What is the likelihood of an Orthodox woman born in Brooklyn donating a kidney to a non-observant man from Ukraine in a hospital in Tel Aviv? If the world was run by happenstance, we’d probably say it was remote. But Brooklyn-born Nahva Follman, a resident of Har Nof, Jerusalem, did not bat an eyelid when she was asked to gift a kidney to Ukrainian-born Roman Grenshspon of Petach Tikva.

Nahva: Sometimes people ask me what community I belong to. I suppose I’m a bit of everything. Growing up, I felt a close connection to Chabad. My grandfather, transplanted from Poland to Eretz Yisrael and then to Brooklyn, served as the Rebbe’s personal electrician. Our family was very close to the Rebbe and Rebbetzin, who treated us like their own children.

I like to say I’m a “Jewish Jew”- I love all Jews.

Not long after I’d had my eighth child, I decided to donate one of my kidneys. What a wonderful way to “repay” G‑d’s Kindness!

Roman: Nahva’s magnanimity proved to be Heaven-sent. Raised in the former USSR, I knew practically nothing about being Jewish, and my arrival in Israel in 1990, after my parents passed away, did almost nothing to change that. As a doctor in the Israeli health system, I treated religious people now and then, but we rarely shared more than a few words.

The one exception that comes to mind took place not long after I had come to Israel. Back in 1994, I cared for a critically ill patient in Beilinson Hospital, and met her sister, Sarah, a friendly religious woman. Sarah told me that her family were the followers of a “great Rebbe in America,” but of course I’d never heard of him.

At one point she even went to this Rebbe to seek his blessing for her sister. When she returned, she handed me a card bearing the photo of the rabbi. What was I supposed to do with a picture of a rabbi? Sarah had a ready answer. I should keep it in a safe place because I would need it one day.

Sarah was a fine person, so I reserved my judgment and placed the photo in my wallet, where it was always close at hand.

The Ultimate Matchmaker

Chaya Lipschutz (New York): The Talmud teaches that 40 days before a fetus is formed, a heavenly voice announces whom that person will marry. All matchmaking comes from G‑d.

After donating a kidney to a stranger in 2005, I’ve arranged kidney (and more recently liver) “shidduchim” (matches) for many people in need; I’ve become known as the “Kidney Shadchan.” But the truth is, I cannot fail to see that each match I’ve made could not have happened unless it was directed by the Divine Hand.

Take the case of Nahva Follman. Nahva was a 39-year-old working mother of 8 who “just happened” to decide that she wanted to donate a kidney (as if she didn’t already have enough on her plate!), and “just happened” to read my posting on an Israeli English-speaking group searching for a donor with blood type A.

Nahva (who has blood type O, which is compatible with A) was tested at Ichilov Hospital over several months, eventually reaching the point that it looked like the transplant would go ahead.

And then to our dismay, I received a call that changed everything. The patient would need to postpone his kidney transplant for at least another year. No further explanation was given.

What to do now? Nahva was raring to go, but we didn’t have another candidate for her kidney.

And then came the second call. A 60-year-old gastroenterologist at Ichilov had gone into kidney failure and was desperate for transplant – fast! Nahva seemed like his perfect match.

Roman: I may not be a religious person, but Nahva has proven to me that miracles exist. As a doctor, I was well aware that an applicant for a kidney transplant is destined for a long wait. So how can it be anything other than miraculous that I had a potential donor waiting in the wings as soon as I registered for a transplant in June 2018? It was uncanny!

I had been suffering from progressive kidney failure for some time, and the removal of a malignant tumor in 2016 did nothing to stop it from worsening. At the beginning of 2018, I started dialysis, but it was clear to everyone involved that a transplant was my only option.

According to medical protocol, I wasn’t allowed to raise the issue of a transplant until 2 years after surgery, so I didn’t visit the transplant office until June 2018 … at the very time that Nahva’s plans collapsed, making her available to become my donor. It was perfect timing!

