On Rosh Hashanah this year, Vicki O’Neill Haber stepped out of synagogue services in Denver because her 9-year-old son, Max, needed to take a break. Outside the sanctuary, she saw someone who looked familiar. A woman named Rachel had also left services because she had received a long-awaited call from a hospital, and it was a matter of life and death.

The caller did not have great news: Rachel learned that a compatible organ donor had died, but there were still two people ahead of her who also needed a new kidney. At that moment, Rachel (who asked that her last name not be used for privacy reasons) knew she would likely have to count on another option: a kidney from a living donor. As she started to walk back into services, she heard someone say, “Are you Rachel?”

Vicki, 40, had recognized Rachel, 35, from a posting on Facebook (and happened to see her name tag that synagogue guests were asked to wear). The organization that served as an intermediary to prompt that posting, Kidney Mitzvah, run by Chaya Lipschutz (a self-described “kidney and liver matchmaker”) often uses social media to try and connect donors and recipients.

The various people involved in this story—Vicki, Rachel, Lipschutz and local Chabad Rabbi Mendel Popack—all agreed that the chance meeting between donor and recipient at shul on one of the holiest days of the year represented more than just a simple coincidence. By stepping out of services at the same time, Vicki literally bumped into the woman whose life she would hopefully save.

As Popack, executive director of the Jewish Life Center-Chabad of Stapleton, Colo., who also helped connect the two, put it, “the Talmud says that someone who saves another person’s life, it’s as if they have saved the entire world because each individual is a whole world.”

The Wait for an Organ

Rachel’s world had certainly become challenging in the past four years. About 20 years ago, she was diagnosed with focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, a disease in which scar tissue builds up on the kidney. Her mother had the condition as well.

For 15 years, the Los Angeles native and current resident of a suburb outside Denver had been able to manage the disease by taking blood-pressure medication and seeing a nephrologist every few months. But four years ago, Rachel’s doctors told her that she would likely need to start dialysis and eventually need an organ transplant.

Rachel, an elementary-school music teacher, said “it was pretty rough. I couldn’t work regularly because of the dialysis times, and also being extra tired and often just not feeling well.”

She went from having a salaried job to becoming a substitute teacher. She continued to undergo dialysis treatment and stay on the kidney waiting list. Two possibilities remained: either finding someone who was willing to donate a kidney specifically to her or continuing to wait on the general list. The donor had to have a compatible blood type (Rachel was blood type B, one of the least common), among a number of other requirements.

She says that none of her family members or friends who got tested was a match.

This Facebook posting by Rabbi Mendel and Estee Popack of Stapleton, Colo., captured the attention of potential organ donors and eventually helped link Rachel with Vicki O’Neill Haber.
This Facebook posting by Rabbi Mendel and Estee Popack of Stapleton, Colo., captured the attention of potential organ donors and eventually helped link Rachel with Vicki O’Neill Haber.

A few years ago, Lipschutz, the matchmaker, had put up flyers around Los Angeles about the need for kidney donors. (Healthy individuals have two kidneys, yet need only one to function for normal living.) In 2005, Lipschutz herself had donated a kidney. She said it allowed her to perform a “once-in-a-lifetime mitzvah,” and that if she could do it again, she would. Since she could not, she decided to help others find kidneys and has since made dozens of connections.

After putting up the flyers on poles and in windows, she heard from someone about a Jewish woman in Colorado in need of a kidney. Lipschutz reached out to Rabbi Popack. He and his wife, Estee, then posted the request on their joint Facebook page—and heard from Vicki.

She had gotten to know the couple from attending Shabbat dinners and classes at the Chabad center. She didn’t know Rachel, but saw the posting about “a young Jewish woman from Denver, desperately needing a kidney. If you are blood type B or O, you can save her life!”

Vicki had donated blood before, so she knew she was an O, a universal blood type, and thought: “What are the chances I’ll be a match, so why not?”

As it turned out, she was.

‘This Would Be Her Year’

That day at the synagogue was unusual in more ways than one. Vicki, who also has an 11-year-old son, Isaac, normally attends a different shul. Rachel was also not a member, but had visited the synagogue years before with a friend and decided to go again for the High Holidays.

When Vicki said hello and identified herself, “it was crazy,” recalled Rachel. “It came out of nowhere; I was completely shocked.”

They learned that they were both teachers. Like Rachel, Vicki is also originally from Southern California. On top of that, Vicki discovered that one of her close friends just so happens to be Rachel’s first cousin.

“We cried and we laughed and we hugged,” said Vicki. Later that day, she went to Tashlich—the ritual casting off of one’s sins on the holiday—with the Popacks and told the rabbi about the earlier encounter with Rachel.

“That kind of blew my mind, the Divine personal providence,” he said.

At the start of 2017, Rachel felt like “this would be her year” to get a new kidney, she said. That sentiment came to fruition 10 months later, at the beginning of 5778, the Jewish new year.

On Oct. 16, the women entered the University of Colorado Hospital in the city of Aurora, Colo. By then, their mothers and significant others had connected and become friendly. Related Vicki: “Her mom was crying and thanking me for saving her daughter’s life; my mom was crying with her mom.”

Despite the feel-good moments, the surgery came with its set of challenges. The operation appeared to be a success; the kidney started working instantly, according to Rachel. But twice she had to be readmitted to the hospital because her body started rejecting the new organ and because she got an ensuing infection. A month after surgery, the infection had largely healed.

Even though she remains in recovery mode, Rachel can now eat foods like cheese and ice-cream, which had been off-limits; she has a higher body temperature and no longer feels constantly cold; and she can fall asleep without the help of a sleep aid. She will also be able to travel without having to worry about finding a dialysis clinic and hopes to get back to teaching next fall.

Doctors have told her that the average donated kidney lasts about 10 years. But Rachel is more optimistic: “They say if you take good care of it, I could have it for 20 years or more.”

She is also confident that her friendship with Vicki will last.

“I want to thank her from the bottom of my heart for saving my life,” stated Rachel. “This person completely altered my life in a matter of hours; it is just amazing that she was willing to do that.”

Despite years spent on dialysis and the constant uncertainty about whether she would find a donor, Rachel said the experience with her donor has also strengthened her faith. “All of the things that we had in common, and how we met and that she is friends with my cousin, that’s not a coincidence; it feels like it was meant to be, that G‑d brought us together,” said Rachel.

Six weeks after the surgery, Vicki reports that other than “some muscle twinges here and there,” she feels fine. She is also back teaching in her fifth-grade classroom. She said she would make the same decision “without hesitation.”

“I would tell anyone who is [considering or] doing it that it is way less scary than they might think,” she said. “Really, it was one week of my life, and I gave someone 10 years of their life back. So it feels like a pretty good trade to me.”