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Former Kidney Transplant Patient Fights Israeli Reluctance to Donate Organs

For four years, Judith Nusbaum struggled with a failing kidney, sometimes fainting from a dangerously low blood count. Reluctantly, she started giving herself renal hormone injections and eventually had to undergo regular dialysis. Tired of the bothersome procedures, she decided to look for a new kidney. But after her doctors said it might take five years to find a suitable transplant, the retiree went online to find [her] own donor.

Within a few months of sending e-mails to everyone she knew, Nusbaum, who moved from New Jersey to Israel in 1973, was contacted by Martin Filla, a 36-year-old Australian who was willing to fly to Israel to donate his kidney. This week, Nusbaum and Filla celebrated the fourth anniversary of the successful transplantation.

"Because of this gift that I received - I call it my Hanukkah miracle - I feel this tremendous need to give back," said Nusbaum, now 71, who spends her free time lecturing about the many complicated legal and religious issue of organ donation in Israel.

"I'm not pushing everyone to give a live organ, but I'm trying to convince people to sign an organ donor card because Israel is one of the lowest countries in the world [in terms of people] agreeing to give their organs after death - I think we're up to 11 percent [of the population] and when I came on the scene it was only about four percent." Most Western countries achieve organ-donor membership of up to 30 percent, according to the U.S.-based Halachic Organ Donor Society.

Donor society officials and Nusbaum - who says some 100 Israelis die each year waiting for an organ transplant, assert that Israel's low donation rate is rooted in a widespread misinterpretation of Jewish law. "People think that you must be buried whole, otherwise you're not going to be resurrected, but that is incorrect," the Rishon Letzion resident says. "Even totally non-religious people, when the time for death comes, say to themselves that they have to be buried whole."

Biblical law indeed forbids needlessly mutilating a body, delaying its burial and deriving benefit from a body, such as selling it for medical research. However, "most rabbis agree that pikuach nefesh, saving a life, is more important than these prohibitions," Nusbaum said.

Yet there remains some opposition to organ donations, mainly from within the Haredi community. The bone of contention is the definition of death. According to the Chief Rabbinate and many other leading Orthodox rabbis, a person dies when his brain-stem ceases to function, even if the heart continues to beat with the help of a ventilator. A minority opinion, however, holds that as long as the heart beats, a person is considered alive and it is forbidden to harvest his or her organs.

"There are some countries where your organs are harvested automatically after you die, unless you have declined previously," Nusbaum explained. Although Israel last year passed a law recognizing brain-stem death and encouraging organ donations, organs of people who haven't signed a donor card are still not allowed to be touched. "It's a shame," she says, "because once you die your organs decay immediately and what good are they in the ground?"

Nusbaum's next lecture about organ donation in Israel will take place this Sunday at 7:00 P.M. at AACI's Tel Aviv Center, 76 Ibn Gvirol Street.
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