Meanwhile, Chaya Lipschutz, Nahva’s kidney mentor in New York, was thrilled, and sent me her good wishes.

Stringent testing for genetic compatibility followed. Ten days later, I received the call. Nahva and I were given the go-ahead.

At the Heavenly Court

Nahva: Living organ transplants in Israel are strictly monitored; the medical, ethical and practical considerations have to be carefully weighed before the doctors are prepared to cut into a healthy body to save a sick one.

Because Roman and I were not related, we had to appear in front of a State Commission before the transplant could proceed. Naturally, I was worried. I knew I would have to convince the assemblage of largely secular medical and legal professionals that my motives were for the sake of Heaven, and that wasn’t going to be easy.

The hearing was set for June 17, 2018 (4 Tammuz). I made a mental note that this was the day after the anniversary of the Rebbe’s passing.

The commissioners proved to be even more skeptical than I envisaged. Was I being offered money? Was I depressed or suicidal? Was I prepared to risk the dangers (actually very small) that a transplant entailed?

After 20 long minutes, some of the team started to yawn. Not the head, however; he was charging ahead, full force, ready to trip me up with the one piece of ammunition that threatened to throw me off my feet.

“What would the Lubavitcher Rebbe say if you asked him whether you should do the transplant?”

The Rebbe? What made him mention the Rebbe? He couldn’t have known about my ties to the Rebbe. Had he perhaps heard about him the day before, when the anniversary of his passing was being observed?

I sensed that my interrogator was waiting for me to slip. Would I waver and say I didn’t know how the Rebbe would answer? And if I wasn’t sure about the Rebbe, how could I be sure about myself?

There was no time to hesitate. I held my head high and let the words tumble out: “I have no doubt that my Rebbe would want me to do it, and he would give me his blessing.”

At that moment, I knew I’d passed the test.

Roman: I didn’t see Nahva as she left the room; in fact, I didn’t meet her until after the transplant and knew practically nothing about her.

The commissioners peppered me with questions for maybe a half-an-hour. I was a sick man and felt I was about to collapse, but they had no intention of giving-up.

Why had I been offered a kidney so quickly? Why did I deserve one when other people were waiting for months, even years? Why me?

Why me? I was a secular Jew addressing other secular Jews, but my intuition told me there could be only one answer - “Maybe it was my Rebbe who helped me.”

With that, I took out the card from my wallet and showed them his photo.

As had been predicted years before, the time would come when I would need the Rebbe’s help and he would be there to protect me.

The room went deathly quiet; it seemed as if all 15 panelists were frozen on the spot. A social worker began to cry. No one tried to deny that something far larger than themselves had taken place, and no one tried to explain it.

As the air slowly began to thaw, a stony-faced doctor took my hand and gave me a broad smile; others followed. I had also passed the test and the transplant was scheduled for two weeks hence.

It wasn’t until Nahva and I later compared notes on our respective hearings that I was able to fully appreciate the magnitude of this second miracle that had occurred.

The Beginning of a New Story

Emma Grenshspon: The rest of the story is really the beginning of a new one. When I first saw the young, vibrant woman who entered my husband’s hospital room – less than 24 hours after surgery – I was overcome with gratitude. Instinctively, I knew that she was going to be part of our lives.

And I wasn’t wrong! When I noticed my husband constantly pacing the house not long after the transplant, I decided to mention it to Nahva to get her reaction.

“I do the same,” she laughed heartily. “I find it hard to sit down. Remember, we share kidneys. He must have picked it up from me!”

Nahva often quips that Roman is her “twin.” They seem to have more than their kidneys in common, as shown by the fact that on the first anniversary of the transplant, Roman said he wanted to go to the Kotel to give thanks for his healthy new kidney. (Remember we’re not “Kotel people,” but I happily went along). Imagine our surprise –and delight – when we literally bumped into Nahva, who’d come to the Kotel because it was the beginning of a new month. We’d really looked forward to seeing her again and now we’d come on the same day at the same time to such a holy place. My husband duly chalked it up to another miracle.

