Rav Yeshayahu Heber, a principal and teacher in a yeshiva in Yerushalayim, was receiving dialysis for kidney disease when he became very close with a young man named Pinchas who was also waiting for a kidney transplant. After an appropriate donor was found for Rav Heber and he received a transplant, he began his own search for a kidney for Pinchas. Rav Heber did locate a match, but unfortunately, too much time had passed and Pinchas passed away two weeks before his scheduled surgery. Having witnessed up close the physical and emotional suffering of Pinchas and his parents who had already lost their older son in the Lebanon War, Rav Heber was devastated. His pain spurred him to action and within days after Pinchas’s death, he formed an organization called Matnat Chaim.
Matnat Chaim aims to spread awareness of the enormous life-saving mitzvah of kidney donation. It publicizes the fact that donating a kidney causes a minimum amount of discomfort and poses almost no risk to the donor. Matnat Chaim matches potential donors with those in need of transplants and walks both donors and recipients through the process. All kidney donations are done altruistically on a voluntary basis, in most cases to total strangers from all segments of Israeli society. There is no monetary compensation. Donors want to help save lives, and the satisfaction of having done so is their reward. Events have been held in recognition of kidney donors at the Knesset, the President’s residence, and Beilinson Hospital. A Shabbaton for donors was held in Yerushalayim as well.
At the time when Matnat Chaim was founded in 2009, Israel ranked 28th in the world in terms of live kidney donations per capita. Since then, Israel has taken the lead in kidney donation. In 2020, the WHO reported that per capita, Israelis donated more live kidneys than any other country. The efforts of Rav Heber and Matnat Chaim most definitely contributed to this accomplishment. Matnat Chaim arranged two-thirds of the live kidney transplants in the years 2020 and 2021, and in 2021 a record-breaking 200 kidney transplants were performed here in Israel. In a period of just 14 days, 12 kidney and liver transplants took place at Hadassah University Center in Ein Kerem, Jerusalem.
Those who were in contact with Rav Heber - be they donors or recipients - tell of the incredible way he had with people, treating everyone with respect, unlimited patience, and a deep sense of caring. He would search for kidneys with a sense of urgency as if he were the one in need. He would repeatedly answer the same questions as though it were the first time he was asked. When corona hit, Rav Heber cautioned members of the Matnat Chaim “family” who had received transplants to be very careful, as they were very vulnerable to the disease. To everyone’s shock, Rav Heber contracted corona on Erev Pesach and passed away several weeks later at the age of 55. Nobody could believe that a tzadik such as Rav Heber would meet such a fate. He had arranged 800 transplants before his untimely death.
Interestingly enough, while some were concerned that Matnat Chaim would fall apart after Rav Heber’s passing, the organization has only been strengthened. Rav Heber’s wife, Rachel, took over where he left off and has forged ahead with his mission. There was actually a spike in kidney donations just after Rav Heber’s passing. Dr. Aharon Bloch, the husband of Dr. Aliza Bloch, the current mayor of Beit Shemesh, is the nephrologist in Hadassah Hospital in Yerushalayim who treated Rav Heber. On the night he had to announce that Rav Heber passed away, he made the decision to become a kidney donor.
Rav Chaim Soloveichik, son of Rabbi Aharon Soloveichik who was the Rosh Yeshiva of Brisk Yeshiva in Chicago and Rav of Congregation Ohr Shalom in Ramat Beit Shemesh, donated a kidney over ten years ago. His wife, Pircha, had seen a post on the Beit Shemesh community website she runs, that someone was in need of a kidney from a donor with Type-O blood. She forwarded the post to her husband not expecting anything to come of it, but Rav Chaim took it very seriously. It took only a few days of consulting with Rabbanim and researching the medical issues involved, after which Rav Chaim decided to begin preliminary testing. Pircha was supportive of her husband during this time and went with him to visit the young woman who received the transplant after the surgery. During the emotional meeting, the woman explained that healthy people are unable to appreciate what it is to simply drink a cup of water. She said that she didn’t have the words to thank Rav Chaim enough. The woman has kept in touch with the Soloveichiks all these years, and a year after the surgery, Rav Chaim was mesader kiddushin at her wedding.
Rav Chaim kept very quiet about what he was doing while he went through the testing process and surgery. But after the surgery, he decided that it was important to publicize what he did in order to increase awareness and encourage others to do the same. So began a chain of donations in Beit Shemesh, as one donor inspired the next. Today, Beit Shemesh has one of the highest rates of kidney donations in the country. There are even families here with multiple donors. One year after Rav Chaim donated a kidney, Pircha’s sister followed suit. And just last year, Pircha did the same. Over the years, she periodically thought about donating a kidney, but when she received a WhatsApp message requesting that she publicize the need for a kidney on her community list, she thought that the time was right. Maybe she could be the donor in this case. A donor was found for the woman in question shortly after, but Pircha continued the process and donated her kidney to a 67-year-old-widower whose name she only received the Erev Shabbos before the surgery so that she could daven for him.
One person can affect another in countless and often unknown ways. But in the case of a kidney transplant, the link between cause and effect is abundantly clear. One person can literally give the other a matnat chaim, the gift of life.