The Gift of Life: A Rabbi’s Personal High Holy Day Reflection
By Rabbi Lester Bronstein
As I sit at my desk preparing my sermons for the upcoming high holy days, I am accompanied by my niece, Kate Bronstein. While her photo always smiles back at me, it also challenges me. How so? Because in the photo that sits on my desk Kate was nineteen, and shortly after that picture was taken, she was fatally injured in a traffic accident.
Five excruciating days passed in the neuro-ICU unit before she was declared dead. In the final minutes before the declaration, my brother Dave and his wife (Kate’s parents) made the decision to donate her organs. In that transformative moment, our family’s mood went from despair to hope.
Not hope that she could miraculously survive, of course, but hope of another sort. For in that moment it became clear that the organs of this healthy, athletic young woman would give a second chance to any number of people who were themselves facing death.
Recipients were quickly located. The family of a grandmother on her death bed receiving last rites from her priest were suddenly told at that moment that Grandma would receive a new liver. Two other persons, both facing renal failure, became recipients of Kate’s young kidneys. Others received life-saving grafts from elsewhere in her body.
Two years later, and after my brother had held several successful events in his home to register people for organ donation, we learned the identities of Kate’s organ recipients. More importantly, we were given permission to meet these fortunate individuals.
My brother and his wife threw a party! The recipients and their families gladly accepted the invitation and came. Our extended family was invited as well. I flew to Houston for the occasion, knowing it would be one of the most important events in my own life. My aging mother, who had grieved at her granddaughter’s death, mustered the courage to come.
We met a crew of laughing, rambunctious little children who came with that grandmother and showed us by their vitality what it meant for them to have her in their lives for a few more years. We met a recipient and her husband; a recipient and his grown children. One person declined to come, not out of ingratitude, but out of a sense of intense privacy, and possibly from worry that the emotion of the encounter would be overwhelming.
None of these people knew one another beforehand, and we certainly could not have known them in any way other than the fact that we were all human beings brought together by fate, but also by science and a spirit of communal responsibility.
And lest we forget, we were brought together by Kate, who in her own brief life had always been the kid who went out on a limb to help a helpless classmate, a lonely friend, a confused or forgotten peer. Of all the people I’ve ever met in my life, Kate would surely be the one to campaign for organ donation — for literally extending our physical selves to help others live.
I opened this vignette by telling you that Kate’s photo challenges me. Her daily challenge as she stares back at me on my desk is that I not grow complacent about this cause. Whether she chose it or not, it became her cause, and it gave her — even in death — yet another chance to pick up her fellow human beings and carry them selflessly on her strong, generous back.
Throughout these high holy days we will ask to be inscribed in the ‘Book of Life’; Kate’s photo reminds me that we each have the power to inscribe one another, as well.
Rabbi Lester Bronstein is the Rabbi at Bet Am Shalom Synagogue in White Plains, NY and the immediate past president of the NY Board of Rabbis.
For more information about organ donation and Judaism visit the LiveOnNY website at www.liveonny.org/judaism or contact Rabbi Ari Perl at email@example.com.”