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The Miracle Man: Rabbi Dr. Jason Weiner Gives His Kidney and Saves a Life

"There was a human being whose life I could save. No one else could. So I decided to say yes.” 
[additional-authors]
March 9, 2023
Rabbi Jason Weiner with his wife Lauren

Zack Plotzker, a young husband and father of three, was in desperate need of a kidney. The ex-Angeleno, who had recently moved to Las Vegas, was asking his friends in both California and Nevada if they could spread the word and help him find a donor. 

Plotzker connected with Renewal, an organization that provides financial and moral support to kidney patients, to see if they could locate a donor. People in the Jewish community with blood types A and O swabbed to see if they would be a match for Plotzker.

One of those who participated was Rabbi Dr. Jason Weiner, senior rabbi and director of the Spiritual Care Department at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and rabbi of Knesset Israel Synagogue of Beverlywood. He knew Plotzker, and wanted to see if he could be of assistance.

“I said, ‘I guess I’ll swab, why not?’” said Weiner. “Maybe I was a match for him.” 

Weiner ended up not being a match, but Plotzker eventually found a donor and received his kidney at Cedars-Sinai. 

“I met the man who donated to Zack, and he said it changed his life in a significant way,” Weiner said. “Over the years, I had some friends, mostly rabbis, who donated kidneys, and I was always very impressed with them.”

Weiner didn’t know how he’d feel if he matched with someone. Would he be able to give his kidney as well?

Still, Weiner didn’t know how he’d feel if he matched with someone. Would he be able to give his kidney as well?

Six months ago, he suddenly had to answer that question. Renewal – which found that Orthodox Jews make up about 18% of the living altruistic kidney donors in the U.S. despite being only 0.2% of the population – called him up and told him he was a match for someone. 

“They asked me if I remembered swabbing a year-and-a-half ago in Los Angeles,” Weiner said. “I was terrified and concerned. I thought, ‘Oh great. What did I get myself into?’”

Renewal told Weiner that he had matched with a 73-year-old woman who was a grandmother and elementary school teacher in Toronto. Her family and Renewal were searching all over the world for a match, but they couldn’t find anyone for her. They were afraid they were going to lose her. 

Kidney transplant patients are categorized by risk. “She was at 100. One hundred percent of people wouldn’t match for her,” Weiner said.

Weiner saw that finding the match was miraculous. And while he was worried about the possibility of going through surgery, he got his blood work taken at Cedars to see if he really was such a good fit.

“The hospital in Toronto told me I probably wasn’t a match, because the woman had very rare antibodies and a rare HLA type,” he said. 

Two weeks after Cedars sent the blood work in, Weiner received a call. 

“They told me they were shocked, but I was a perfect match for this recipient,” he said.

Now, Weiner, a husband, a father of five and a rabbi and chaplain at the hospital as well as his own congregation, had a huge decision to make. He needed to carefully weigh his options and decide if this was for him. 

Not only would he have to have his kidney removed, but he’d also have to fly to Toronto for an evaluation, and then again for the surgery, take several weeks off from work at both of his jobs and find caregivers for his children while he and his wife Lauren were away.  

Weiner got a blessing from Lauren, who would be taking care of him and their children while he was in recovery. He then talked to family members, rabbis, friends of his who had donated a kidney and the leadership of the Cedars kidney donation department. 

“They were very open about the risks, but they also talked about how transformative and safe it is, and how much I could really help someone and serve as a role model for others,” he said. 

The recipient, Bonnie Lilien

The risks that concerned Weiner included a possible infection, negative reactions to the anesthesia, or increased risk of future failure of his other kidney and heart failure. From what the doctors at Cedars told him, though, the risks were extremely low. 

The doctors also said that he wouldn’t be able to play contact sports anymore, because if he got hit really hard, his remaining kidney could become damaged. Weiner made sure that no one in his family had had kidney issues in the past. One of the benefits of the surgery, he discovered, was that if someone in his family ever needed a kidney, they would get put on the top of the list.

Weiner looked into the halacha on organ donation while deciding as well. He’s extensively studied Jewish medical ethics, has a doctorate in clinical bioethics and wrote three books on Jewish law and medicine: “Jewish Guide to Practical Medical Decision-Making” (Urim Press), “Guide to Observance of Jewish Law in a Hospital” (Kodesh Press) and “Care and Covenant: A Jewish Bioethic of Responsibility” (Georgetown University Press).

“The basic issue is that you’re not allowed to risk your life even to save someone else’s. But the lower the risk and the higher the benefit, the more it’s encouraged. We can’t require it of someone, but if they are willing to do it, it’s a huge mitzvah.” – Rabbi Jason Weiner

“The basic issue is that you’re not allowed to risk your life even to save someone else’s,” he said. “But the lower the risk and the higher the benefit, the more it’s encouraged. We can’t require it of someone, but if they are willing to do it, it’s a huge mitzvah.” 

Taking everything into consideration, Weiner knew what he had to do. 

“I had been praising people who did it for so long,” he said. “Could I live up to what I believed was right? There was a human being whose life I could save. No one else could. So I decided to say yes.” 

