In May 2010, Jacob Lefkowitz received a kidney donation that changed his life. He was on dialysis, going from state to state to get on lists for a donation, but the wait was long – about 10 years in New York alone. But thanks to Renewal, a Brooklyn-based non-profit that acts as a comprehensive resource for kidney donors and potential recipients within the Jewish community, the Manhattan resident received a kidney in just six months. He’s since returned to work and good health.

“This kidney has been marvelous. It’s functioning perfectly,” he said. “It was Renewal that really gave me a renewed life.”

Drawn by the high-profile kidney donations of community leaders such as Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbis Mendy Mathless of Albany and Ephraim Simon of Teaneck, N.J., Jewish men and women of all stripes have been signing on to live organ donation lists in greater numbers. Still, Lefkowitz was initially unsure an organization like Renewal would be interested in helping him, as his and his donor’s backgrounds didn’t exactly line up.

It wasn’t an issue. The pair met 15 minutes before the surgery and they still keep in touch.

Donating is a great act, and to be a person who helps others a great act of humanity, said Lefkowitz. “It’s a wonderful thing, to be able to pull somebody out of all that misery and be able to give them the ability to earn an income again, and to know that they’ll be around to share joy and love with their family and friends.”

Renewal, which sees patients from the United States, Canada, Israel and a handful of other countries, began five years ago and has been involved in more than 115 transplants to date. It focuses on helping people who need kidneys find donors, as well as spreading knowledge in the community about live organ donation.

It is widely permissible in Judaism to donate a kidney to save another person’s life, explained program director Rabbi Menachem Friedman, pointing to the fact that such donation does not fit categorically with post-mortem donations, which are not prevalent in the observant Jewish world.

“When you’re alive and well, you’re allowed to donate an organ,” so long as there’s no undue risk, he said. For those who make the choice, “we’re here to educate and for those that are willing, we’re here to help them. We’re always there for them.”

The organization helps donors financially with loss of wages and any expenses they have due to the donation, sends them to convalesce after the surgery, and supports them through the preparation, process and recovery. It is funded by donations from the community and works closely with hospitals.

Donors come from all walks of life. For example, a mother of nine from Brooklyn recently donated a kidney to a 50-year-old city planner from Elizabeth, N.J. She went home two days afterwards, while the recipient returned home within the week.

“And he has no idea who she is. It’s so beautiful,” said Friedman.

Transplants take place about every two or three weeks, with people constantly being tested to see if they match.

Kidney donor Rabbi Boruch Wolf helps recipient Leonard Burger don the Jewish prayer boxes known as tefillin.
Kidney donor Rabbi Boruch Wolf helps recipient Leonard Burger don the Jewish prayer boxes known as tefillin.

Renewal holds donor drives, educational events and advertises in various publications, and just opened a Facebook page where Friedman plans to post stories of people who need kidneys and people who have donated.

Still, donating a kidney is not for everybody, cautioned Friedman. “We don’t push people to donate. No one can say that we convinced them to donate. People call us because they see an opportunity to make a difference.”

The organization also has a program in partnership with the National Kidney Registry, which allows participants to donate a kidney and have a peer receive one through the registry, because even if the two themselves don’t match each other.

The goal is to reach the point where no one has to wait more than six months for a kidney transplant.

“We hope that people will donate kidneys and more and more people call us,” said Friedman. “It’s becoming more and more acceptable. Now people look at them as heroes.”

Chaya Devorah Shuchat, who herself donated a kidney two years ago, has volunteered to keep women staying overnight after the surgery company and also speaks at kidney drives for Renewal.

“They’re an amazing organization. They walk you through the whole thing,” she said. “They call after surgery and they keep trying to make sure you’re comfortable and you’re well. From beginning to end, they’re there.”

Rabbi Boruch Wolf gave a kidney to the first person on the list of potential recipients, without consideration for whether the recipient had any resemblance to his own Jewish experience.

That said, he recalls putting the Jewish prayer boxes known as tefillin on with his recipient right before the surgery on Dec. 31, 2009, and also the next morning before he left the hospital. They still keep in touch.

“I have no regrets,” he said. “And [other donors] probably won’t, either.”