The entire world has been struggling over the past few months to understand the horrors we’ve seen. In Israel, France and San Bernadino, the savage killing of innocent people is beyond comprehension. Many of us in Jewish communal leadership begin each day searching for something positive to share. Something that gives us hope for a better future. Something that enables us to save and cherish life. And we are so lucky that we have so many direct examples of this right in our own sacred texts.
In contrast to all we’ve seen, Judaism teaches us to cherish human life.
Kol ha’mikayem nefesh achat ma’aleim a’lav ki’elu kiyem olam maleh
“Whoever saves a single life it is as if s/he has saved an entire world (Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 4:9).
This most important tenet of our faith is incredibly powerful, and I often feel that we at JFNA live by this principle in all the work we do. Saving lives is what we do every single day, in all parts of the world.
But a few weeks ago, my understanding of this principle took on new meaning. My 24-year-old son, Harvey, was a stem cell donor match for a 40-year-old woman with cancer. He had signed up for the donor registry by doing a cheek swab a few years ago when he was a student at Yeshiva University. He went through a week of medical preparation with shots (which made him feel a little sick) and then the six-hour blood transfusion procedure to collect his stem cells (which was exhausting and again made him feel a little sick).
And the very next day, this young woman had her stem cell transplant. He doesn’t know who she is or where she lives. But when all was said and done, he told me with tears in his eyes, the minimal discomfort he felt for a few days was nothing compared to how he felt saving a life.
I felt so proud that I did a really tacky thing. I posted his picture on Facebook (with his permission!) at the hospital during the stem cell procedure. As soon as I posted it, I got cold feet and was going to take it down. But at that very second I began to get “likes.” In fact, I got hundreds and hundreds of “likes.”
And I got something else totally unexpected.
I got stories and private notes. Someone told me that her mother had passed away waiting for a stem cell transplant and how happy her family would have been to have had someone like Harvey. Someone told me that her sister-in-law passed away waiting for a match and asked me to make sure I thanked Harvey on her family’s behalf for being a donor. Someone told me he had been a stem cell donor for the same person twice. It worked (thank G-d) the second time.
And dozens (literally dozens) of women (most from NWP) messaged me to say that they, too, were signed up to be stem cell donors but were never matched. Many remembered the Jewish event that they were at when they signed up. More than one person said they were jealous. They’d been waiting years to save a life and never got the call.
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the women who devote their lives to making the world a better place would take on this incredible mitzvah as well. I am humbled by the responses. And most importantly, I found inspiration from my son Harvey during these past few weeks of terrorism, violence and despair.
So if there is a light during these dark days, remember how blessed are we to be Jewish - the community that lives by our most treasured principle “Kol ha’mikayem nefesh achat ma’aleim a’lav ki’elu kiyem olam male”—“Whoever saves a single life it is as if s/he has saved an entire world.”
May we all continue to find meaning and light in the holy work we do. I encourage everyone to think about inviting the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation to your next event. Maybe it could become a regular part of Super Sunday! It only takes a cheek swab to sign up for the registry, and our country desperately needs more donors in the database. Remember, there are many people waiting for a transplant, and we miraculously have the power to save their lives.
NWP Board, Immediate Past Chair