November 21, 2018

A New Lease on Life

About two-and-a-half years ago Michael Goldberg’s life was on the line. A diabetic since he was a teen-ager, his kidneys began to fail him at 36. The only hope for Michael’s survival was a kidney and pancreas transplant. Due to a shortage of organ donors throughout the country, Michael and his parents, Irv and Esther Goldberg, waited for 18 anxiety-filled months until doctors found a suitable match: the victim of a fatal automobile accident, who had previously consented to donate his organs. Michael now had the chance he needed to live. At that point, Irv and Esther Goldberg began their mission to increase organ donations and transplants among the Southern California Jewish community.

Irv created Transplant for Life, a grassroots movement dedicated to raising awareness in the Jewish community about the importance and permissibility of organ donation. Transplants for Life is busy mobilizing support for organ donation with help from religious leaders, who can impart to their congregations the importance of participating in the third annual National Donor Shabbat on Nov. 13-15. The event was organized by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, with the goal of raising awareness in all faiths of the critical need for organ donation. Fewer than 10 percent of Americans participated in the National Donor Shabbat in the past according to a recent survey.

Irv Goldberg attributes poor participation to misconceptions about organ donation.

“Some fear that it goes against their religion when in fact all major religions support it,” said Lynn Wegman, deputy director of the Division of Transplantation at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Goldberg said the Jewish community in particular is unaware that organ donation is not only permissible, but encouraged by all branches of Judaism.

“Jews disagree about many things, but this is one area in which people are united,” Goldberg said.

Transplant for Life has secured the support of important religious figures to help realize their mission, including a unanimous endorsement from the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. The Rabbinical Council of America (Orthodox), the Rabbinical Assembly (Conservative) and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (Reform) all issued statements declaring organ donation as one of Judaism’s greatest mitzvot and pikuach nefesh, saving a life. Goldberg believes that congregation leaders should incorporate discussions about organ donation into services, particularly during National Donor Shabbat, in order to get more people involved.

“We are attempting for the first time to hold every rabbi and congregation accountable,” Goldberg said.

Transplant for Life, which works out of Kol Tikvah, a Reform congregation in Woodland Hills, intends to provide congregations with materials needed to educate their members — such as scriptural references and donor cards.

Goldberg and his supporters will also attempt to alleviate other concerns and fears that Jews may have about organ donation. Many do not want to contemplate their body parts existing in another person. Some do not want to make preparations for a day they hope remains in the distant future. Some worry about the condition of their body in an afterlife.

“The imperative to save lives supersedes the normal prohibitions against invading the integrity of one who has died out of honor for it,” said Kol Tikvah’s Rabbi Steven Jacobs in a Yom Kippur sermon. “And it definitely supersedes any worry about the condition of one’s body in a life after death.”

Even the procedure of organ donation, Goldberg said, should not deter anyone from possibly saving a life. The donation of the heart, liver, lung and pancreas occurs only after the donor is declared brain dead. The recovery of organs does not disfigure the body or alters its appearance in a casket.

Goldberg is receiving positive feedback. More than 50 percent of congregations that are members of the Board of Rabbis are participating in National Donor Shabbat. Goldberg hopes that Transplant for Life will serve as a model for all religious organizations throughout the country. The program is easy to implement, he said, and the cost of the program should not exceed $3,000.

Today, Michael Goldberg remains in good health and is expecting his first child with his wife, Elizabeth. When Irv Goldberg thinks about the 56,000 Americans who are on a waiting list for an organ, and the many who don’t get the chance that Michael did, his sense of urgency increases.

“This donor shortage must not be allowed to continue,” Goldberg said. “We must sweep ignorance and myths aside.”