By Regan Treewater-Lipes
(EJNews) – Pikuach nefesh, the preservation of life, is not simply honorable in the eyes of Halakha, but a cornerstone of Judaism. When recent kidney donor Rabbi Mendy Blachman, of Chabad Edmonton, considers the safeguarding of human life, he looks to the teachings and guidance of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. The Rebbe stressed the importance of Ahavat Yisroel – truly caring about another’s needs whether it be spiritual or physical. When this opportunity presented itself to Rabbi Mendy he couldn’t see any better way of helping another.
Rabbi Mendy’s journey of pikuach nefesh began after hearing that someone – at that point an unidentified ‘someone’ – within the Edmonton Jewish community was in desperate need of a kidney donation. “At that point I didn’t know who it was,” he began. “When I was growing up, my father was very active in working for Hatzalah,” he continued. ‘Hatzalah’, the Hebrew word for ‘rescue’, refers to emergency medical vehicles and staff operating in Orthodox communities. Rabbi Mendy’s cognizance of the importance of the pikuach nefesh mitzvah was modeled for him from an early age by the giving efforts of his father’s volunteer work with Hatzalah. “I give blood regularly. It replenishes; but by giving it, another’s life, someone who needs that blood, is impacted in a positive way.”
After the information was circulated that a member of the community would be saved by the donation of a kidney, Rabbi Mendy, and many others quietly stepped forward to begin the extensive testing process. “Only Rabbi Dovid and Rebbetzin Devorah knew who from our community was in need of the kidney, it wasn’t until later that I discovered it was Howard.”
Click here to read a sidebar article – Does Judaism allow organ donation?
Howard Moster, a well-known and easily recognizable member of the Edmonton Jewish community has always been the first to step forward with a helping hand. However, after many years battling polycystic kidney disease he found that he simply did not have the strength.
“I was already on the transplant list,” Moster explained. “But I wasn’t overly thrilled by the idea of a cadaver kidney, and I knew that the long-term success rate with live-donor transplants was astronomically better.”
With the help of Chabad Rabbi Dovid and Rebbetzin Devorah Pinson coordinating the effort, potential donors began the initial screening process to determine their suitability for the procedure. “During the beginning stages of the search I wanted to keep my identity a secret,” said Moster.
“I talked with Rabbi Dovid a lot about how to proceed, and after a great deal of discussion we decided to make my Hebrew name public. Everyone would know who Rabbi Dovid meant by ‘Herschel’ but someone doing a google search would have an impossible time making the connection.” Still, only Rabbi Dovid and Rebbetzin Devorah knew who the potential donors were.
To become a live organ donor, Rabbi Mendy went through a battery of medical examinations and psychological evaluations over numerous months. “I spent part of the summer (2017) back home in New York and sat down with a friend from Yeshiva who had already donated a kidney,” said Rabbi Mendy. “And speaking with him was very meaningful. Being able to hear firsthand the experience of someone I know well was valuable.”
With his wife’s support Rabbi Mendy began speaking with other family members about what he intended to do. “Of course, there were questions, and everyone was concerned for me, but we all know the importance of saving a life. G-d gave me two kidneys, and it was within me to give.”
At a recent Chabad dinner held in Rabbi Mendy’s honour, both the Rabbi and Howard Moster swapped stories about discovering the identity of the other. In a recent interview, Moster commented: “I had gone in for a blood test, and they were very specific about the time. Timing was crucial, and they wanted me to be out of the lab by the time my donor was scheduled to arrive.”
By an oversight, Moster was kept waiting for an hour and a half.
“Finally, they were able to take my blood,” he mused. “I knew that my donor was scheduled to be coming in for tests shortly after because they’d stressed the importance of the timing – the samples needed to be combined within a very narrow window. I obviously didn’t want to intrude on the privacy of my donor, but on my way to the elevator I saw Rabbi Mendy in the waiting room putting tefillin on a man I didn’t recognize. That was when I realized who my donor was.”
From Rabbi Mendy’s recollections during a separate interview: “I had always intended to remain an anonymous donor. But something happened with schedules and Howard was kept later than expected. We ran into one another, so I obviously knew I was no longer an anonymous donor.”
The realization gave the two men time to prepare for the procedure together, to talk, discuss, and seek advice. “I prayed to G-d for guidance and beseeched the Lubavitcher Rebbe for his blessings.” said Moster. “And I was able to consult with Rabbi Ari and Rabbi Dovid.”
