Age, chassidish: preservation of life supersedes all prohibitions.”

Heather Talbot, whose 22-year-old son was a passenger in a drunk-driving accident in 2009, said, “I never expected to be an advocate for organ donation… but I never expected to be a bereaved mother.”

When Jonathon, a “smart, popular, happy, natural athlete,” sustained irreversible head injuries, doctors asked the family if they’d consider donating his organs, Talbot said. “I didn’t know if it was against my religion.” Today, she helps educate others in the community.

Doctors were able to use Jonathon’s lungs, kidneys and heart valves – for which the Talbots later received anonymous thank-you notes from recipients: a kidney patient who’d gone off dialysis, children at Sick Kids who’d received his heart valves. Though her family’s loss was devastating, Talbot said, “people are alive because of him, and he lives on in them.”

Teacher and author Frank Bialystok, a member of Darchei Noam Congregation, appeared in a short video, My Second Bar Mitzvah, celebrating the 13th anniversary of his “rebirthday,” thanks to a donated liver. His wife, Ellen, said the donor “didn’t just save Frank’s life… [but] all of our lives.”

Rabbi Reuven Bulka, the Ottawa rabbi who chairs TGLN’s board of directors, appeared in the video, saying it’s “preposterous” for any rabbi to suggest that “a person performing the ultimate mitzvah is going to be penalized” posthumously for giving up organs.  This “makes no sense whatsoever.”

Following the presentations, speakers addressed questions about donor registration and live kidney and liver donations (only part of the liver is donated; it later regenerates). TGLN only co-ordinates cadaver donations, but in light of the shortage, they can help with financial expenses for living donors.

Levinson said anyone interested in donating a kidney can contact the organ donation program at Toronto General Hospital directly – it’s one of the few in Canada willing to accept and co-ordinate anonymous donations. Renewal Toronto (, 416-894-5670) is a rabbinically endorsed organization that co-ordinates kidney donations within the Jewish community.

“If you’re considering being a live donor, don’t hesitate,” Halper said, looking back on the experience that has given her more than a new “sister” in Levinson. Following the operation, Levinson’s husband, who’d become Halper’s immigration lawyer, sent her for a physical. She laughed, because she’d just gone through intensive screening to donate her kidney, but eventually gave in. That physical turned up a tiny cancerous tumour in her lung, which was removed before it could become symptomatic. She has just passed the five-year point of remission.  “It’s a miracle of life for both of us,” she said.

For more information or to register with National Council of Jewish Women’s “Gift of 8” campaign, visit