When it comes to acts of loving-kindness, plenty of rabbis talk a good game. But Rabbi Ari Sytner has put his entire self into the endeavor.
To the rabbi, though they had met a few days earlier in Montefiore Hospital in New York City, where the surgery was scheduled, the person in the adjoining surgical suite Dec. 19, 2011, was still a virtual stranger. He knew she was a 45-year-old single Israeli mom with three kids and Polycystic Kidney Disease (PKD), which had sapped her strength and kept her increasingly tied to the dialysis machine.
Ronit Havivi had been a teenager when her own mother died of the disease at age 34. Her own prognosis? Not good, unless a donor could be found quickly.
Fast forward five years. Against all odds, in a wedding hall outside Netanya in central Israel Feb. 20, Rabbi Sytner’s voice sang out the blessing under the chuppah (wedding canopy) as Havivi’s daughter, Dana, married her childhood sweetheart Moshe Nawe — an occasion Havivi might easily not have lived to see without the rabbi’s kidney.
That evening, Ronit Havivi took the rabbi around and introduced him to the guests at her daughter’s nuptials. “You’re Ari?” they’d say, with family and friends alike throwing throw their arms around him. “We’ve been wanting to thank you for so long!”
“Come and sit with the family,” Havivi told Sytner. Accordingly, in all the group photos from the night, the rabbi — a slight young man with a huge smile — can be seen as very much a part of the family.
The journey to the operating room had not been a simple one for the native of Monsey, N.Y., who was 34 at the time. His life, as the father of four children with a demanding job as a pulpit rabbi in Charleston, S.C., was already a full one.
But when he read that 100,000 Americans are waiting for kidneys and will likely die within the next 10 years unless they receive one, he asked himself if he’d be willing to do it. His answer: “Maybe I would.”
He knew, however, that the decision could not be his alone. He took his wife to a coffee shop and asked her what she would say about him donating a kidney. “I expected her to tell me I was crazy: a busy rabbi with four little kids, so I was surprised when she said, ‘Why not go through the testing and we’ll decide one step at a time,'” he recalled.
Sytner heard, through a Jewish organization working on making matches for kidney transplants, about a single mom in Israel whose kidneys were rapidly failing due to a genetic disease that had killed her mother. “I wanted to save a Jewish life if I could,” he said. “In the ever-widening circle of tzedakah (charity), responsibility goes from our family to our community, to the Jewish people, to the world at large.”
Initially, the family’s oldest son Reuven, who was 11 at the time, was strongly opposed to his father’s transplant. But when he heard the recipient was a single mom in Israel, he changed his mind. “If you die, Abba (father in Hebrew), we would be so sad, but we would still have Ema (mother). But if that single mom dies, her children would have no parents. They would be orphans. So I think you should do it,” Reuven had said.
“I took his answer to be a divine message giving me the go-ahead,” said the rabbi. “It’s Emunah — faith — which empowers you to do what ordinarily you could not do. You simply ask God to help you, to strengthen you.”
“We know it wasn’t easy for him,” said the kidney recipient’s aunt, Simcha Alone. “He has a family and he’s young, but still he gave of himself. When he sang the blessings under the chuppah we all cried. We know that because of him, Ronit is here to celebrate this day.”
After waiting in the Philippines for eight months for a cadaver kidney that never materialized, Havivi felt the clock ticking. “I knew my only hope was to find a transplant but, having waited so long, I didn’t know how good my chances were,” she said.
Yet Havivi heard through a Jewish transplant organization about a potential donor. During the Purim holiday in 2011, her phone rang with good news: “There’s an American rabbi who might be willing to give you a kidney. Come in for blood tests.”
After nine months of cross-testing and processing, Havivi flew from her home in Petah Tikva to New York with her significant other, Gabriel Kovac, and her daughter. “When I met Ari a few days before the surgery I was speechless,” she recalled. “I just cried and I told him that ‘thank you’ sounded so weak for someone giving you back your life.”
“With the transplant, I was able to have what my mom could not,” added Havivi, who celebrated her “fifth birthday” since the transplant last December. “Suddenly I was off dialysis and feeling well for the first time in years.”
She was feeling so well, in fact, that at age 45 and with renewed strength, Havivi fulfilled her lifelong dream of completing law school. She is now an attorney specializing in labor and family law.
“I’m 50 now and off dialysis, so I can work, be with my kids, have the joy of helping plan my daughter’s wedding and not worry if I’ll survive,” she told JNS.org before the Feb. 20 wedding.
That is also good news for Havivi’s boyfriend. “We had dinner with Ari last night and the guy just radiates goodness,” said Kovac. “I was raised religious and after talking with him a while, it crossed my mind that, had he been a rabbi when I was younger, I would probably still be religious.”
The rabbi said his family has suddenly expanded exponentially.
“Having [Havivi] and her kids at my son’s bar mitzvah here in Israel last year made me realize that she is now and always will be part of my family,” Sytner said. “With us, it’s gone way beyond the kidney. Every Friday I get a call or text from Ronit wishing me ‘Shabbat shalom.'”
“I told her, ‘I’m a man and you’re a woman. I’m American and you’re Israeli. I identify as Orthodox and you don’t. I’m Ashkenazi and you’re Sephardic. But none of that matters. We’re family,'” he continued. “At the wedding, I realized that this mother standing under the chuppah with her daughter has become very dear to me.”
Sytner has also written a book on his experience, “The Kidney Donor’s Journey: 100 Questions I Asked Before Donating My Kidney.” He also blogs about the subject at akidneydonor.com.
“I wish [such a book] was around when I was making this decision; it shows how you don’t lose something, you gain something,” Sytner said. “And since I can’t give any more kidneys, encouraging others is one way I can still help save lives.”
Five years after that fateful meeting in adjoining operating rooms, Sytner has both a new job—helping congregations as the director of leadership and community development for Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future — and a new “sister,” Havivi, who insisted on meeting him at Ben Gurion Airport before his flight home following her daughter’s wedding.
“She said that every time we’re together, it’s a simcha (joyous occasion) surrounded by lots of people, and she wanted us to spend some quiet time together,” Sytner said. “I told her that I wouldn’t have missed this wedding for anything. Just think what it would be like if every kidney donor could have this kind of experience.”