A local day school and synagogues in Monmouth County are working to ensure that its students and members understand how simple it can be to save the lives of those faced with life-threatening illness.
Hillel Yeshiva High School in Ocean on May 7 hosted the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation, including a donor and a recipient of lifesaving stem cells. Later, students who are 18 — the minimum age to be part of the international donor registry — were tested, which involves only a cheek swab.
Synagogues also did their part on May 16 as Congregation Kol Am of Freehold and Freehold Jewish Center-Congregation Agudath Achim held a joint stem-cell drive. The drives were firsts for the synagogues and Hillel and are part of the push by stem cell recipient Mel Cohen, president of the newly formed Central New Jersey Gift of Life chapter, to expand outreach.
“Hillel was the first but we hope to arrange drives at yeshivas and day school throughout central New Jersey,” said Cohen of Ocean.
Event chair Phyllis Garr of Kol Am said, “We wanted to get as many donors as possible. Mel is teaching us.” The Marlboro resident said 27 congregants were screened and another $1,500 was donated for the screening process.
FJC’s Rabbi Kenneth Greene cited the number of people “desperately in need of stem cell transplants,” including a child for whom the New York Board of Rabbis is aiding in a search. “We can no longer speak in theoretical terms,” said Greene. “Potentially, anyone could be a match for this girl or for somebody else one day. To save someone’s life is classically Jewish and a true mitzva.”
Hillel head of high school Rabbi Howard Bald said the yeshiva has been running a blood drive annually for about 10 years so when he was approached by Cohen, it “seemed like a natural fit.” The two drives were held together.
“It’s one-stop shopping,” said Bald. Holding such drives “is an outgrowth of what we try and teach and inspire here at Hillel…. Helping others and saving lives are part of the mitzvot we encourage our students to do as human beings and Jews.”
Jake Mehani, a 25-year-old graduate of Hillel from Long Branch, accompanied Cohen to the program, where he spoke of his experience as a donor.
In a phone interview with NJJN, Mehani admitted he did not have the noblest reason for being tested while a student at Baruch College in New York. “I had a crush on a girl, and she was running a bone marrow drive so I did it for selfish reasons,” he laughed.
But three years later, he was called. “I figured God had a great sense of humor,” said Mehani.
His recipient was a woman suffering from leukemia. “I don’t think anything about it,” he said. “Just the thought I was saving a life, giving her life back to her.”
The greatest chance of finding a match is with a family member, then within one’s ethnic group. However, the Holocaust severed many Jewish bloodlines, making it imperative that as many Jews as possible be included in the registry.
“When someone has something like leukemia, they’re just waiting,” said Mehani, a member of Shaare Ezra Congregation in Long Branch. “We don’t want them to wait.”