Lea Hanan’s only regret is that she couldn’t give both kidneys to her father. The Renton resident, an assistant kindergarten teacher at Seattle Hebrew Academy on Capitol Hill, exudes ebullience when she talks about her dad, Albert Behar. That enthusiasm extends to the life-saving gift she gave her dad nine years ago: one of her kidneys. “If I could do it again,” says Hanan, “I would do it tomorrow.”
After Behar, then in his early 70s, learned at a routine checkup that he was suffering from kidney failure, Hanan found she was a perfect match to be a donor. Making the decision to have the surgery was easy. “My brother and I argued over who could be tested,” she says. “We each wanted to be the one to give back to him.”
But first, she had to lose 40 pounds. “I went to the gym every day, exercised, and knew that if I stayed focused, I could do it,” she says.
And she did. The kidney transplant, which took place in June of 2010, went off without a hitch. “My father and I had a picture-perfect experience,” says Hanan. Each year, they celebrate their “kidney-versary” with an ambitious activity. They’ve gone zip-lining and inner-tubing. It’s always a surprise, and Hanan is already planning their next adventure for this June.
Their story, Seattle’s Rabbi Moshe Kletenik says, is a “beautiful one with a wonderful ending.” Donating an organ as a live donor is the highest level of hesed, says Kletenik, who is an expert on Jewish medical ethics. “It is saving a life. What Lea did was an act of love.”
Finding a match isn’t always easy, though. Hanan’s cousin, Cindy Meyer, also needs a new kidney but has been unable to find a match. “Cindy has had 70 rejections so far,” Hanan says. March is National Kidney Month — an optimal time, she says, for others to think about becoming a kidney donor.
Jewish law gets complicated around organ donation, but live kidney donation is permitted, if not encouraged, by many halachic experts. Yet making the choice to donate is not one to take lightly.
In 2012, Rabbi Ari Sytner, a New Jersey social worker who trains Jewish leaders at Yeshiva University, donated a kidney to a stranger. He chronicles his experience in his book, The Kidney Donor’s Journey: 100 Questions I Asked Before Donating My Kidney.
Sytner’s journey began while teaching a medical ethics class. Donating an organ, he told his class, is an act of kindness, the very meaning of tikkun olam. But he wondered: Could he perform that mitzvah? Could he help someone who might be dying?
After soul-searching conversations with his wife, Chana, Sytner went through the testing process, connected with a transplant center, then found Ronit Havivi. A single mother of three living in Israel, she was in desperate need of a kidney.
His four children reacted with tears. “At first they pleaded, ‘please don’t do it,’” he says. But after learning that a single mother would die without a transplant, they supported the decision.
The transplant was transformative for both donor and recipient. Havivi, now in excellent health, reaches out to Sytner each week to wish him a Shabbat shalom. And Sytner views life through a new lens. “I see myself as a vehicle for kindness,” he says. “There are endless needs in the world. Our responsibility is to not look away.”
For Hanan, there was nothing better than giving back to a father who has given so much to her and her family. “My dad thanks me every day,” she says. “And he always assures me, ‘I’m taking care of your kidney, sweetie.’”