Knowing the identity of his donor placed a great burden on Moster. “I was so grateful for what Rabbi Mendy was prepared to do for me,” he explained, “but I was extremely concerned for what the repercussions would be. He has five small children under the age of nine and a community that respects and depends on him.”
Moster had earlier turned down a potential donor.
“The donor coordinator called me one day and told me that I had a potential donor who was female; she knew that I did not want to take a kidney from a woman of child-baring age. She said that the woman was of child-baring age, but that she was adamant that she did not want children. You see, people can live with one kidney, but if a woman becomes pregnant having only one kidney there are significant health risks – I wasn’t willing to have her take that risk. So, I told the coordinator to please thank the woman, but that I could not put her in potential harm. I don’t know who she was,” he added. “But in this same way, there were many concerns about what accepting the Rabbi’s kidney could mean.”
As for Rabbi Mendy: “My wife was extremely supportive of my decision. The night before my surgery, she sat our older two children down to explain to them what would happen,” he recalled. “The next day, February 7, the 22nd of Shevat, Howard and I went in for surgery.”
Rabbi Mendy remains extremely humble when recounting the details of his experience. “G-d is all powerful, and this gave me courage,” he explained. “I took a dollar, given to me by the Rebbe, along with me to the hospital. The nurse told me that I couldn’t take it in with me, but after asking the surgeon, he said it wouldn’t be a problem. He put it in a sealed bag and I was able to take it into the operating room.”
With his dollar from the Lubavitcher Rebbe safely stowed in a sterile bag close by, Rabbi Mendy underwent an approximately four-hour surgery that saved the life of Howard Moster. “I felt some weakness afterward. There are restrictions on how much you can lift after surgery, which can be difficult with five small children – I like to pick up my children and dance around with them on my shoulders. I was able to go from my hospital room, which was on a different wing, to Howard’s room to visit him soon after the procedure. Weaker, and minus one kidney, Rabbi Mendy estimates that within two weeks he was already beginning to resume many of his usual activities.
“I was able to make some hospital visits after a few weeks,” he recalled. With the help of Rabbi Dovid and Rebbetzin Devorah, Moster prepared weeks worth of frozen meals to help Rabbi Mendy and his family during his road to recovery.
“It’s not uncommon that the person who needed the kidney transplant is up on their feet again before the healthy donor,” Moster explained. “That’s because the person who needed the kidney in the first place was most likely so ill by the point of the transplantation that just having a healthy functioning kidney is instantly a huge improvement. It’s the person that was healthy in the first place that has a longer path to recovery.”
Both Rabbi Mendy and Howard Moster are in great spirits and good health. Moster is down to a doctor’s visit once every three weeks and hopes to soon be able to move about more freely, “Right now I still need to stay relatively close to Edmonton as a precaution.”
As for Rabbi Mendy, he may not have been able to stay till the very end of this year’s Purim celebration to clean up, as he has every other year, but as anyone in the community can attest, his tremendous energy and joy of service have returned in full force!
“When I was sixteen I was working out on an acreage,” began Moster. “A young man fell in a pond and began drowning, I pulled him out and saved him. Later, as a police officer I was decorated on three separate occasions for saving someone’s life – I used to think I was pretty special for that,” he paused. “But as a policeman that was my job, and I was paid for it,” he explained. “From his hospital bed Rabbi Mendy sent me a video message, thanking me for giving him the opportunity to perform this mitzvah – I was completely stunned. Here, he had given me this incredible gift, and then, from his hospital bed, he was thanking me. I still have the message.”
Moster remembers meeting Rabbi Mendy when the Rabbi and Rebbetzin first came to visit Edmonton. Now, the two will be lifelong friends having shared, and continuing to share, a mitzvah so exceptional, that we in the Edmonton Jewish community are fortunate to witness its impact. Although the humble and soft-spoken Rabbi would have liked to have remained anonymous, the knowledge of the renewal on life he gave to Howard Moster, has become a shining example of the power of giving.
“Not everybody can donate a kidney,” commented Rabbi Mendy with a smile. “If a person is not healthy themselves then they cannot knowingly put themselves in harms way for another in need – that’s not the point. But there are so many ways to help, and there are so many ways to give. If a person is drowning you shouldn’t jump into the water to save them if you can’t swim. But you could call for help or throw them something that floats – that’s saving a life.”
There are some very specific circumstances under which organ donation is permitted by Halakha, and very stringent stipulations regarding when it is not permissible. However, Jews of all denominations should know that a live organ donation under the right conditions, remains the greatest mitzvah known to the Jewish people – for, as the Talmud says: “Whoever saves a life of Israel, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)