Teacher gives up kidney to heal a stranger

Teacher gives up kidney to heal a stranger

Almost but not quite ready to go back to teaching just two weeks after donating a kidney, Ilene Strauss taught her first classes this week via an Internet connection.
Almost but not quite ready to go back to teaching just two weeks after donating a kidney, Ilene Strauss taught her first classes this week via an Internet connection.

On Monday morning, Jan. 4, Ilene Strauss was back to teaching Gemara to her sixth-grade students — but not in person. Although she felt fine, teaching “remotely” via the Internet was less taxing than traveling from her home in West Orange to Salanter Akiba Riverdale Academy in the Bronx.

And given that she’d had a kidney extracted just two weeks before, it seemed like a good alternative. 

“I’ll go back to school in a couple of days,” she told NJ Jewish News.

Strauss, 60, donated her kidney in a laparoscopic procedure at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center on Dec. 22 to a recipient matched with her through Renewal, a Brooklyn-based organization dedicated to assisting people suffering from various forms of kidney disease, with a particular focus on kidney donation.

The group, founded in 2006, provides its services at no charge; it is funded entirely by donations. The recipients come from around the world and are treated in various locations in the New York area. While support is provided to patients and their families through all stages of the transplant process, special attention is given to the donors’ needs, to make the experience as easy as possible. Previous donors serve as volunteers, driving donors to the hospital, supporting them through the screening process, and visiting with them after the operation. 

The donors are Jewish — mostly Orthodox, as Strauss is. Almost all the recipients are Jewish, too, although not necessarily Orthodox.

According to the Forward, Renewal facilitated as many as 17 percent of the live kidney donations to strangers in the United States in 2014 — that is, 38 out of 218. They did this from this tiny portion of the population, and in record time. In New Jersey, according to the Forward, the average wait time is four and a half years; Renewal aims to find a matching donor in no more than six months. 

Strauss heard about Renewal at her shul, Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob & David, in West Orange. Rabbi Larry Rothwachs, who was assistant rabbi there and is now at Congregation Beth Aaron in Teaneck, donated a kidney himself a few months earlier. What he said inspired her. “Every life is worth saving, of course, but I was particularly moved by the idea of saving the life of another Jew,” she said.

Though eager to be of help, Strauss did have some fears. Rothwachs helped allay them. “He said that if the risk was significant, [giving a kidney] would not be permitted, even if it is to save someone,” she said. He also pointed out there was no special prayer to say before the procedure, but there was one to say later — the usual expression of gratitude for healing.

Those volunteering are subject to physical and psychological testing. When Strauss went in for those, she was met at the hospital by Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz, Renewal’s director. Two former donors helped her: One picked her up from home on the day of the surgery. Another was at her bedside to help her deal with the aftermath of the surgery. Once she was back home, a friend came to stay for six days, and congregation members came to her aid, bringing food and providing all kinds of help.

“The community has been amazing,” Strauss said.

If she was inspired before “to cut into my perfectly healthy body, take out a perfectly healthy organ, and give it to some unknown person,” Strauss is even more pleased by the decision after the fact. 

“Oh my gosh, I am so glad I did it,” she said. “Why should someone else have to suffer when you can help them so easily? The procedure is probably less risky than flying or going in a car.”

The recipient, whom — by mutual consent — she met at the hospital, has already communicated to express her gratitude again. “She said I gave her her life back,” Strauss said.

“Renewal is, without a doubt, one of the great organizations of am Yisrael in our time, allowing small, little people like me to do a mitzva that far exceeds my stature in the community. I am honored to be part of this new family, and I encourage others to take the plunge and join me in this awesome space.”

For more information on receiving a kidney, donating a kidney, or making a financial donation, contact 718-431-9831 or info@renewal.org, or write to Renewal, 5904 13th Ave., Brooklyn, NY 11219.

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