I signed up for Birthright Israel skeptically, as I have never been a terrific fan of activities that are underscored by a similar ethno-religious-cultural background. In other words, I am Jewish but being Jewish was never a priority nor was it a part of my conscientious life. I doubted a Birthright Israel trip would alter that fact in any way.
However, via a coincidence of genetics, it did. Birthright Israel was a life-changing experience for me. Years after my trip took place, the experience continues to have a profound impact on me.
In October, I met Etty at a Birthright Israel conference in Tel Aviv, to whom I donated stem cells three years ago. Etty is an Israeli mother of three, lives in Tel Aviv and is both a doctor and a lawyer. She is brilliant, kind and vivacious. And as much as my donation was an antidote to her leukemia, her warmth and spirit surely contributed just as much to her battle with cancer.
Here’s how this story begins: I was matched with Etty through a tremendous organization called Gift of Life - a bone marrow registry with the foresight to recognize that thousands of Jewish young adults on organized tours of Israel is a terrific opportunity to register potential donors. They entered into a brilliant partnership with Birthright Israel to get their volunteers on buses to collect genetic samples. Through this collaboration, 1,357 Birthright Israel participants have been matched with those in need and 189 transplants from Birthright Israel alumni have taken place.
It was on my Birthright Israel trip in 2007 when I registered as a donor. Honestly, registering was so fast and easy I don’t quite remember doing it. It involves filling out a brief medical questionnaire and swabbing the inside of your cheek.
Then, three and a half years ago - four years after I registered - a representative from Gift of Life called to inform me I had matched with a leukemia patient and to ask if I would be willing to contribute either bone marrow or stem cells, depending on what was needed.
Without question, I was willing to and a few months later I did. A stem cell transplant, while somewhat easy for the donor, is a terrifying and life threatening procedure for the recipient. Essentially, doctors must eliminate your ability to create blood and replace blood-making stem cells with those of the donor. Success is not a guarantee.
I cannot imagine the fear Etty and her family experienced during this process. When the stakes are this high, the strength of the genetic match is determines the outcome. By expanding the registry, Gift of Life is able to find the best, most similar matches to increase the odds of a successful transplant.
Tzedakah is a word commonly used to describe “charity”; I’ve always associated it with spare change cans strewn about available open surfaces in temples and Jewish Community Centers. I recently learned the concept as we know it today originated in Eastern European shtetls to describe the complex social paradigm created by Jews to cope with hundreds of years of severe poverty and tremendous external pressure.
In a way, my stem cell donation is a new and modern take on tzedakah. Like many facets of contemporary Jewish life, this act of modern tzedakah is both a product of societal advancements while also a reminder of rich and shared heritage that has developed over thousands of years.
Only in the 21st century could a modern movement whose goal is to connect Jewish young adults globally to Israel have paired with an organization whose goal is to database genetic samples. Only in the 21st century, can scientific technology be used to determine if a stem cell transplant would be effective. Only in the 21st century, can a Detroit-born New York resident of Eastern European Jewish descent travel to suburban Virginia to contribute stem cells - while watching the animated film Frozen - so that a courier can then go to an airport with said genetic material and fly to Tel Aviv.
And at the same time, acts of tzedakah have been the backbone of Jewish heritage for thousands of years. I view my donation, facilitated in no small part by the partnership between Gift of Life and Birthright Israel, as the evolution of tzedakah.
The gravity of my stem cell donation didn’t really hit me until a few months ago when I met Etty. It was immense and overwhelming. Thanks to Birthright Israel and Gift of Life, I will forever be connected to Etty, to Israel, and to my heritage.