Above: Congregation Beth Jacob members Jonathan Levin and Jennifer Green now are connected by the kidney she donated to him.
By Rachel Stein
Two Atlanta families from Congregation Beth Jacob sat beside each other in a surgical waiting room Friday, May 13, hoping and praying while their loved ones underwent kidney surgeries — one having the organ removed, the other having it transplanted.
In a heart-stopping moment leading into the Shabbat of Parshat Kedoshim, the Torah portion delineating paths of holiness, the surgeon emerged from the operating room to share the news.
“It’s producing,” he reported, and tears flowed.
Jonathan Levin had suffered from kidney deterioration for almost nine years.
“That’s typically the limit before they fail,” he said 1½ weeks after his transplant surgery.
When he caught pneumonia in December, he started on a regimen of dialysis to drain the excess fluid from his lungs. He knew that if a live donor couldn’t be found, he would need a cadaver transplant within three to four years. As successful as those are, live donors are optimal, their kidneys more viable.
“Dialysis is like a death sentence,” said Rabbi Josh Sturm, the director of outreach at Renewal, a New York-based organization that helps match kidney recipients to donors. “A person’s quality of life on dialysis is severely compromised. Side effects like nausea and fatigue are common, and often patients are unable to work.”
Levin reached out to friends and the community through Facebook, a Jewish email group in Atlanta and his high school alumni in the search for a kidney. At least one person stepped forward to be tested from his high school class, and numerous people from the community responded.
“People who weren’t even close friends were willing to undergo surgery for me,” he said with wonder in his eyes. “I’m overwhelmed and grateful to my donor, Jennifer Green. I can’t even express the tremendous appreciation I have for her. My gratitude also spreads to the many others in Atlanta and the Beth Jacob community who were willing to help me in my time of need. It’s humbling and overwhelming to see how people cared, even those who only had a casual relationship with me or none at all. They are an amazing group of people.”
Before the surgery, Levin was concerned. “This is a major surgery with many complications. I had had a difficult experience from the peritoneal dialysis port, and my skin around the area was still sore, causing the doctor to spend an extra half-hour cleaning that area out. I was afraid that they would not proceed with the surgery.”
Even though Levin was in good shape, his age, 70, was a concern. “Surgery is not kind the older you get,” he said. “My older brother also endured renal failure and a subsequent kidney transplant. In a remarkable twist of divine intervention, my brother’s stepson became his donor. Despite being aware of my older brother’s transplant recovery, however, I did not know whether mine would be smooth or difficult or how much stress this might give my family.”
With his new, healthy kidney, Levin can enjoy foods he had missed for a long time, such as avocadoes and potatoes. He also was thrilled to have the energy to walk to the end of his block and back within weeks of the surgery.
“The recovery process has been straightforward,” he said, “with far less pain and a lot more energy than I expected. The hand of Hashem has been so clear throughout my journey. That this surgery is possible is nothing short of a miracle. The kidney has functioned miraculously to clean out the poisons from my body. Hashem has helped me every step of the way, answering each of my concerns with positivity.”
He had to delay his return to services at Congregation Beth Jacob because of concerns about being in crowds, but “my optimism and resilience have lifted a big burden off of my family’s shoulders. Instead of worrying about my prognosis, my focus has turned to the extraordinary woman who saved my life.”
Green called herself an “ordinary woman.” Primarily a devoted wife and mother, she owns and manages a boutique providing wigs for women and children who have disease-related hair loss. She also is a sought-after wig stylist, an avid runner and a baker.
When she saw Levin’s online request for a donor, she decided to get tested.
The call soon came from the Piedmont Hospital transplant center: “You are next in line to be tested for Jonathan Levin. Do you want to proceed?”
After consulting with a rabbi, Green agreed to go through more extensive testing, though she was unfamiliar with the process and was not ready to commit to a donation.
“Life is short, and I pondered the incredible opportunity coming my way. This was a chance to do something meaningful, a unique opportunity. But it was a process,” she said. “I needed to make sure this decision would work for me and my family and wanted to examine it from every angle. One major question was whether I would have any limitations, even though I was told I would be back to myself after the recovery period. Did having one kidney mean I would have to scale back on what I was doing before?”
She said Renewal served as a support system while she learned more and weighed her options. “They hooked me up with other donors so I could hear their stories and stayed at my side the entire time, up to and including my hospital stay. They were a tremendous source of support and encouragement, even flying someone down to be with me during my surgery.”
Green didn’t think about the risks constantly but had her moments, especially in the transplant center. “I never experienced any surgical procedure other than the removal of my wisdom teeth. Surgery, pain and general anesthesia were daunting prospects. And since I had lived my whole life with two kidneys, I never thought too much about it. Now I found myself hopeful and prayerful that one kidney would sustain me for the rest of my life.”
One comment she heard had an impact: “Hashem gave us two kidneys, one to keep and one to give away.”
She was told she would have to avoid ibuprofen and anti-inflammatory medications, which were her go-to over-the-counter remedies when needed, but other donors reassured her that other medications were effective replacements. “The more I learned, the more it became solidified for me that this was a choice I wanted to make.”
Leaning forward, Green added: “This whole journey has helped me grow in my relationship to Hashem. When you start looking, you see a lot.”
As part of her preparation for the donation, Green had a medical checkup, and her doctor found something that required further examination. A stressful month of medical testing ensued, putting the transplant on hold.
“This was frightening and disappointing,” she said. “I had to keep reminding myself that Hashem is in charge, there must be a reason, and the inevitable outcome would ultimately be good.”
When she got medical clearance to proceed, she was more determined than ever to donate a kidney.
A week before the surgery, Levin was told the identity of his donor, and he and his wife called Green to express their heartfelt thanks and wish her luck.
“You might wake up from surgery with an uncontrollable desire to run,” she joked.
Jonathan laughed, but didn’t foresee that happening.
Green wanted to be sure her hair stayed covered during the operation. Right before the surgery, a nurse appeared who said she was raised an Orthodox Jew and would make sure Green stayed covered.
“That was the first and last time I saw that nurse,” Green said. “Talk about the hand of Hashem.”
When she woke up from the surgery, she couldn’t wait to hear how things had gone for Levin.
“You have a beautiful kidney,” the surgeon told her.
Rabbi Ilan Feldman of Congregation Beth Jacob addressed the community on that momentous Shabbat of Parshat Kedoshim, Atlanta’s Shabbos of renewal.
“That’s how to do the mitzvah of veahavta lereiyacha komocha,” or loving your friend like yourself, he said, his voice choked with emotion. “Having such an event, with donor and recipient in the same congregation, helped us realize how deeply connected we are to each other and how far we would go for each other.”