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Commemorating MLK, Jr. with the Gift of Life

Commemorating MLK, Jr. with the Gift of Life

When the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed the American Jewish Congress in May 1958, he explained that “our unity is born of our common struggle for centuries, not only to rid ourselves of bondage, but to make oppression of any people by other an impossibility.” Jewish tradition is replete with customs and commandments to protect and lift up the underprivileged and the vulnerable, and the justice we seek is the same justice that Martin Luther King Jr. sought for his children and the rest of society.

Indeed, it is our shared commitment to justice that prompted the Reform Jewish community to adopt Martin Luther King, Jr. Weekend as Shabbat Tzedek. During the recent weekend of commemoration, millions of Americans – including many in our Reform congregations – participated in service projects and attended religious services alongside our African American brothers and sisters. This year, for the first time, four congregations ran interfaith and mixed-race bone marrow swab drives through the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism’s partnership with Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation: Community members from Congregation B’nai Israel (Boca Raton, FL), Congregation Micah (Nashville, TN), Temple Shalom (Chevy Chase, MD), and Shir Ami (Newtown, PA) gathered to participate in the inaugural MLK Weekend Initiative.

Why was running a bone marrow drive on MLK weekend a timely endeavor? 

First, some background: A patient’s best chance of finding a genetic match rests with a potential donor of a similar ethnicity. Pacific Islanders are unlikely to match with Eastern Europeans, and an African American is unlikely to match with an Australian. Unfortunately, many minority communities – including African Americans – remain severely underrepresented in donor registries, resulting in fewer matches and higher fatality rates for potentially survivable diseases. We can help ameliorate this injustice.

Bishop Amos Thomas Griffy, III, whose Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church in Nashville partnered with Congregation Micah for a bone marrow swab drive, said, “A simple act with so much potential for good helps translate our faith into our actions. We are proud to share this opportunity with our congregants to grow the bone marrow registry and combat diseases that threaten our communities."

Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation seeks to expand minority representation in the international bone marrow registry. When the organization began in the early 1990s, Jews had less than a 5% chance of finding a live-saving match. Following more than two decades of work to educate and enroll Jews, today we have greater than a 70% chance of finding a match. Unfortunately, the same is not true for members of Black, Latino, Native American, and Asian communities. The composition of today’s registry gives them less than an 18% chance of finding a match.

The Talmud teaches us that to save a life, it is as if you have saved the world. Through the Reform Jewish community’s work with Gift of Life, we do indeed have the ability to save lives and change our world for the better. In the words of Rabbi Michael Feshbach of Temple Shalom, "Working together to make our lives better is one of the most enduring lessons we can learn from Dr. King.”

Rachael Youra is the partnership coordinator for the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C. She is originally from Baltimore, MD, and previously worked for a health care law firm.

Rachael Youra
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