Together with Lauren, Weiner figured out all the logistics. He got the time off work and the support of his family and friends, colleagues at Cedars and his congregants at Knesset Israel. 

The first week of February, Weiner and his wife flew into Toronto, where it was 14 degrees below zero. They got set up in a hotel down the street from the hospital; Lauren would have to walk back and forth because the surgery was on Friday, and Weiner would be recovering during Shabbat. 

On the walk over to the hospital with Lauren, right before his surgery, the rabbi started crying. 

“I wasn’t afraid,” he said. “I tried to go into it with joy, and was praying to God that everything would go smoothly. I prayed for the recipient, and that this should be a merit for my family, my children and my community.”

Prior to surgery, Weiner received a blessing from Rabbi Shlomo Miller, one of the leading rabbis in Toronto. He also posted a picture of himself from his hospital bed and wrote, “Today I am donating a kidney. I don’t want praise or accolades (or to be told I’ve lost my mind … I’m already somewhat aware of that). I would, however, appreciate your prayers. My Hebrew name is Yehudah Leib ben Sarah, and my recipients name is Bleema Tsiril bat Shayna Frimid.” 

On Twitter alone, his post was viewed 171,400 times and received over 5,000 likes. It also blew up on Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn, with people writing things like, “Godspeed. God bless you both” and “What a wonderful gesture to save someone’s life.”

Though he received so much engagement from the post, it was never his intention to tell everyone what he was doing. 

“I didn’t really want to publicize it,” he said. “I felt like it was private and a chesed (kindness), and I was just trying to help someone. That’s the ideal, when it’s done privately and quietly.”

However, rabbis he knew encouraged him to talk about it publicly. “Since it really is saving a life, and requires people to want to do it, they said I could be a positive role model,” he said.

Weiner’s surgery went well. He was in the hospital at the same time as the recipient, whose name is Bonnie Lilien. Her surgery went well, too, and while they were recovering, they had a chance to meet.

“She gave Lauren a big hug and told me how her antibodies were changing and that every day that went by, there were less and less odds that she would find a match,” he said. “She also joked that she’s part rabbi now.”

Lilien, who is at home with her husband and healing from the surgery, said her new kidney is “working like a charm. I have Rabbi Weiner to thank for that, and he’s my hero.”

The grandmother had been relying on her faith for years, asking God to help her find a donor.

“I prayed so hard for this to happen,” she said. “I believe that God heard my prayers and those of the many friends and family who had me on their Mi Sheberach (prayer for the sick) list. My Cantor, Simon Spiro, prayed for me daily. In my synagogue Shabbat’s services, there is the opportunity to go up directly to the Torah and say your own Mi Sheberach. I was up there at every service.”

At times, she said, it was hard to stay positive.

“I needed to believe in miracles, and a miracle happened.” – Bonnie Lilien

“My advanced kidney disease meant having to confront my own mortality. Nonetheless, I kept a smile on my face, so as not to worry others. I needed to believe in miracles, and a miracle happened.”

Facilitating miracles is what Renewal is all about. They have arranged 900 kidney transplants for patients from age 2 to 86, and all the services they provide are free. 

Facilitating miracles is what Renewal is all about. They have arranged 900 kidney transplants for patients from age 2 to 86, and all the services they provide are free. There are currently over 300 patients awaiting transplants, but the organization holds cheek swab events year round to find donors. 

Their next event in LA is on Saturday, March 11, after Shabbat at 8:30 p.m. It will be at Young Israel of Century City, where Weiner used to be associate rabbi. He will be giving his first public talk about his experience as a donor. 

Menachem Friedman, program director at Renewal, said he was surprised that Weiner went to the swab event in 2021.

“We are in awe that a person like Rabbi Weiner, who is so busy doing good things all day, made an effort to swab and see if he was a match,” he said. “He’s the one person who could have made excuses. He’s so busy. We’re honored to have been part of this process.” 

A few weeks out from his surgery, Weiner is feeling much better. The first five days were tough; he was nauseous and in a lot of pain, and he could barely move. But now that he’s up and able to walk, his recovery is going much quicker. 

When the rabbi hits the six-week mark, he can go back to running, his favorite hobby, again. Just last year, he participated in the LA Marathon, which he completed in four hours. 

“I’ve been walking, and that’s really helpful, but I have to be a little less active,” he said. 

Looking back on his experience, Weiner said he has no regrets.

“It’s a really amazing feeling, and it’s unlike any other chesed I’ve done for anyone,” he said. “It changes the way I see myself and I feel like I practice what I’ve been preaching. I’ve met so many people who are in need, and I hope I can make a difference. If I wouldn’t have known other people who did it, I would not have done it.”

Weiner is now in a WhatsApp group of people who have given their kidneys to a recipient as well. His friend sent out an article to the group about scientists trying to grow human organs in pigs, which would eliminate the need for donors.

“I thought people in the group would say, ‘Oh man, I wish they invented that sooner,’” Weiner said. “Instead, everyone said, ‘Wow, thank God we had the opportunity to do this before they invented that.’ It’s such a merit to be able to do that for someone.”

