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This Hanukkah (and Beyond), Give the Gift of Life

This Hanukkah (and Beyond), Give the Gift of Life

Doctor holding a mouth swab

When I received the first phone call, I was confused, to say the least. I’m a potential match? For what? Are you sure? …also, how did you get this number?

The call was from Gift of Life, an incredible organization that works to give people with blood cancers, like leukemia and lymphoma, a second chance at life. Most notably, they match patients in need of stem cell transplants to donors.

Gift of Life was born of an effort by founder Jay Feinberg to find a match after he was diagnosed with leukemia. The result was a massive project to bring European Jews into the registry. Since then, Gift of Life has entered hundreds of thousands of people (you read that right, six digits) into the registry.

Though Gift of Life focuses its efforts in the Jewish community, it is an affiliate of the National Marrow Donor Program, so registering with Gift of Life also submits you into the larger national registry.

But, when I got that phone call, I didn’t know any of this. To be honest, it took until I got back to my dorm room later that day for me to truly believe it was true. The key piece of evidence: a T-shirt from a Hillel Gift of Life drive. If I had the T-shirt, I must have swabbed. And slowly I started to recall an event run by the Hillel in one of the student centers, where I had swabbed the inside of my cheek with a large Q-tip, entering me into the registry.

On that first phone call, I learned that there was a 9-year-old girl who needed a stem cell transplant. I learned that, if I was willing, I could go through the process to see if I could go from being a potential match to being the match. I learned that my stem cells could help save this young girl’s life.

I asked a few more questions, but I immediately knew that the answer was yes. How could it not be? I remembered the lessons from my sixth grade Sunday school classroom about pikuach nefesh – saving a life.

I knew that the obligation to save someone’s life supersedes virtually every other commandment in Jewish tradition.

I knew that if I had the chance to save someone’s life I had to say, “yes.”

A few weeks, a few phone calls, and a few tests later, my contact at Gift of Life told me that I was, in fact, the match. Right after finals, I went to the Dana Farber Cancer Institute for the procedure to extract the stem cells, and now there is a little girl (who is no longer so little) who has a new chance at life.

Right now, we find ourselves in the midst of a holiday that is about renewal and rededication. It’s about heroes and it’s about light. And, of course, it’s also about giving gifts.

While some may classify Hanukkah as a “minor holiday,” don’t let anyone tell you this holiday doesn’t matter. This holiday tells us that when we are surrounded by darkness, we are obligated to bring light. Not only do we light lights, but we spend eight days increasing the light. And not only do we increase light, we share it with all those who find themselves in a place of darkness.

This Hanukkah – and beyond – I hope you will consider giving the most sacred gift: give the gift of life. You can participate in Gift of Life’s "Swab Sameach" campaign:

All that’s needed to find a match is a little bit of DNA. When you’re ready, you’ll fill out a quick form and swab the inside of your cheek with a glorified Q-Tip. As easy as that, you’re in the registry. And who knows, maybe you’ll even get a T-shirt.

The prospect of donating bone marrow can be nerve-wracking, but, speaking as someone who, A) has given, B) has a low tolerance for pain, and C) is no fan of needles, I can tell you with full integrity that I never, not even for a moment, regretted saying yes. I was uncomfortable for a week, but a week’s worth of discomfort is an incredibly small price to pay to have the gift of fulfilling the mitzvah of pikuach nefesh.

With Gift of Life, you have the chance to be a hero. You have the chance to save someone’s life. This isn’t a rabbinic metaphor; this is not symbolic language. You can actually save someone’s life.

Learn more about Gift of Life’s "Swab Sameach" campaign and how you can get involved. 

Rabbi Jason Fenster is the associate rabbi of Congregation BJBE in Deerfield, IL.

Rabbi Jason Fenster

Published: 12/26/2019

Categories: Jewish Life, Learning, Social Justice
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