And Yet Another …

Roman: Life continued happily in the two years that followed. I went back to work. I became a grandfather. Twice! Everything was good.

And then, on July 12, 2021, I suddenly became very, very ill. My temperature soared and the fever continued without respite for several days, during which time I could neither eat nor drink.

With no more fight left in me, I agreed to go to the hospital on Friday afternoon. It was abundantly clear that I was a cause for great concern … the faces of the doctors and the nurses said it all.

Morbid thoughts coursed through my mind. Was this to be the end of my stay on this earth? Would the life-giving treasure I had acquired only three years earlier now go to waste? What would be with Emma? My children? My grandchildren?

I needed help!

And then, out of nowhere I heard someone pleading, “Rebbe, Rebbe, help me” and was startled to realize that these words had come from within me! Apart from that one time at my pre-transplant hearing, I had never called upon a spiritual force to help me. And now, without consciously willing it, I had again called on the Rebbe once again.

At 11am the next day, Shabbat, July 17, my fever broke and I asked for something to eat.

Two days later, I was discharged from the hospital. The crisis was over – I had been blessed with another miracle!

Nahva: Roman called me immediately after he got home; he couldn’t wait to tell me his story, one that eerily dovetailed with the story I had been waiting to tell him.

“Roman, Roman, this was an even bigger miracle than you think,” I gasped breathlessly.

And with that, I began to describe what had taken place in my home at the very time that Roman’s life was in jeopardy. Tears rolled down my cheeks and my voice broke with emotion as I spoke about the tremendous sense of unease I was feeling after our Friday night meal had ended, although nothing seemed to be amiss. With no other choice, I did what Jews have done throughout our history in times of peril. I took a Tehillim (Book of Psalms) and said it from cover to cover until the wee hours.

The next day his fever broke! My inner consciousness had known that Roman was in danger, inviting me to step in and do my part in securing his salvation. Our two kidneys share one Source.

Coming of Age

Nahva: Even though Roman feels indebted to me, and Jewish observance is very important to me, I have never tried to take advantage of his vulnerability. Yes, I wish I could share with him my love of Torah – and the same applies to every Jew, but as the full-time assistant of Rabbi Yitzchok Fanger, a renowned Torah teacher and inspirational lecturer in Israel, I know from experience that you can’t force people to be religious.

Emma lit candles every erev Shabbat since the transplant, and Roman donned tefillin whenever he saw the Chabad mitzvah mobile on Friday afternoons. On the occasions I asked them to pray for a person in need, they willingly did so. That was what they were comfortable with, and that was fine with me.

This time, however, I felt there was good reason for Roman to take on an extra mitzvah; he had received a new lease on life and it was an opportune time to acknowledge his gratitude.

We settled on a bar mitzvah, as Roman had not had been called to the Torah when he turned 13 back in Ukraine. I would soon find out that he did not even know what a bar mitzvah is … or a Torah scroll … or an aliyah. In fact, he had never been inside a synagogue in his life.

As Roman was too weak to go to the Kotel, we decided to hold the bar mitzvah three days later in the Chabad House near his home. Together with the Chabad rabbi, we made the necessary preparations to make it a momentous celebration.

On the following Thursday, Roman celebrated his bar mitzvah. The date on the Hebrew calendar was 13 Av, 5781, Roman’s 63rd birthday.

For 50 long years, Roman’s neshamah (soul) had yearned to come of age. And now, after overcoming the many long and difficult travails necessary to bring that to fruition, it finally received its due.

Roman: My bar mitzvah was one of the happiest and most meaningful days of my life. I have no words to express my joy in knowing that G‑d, the Rebbe, Nahva and Chaya firmly belong in my life.

I do not know what the future will bring, but the realization that I am not alone will be my guiding principle, every step of the way.

After the transplant, Roman Grenshspon poses with his kidney donor, Nahva Follman.
After the transplant, Roman Grenshspon poses with his kidney donor, Nahva Follman.