He continued, “I’m so thankful I was able to do it.”

Book excerpt from ‘Care and Covenant:
A Jewish Bioethic of Responsibility’ by Jason Weiner

 

Developing a world built on the values discussed in this book is a task that cannot be achieved by any one individual or even one generation alone. As our sages remind us, “It is not for you to complete the task, but neither are you free to stand aside from it.” While there are limits to how much any individual can accomplish, we are charged with using our own personal gifts and place in the world to contribute as much as we can to our society.

The message of this book is simple but important. How we see the world and our role in it can have a huge impact on the decisions we make and our interactions with others.

The message of this book is simple but important. How we see the world and our role in it can have a huge impact on the decisions we make and our interactions with others. Approaching life with a desire to give and a sense of responsibility for serving others can transform all of our waking moments into dreams come true. Conversely, when one focuses narrowly on their own rights and taking from others, life can become a nightmare for everyone. A Jewish bioethic of responsibility can be actualized both individually and societally.

This change in perspective can have huge ramifications. For us, perhaps the greatest reward is the realization that we are here to give, and in doing so, we live a life of blessing.

Each chapter in this book provides concrete examples of how a compassionate, duty-based approach can be implemented in contemporary health care. Certainly, these same values can be applied to many more areas of life, helping to make the world a better and more just place for all. This goal can be achieved by asking the question “What is my obligation?” whenever challenges arise, rather than “What is owed to me?” This change in perspective can have huge ramifications. For us, perhaps the greatest reward is the realization that we are here to give, and in doing so, we live a life of blessing. This is why the influential psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl, recommended that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented by a “Statue of Responsibility” on the West Coast.

A Jewish respondent to a qualitative study about COVID-19 vaccines made the claim that “the Torah does not require people to endanger themselves for other peoples’ benefit.” I hope this book has successfully made the case that such a statement is categorically false.

Rabbi Yekusiel Yehuda Halberstam, scion of the famous Sanz rabbinic dynasty, lost his wife and all eleven of his children in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. In July of 1944, Rabbi Halberstam was forced to march to the infamous Dachau death camp, during which he and the other frail inmates were made to walk twenty kilometers a day. Those who could not keep up were instantly shot by the SS guards. Indeed, one day Rabbi Halberstam was shot in the shoulder and lost a considerable amount of blood, but seeking medical attention was not an option. As he was losing his strength, he took on himself a vow to God: “If I merit to survive, I will garner all my energies to build a hospital in the Holy Land, where every human being will receive the same dedicated medical care irrespective of nationality or creed.” At that moment he noticed a tree with lush green leaves by the side of the road. He reached up, plucked a large leaf, and with his last bit of strength managed to place it on his wound.

The rabbi survived. He never had the opportunity to observe the traditional Jewish mourning rituals for his family because, despite all that he had lost, he felt that the duty to protect and care for those still alive took precedence; thus, he became a leader to the suffering Jews in the displaced persons camps, inspiring them not to give up. After the war he initially went to Brooklyn, New York, where he took it on himself to establish schools, care for orphans, perform weddings, and start a synagogue primarily for other Holocaust survivors in the Beth Moses Hospital.

The prayers in that synagogue were known for being very intense, with no talking whatsoever, and individuals frequently weeping aloud. One Shabbat morning in the summer of 1952, the Torah reader began to chant the weekly portion, which included the section known as the “chastisement” (tokhechah), detailing the curses that would befall the Jewish people. It is customary to chant that section very quietly and rapidly, but that morning the rabbi suddenly called out, “Hekher!” (louder!). The Torah reader couldn’t believe that the rabbi would want him to read that section loudly, so he continued to quickly whisper it in an undertone, but the rabbi demanded, banging on the table, “Ikh hob gezogt hekher!” (I said louder!). People began to tremble and cry, so the rabbi explained, “Let the Master of the Universe hear! We have nothing to be afraid of. We have already received all of the curses — and more. Let the Almighty hear, and let Him understand that the time has come to send the blessings!”

Once the prayers had concluded, the rabbi lovingly explained to his congregation that the blessings would come, as God had promised, but that these must result from their own initiatives to be a blessing to the world. He then explained to his congregants that in the coming week, they were to pack their bags one last time and move with him to the Land of Israel, where they could help support the fledging community of their fellow survivors in Netanya.

Soon after Rabbi Halberstam and his followers arrived in Netanya and began building a community, the rabbi noticed that this rapidly growing city had no community hospital. It was then that the rabbi took the initiative to uphold the vow he had made during that fateful march a decade earlier. In 1958 the cornerstone was laid for a modern general hospital to serve the entire city, thereby fulfilling the rabbi’s pledge to be a blessing. Today that hospital, Laniado, is an important regional medical center.

Rabbi Halberstam was clearly an extraordinary person, but his story — and the ethic of compassionate responsibility developed in this book — can remind us, in the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, that “by making extraordinary demands, [Judaism] inspires ordinary people to live extraordinary lives.”

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