'People who had been considering it, donated in his memory'

COVID-19 death of Israeli kidney nonprofit founder spurs record number of donors

Rather than crumble after Rabbi Yeshayahu Heber’s death in April, ultra-Orthodox group Matnat Chaim has facilitated 57 transplants, and looks to expand reach to secular Israelis

Matnat Chaim founder Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu Haber in Jerusalem, September 25, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Matnat Chaim founder Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu Haber in Jerusalem, September 25, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Since co-founder Rabbi Yeshayahu Heber’s untimely death at age 55 of COVID-19 in April, trailblazing kidney donation nonprofit Matnat Chaim has facilitated 57 transplants — its highest number ever in such a short period.

“People who had been considering donating, did it in his memory,” said Heber’s widow and the organization’s other co-founder, Rachel Heber.

Based in Jerusalem, Matnat Chaim, Hebrew for “Gift of Life,” has facilitated 854 live kidney donations since its founding in February 2009. In 2018, the BioMed Central (BMC) Nephrology Medical Journal called Matnat Chaim “a major force for arranging living donor kidney transplantation, mainly by facilitating altruistic living unrelated donor transplantation.”

“We started Matnat Chaim together and raised it like a child,” Heber said. “My husband never left a will, but I know he wanted me to continue on his vision of shortening waiting lists for those needing transplants and finding more donors. He wanted kidney health awareness to be raised in broader Israeli society — not just in the religious sector.”

In fact, just hours after Heber’s funeral, kidney donor Keren Ben-Shushan from Jerusalem’s Har Homa neighborhood called the organization to begin the donation process, Heber said. Ben-Shushan had been thinking about making the contribution for a year and a half when the news of Heber’s death spurred her to pick up the phone. She recently completed her kidney donation at Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital.

Matnat Chaim cofounder Rachel Heber with Keren Ben-Shushan, the first kidney donor following Yeshayahu Heber’s death. (Courtesy/Chaim Meiersdorf)

Matnat Chaim works together with hospitals and acts as a support system for donors and recipients. The organization coordinates kidney donations to patients in all five kidney transplant centers in Israel.

“The success of an Israel community organization in the promotion of kidney transplantation may serve as a model for other religious and non-religious communities worldwide,” the Nephrology Medical Journal article said.

Among other services, Matnat Chaim provides a framework prior to and after donations, helping with paperwork, running a buddy system with past donors, advising with regard to government rights, and breaking down medical terminology for patients throughout the transplant process.

“Until a decade ago, those who needed a transplant generally had to turn to foreign countries where organ trafficking is common,” said Prof. Eitan Mor, chairman of the Transplantation Department at Sheba Tel Hashomer Medical Center. “Matnat Chaim’s activities have all but eliminated this phenomenon and have so far produced over 850 transplants — a success rate unequaled in the rest of the world.”

Mor told The Times of Israel that altruistic donation is rare in Western countries, accounting for between just 1 and 10 percent of kidney transplants from living donors. The organization also helped many patients who waited on dialysis for over a decade because of antibodies in their system by allowing paired donations, Mor said.

Cropped detail of a group photo showing a portion of Matnat Chaim’s 2019 kidney donors. (Courtesy/Chaim Meiersdorf)

Since Matnat Chaim’s foundation just over a decade ago, there have been 2,975 kidney transplants performed in Israel, according to the National Transplant Center. In addition to the 57 transplants performed under the organization’s auspices since Heber’s death, another 37 were performed between January and April of 2020, giving Matnat Chaim a year-to-date total of 94.

Dr. Walter Wasser, a nephrologist at Haifa’s Rambam Hospital and the ultra-Orthodox Mayanei HaYeshua Medical Center in Bnei Brak, said there is no other organization like Matnat Chaim in Israel.

The last thing a kidney patient wants to do is campaign for a kidney. Hospitals won’t do this for them; Matnat Chaim will

“Unlike in hospitals where I work, Matnat Chaim works in the community, too — they raise awareness of kidney donations and actively recruit donors, who donate altruistically,” Wasser said. “The last thing a kidney patient wants to do is campaign for a kidney. Hospitals won’t do this for them; Matnat Chaim will.”

“The facts speak for themselves. There are roughly 7,000 dialysis patients in Israel and Matnat Chaim have carried out over 850 transplants. If you assume approximately 15-20% of the population of dialysis patients will be eligible for transplants, the trajectory is to eliminate waiting lists — which would be a tremendous achievement for them,” Wasser said.

Undated photo of Matnat Chaim kidney donors participating in the Jerusalem Marathon. (Courtesy/Chaim Meiersdorf)

Judy Singer, a vice president at Matnat Chaim, said that despite Heber’s death the organization continues to function at full capacity, serving both the medical field specifically, and Israeli society in general. Since the co-founder’s death there has been a 300% increase in interest in beginning the donation process, she said.

“We have had to hire new service staff to answer the telephones. We also had a fundraising campaign which raised over NIS 1 million [$293,759],” said Singer.

“Israel has become the number one country in altruistic kidney transplants — where you donate to someone you don’t know,” Singer said. “Matnat Chaim’s community-based altruistic model is particularly applicable to Israel, where there is a ‘one big family’ feeling, and can also help build bridges in Israeli society, breaking down the barriers between denominations and religions.”

Matnat Chaim cofounders Yeshayahu Heber, left, and Rachel Heber in this undated photo. (Courtesy)

Singer also said the organization provides economic value to the Israeli government by preserving lives for a relatively small amount of money.

“Every kidney donation saves NIS 300,000 [$88,127] every year. If it lasts for 10 or 20 years, that is NIS 3 million [$881,277]. Matnat Chaim is also a high-impact investment proposition for philanthropists — we are a charity that saves most lives per dollar of fundraising,” Singer said.

Indeed, since Heber’s death, Matnat Chaim has actually expanded its projects, even during the COVID-19 health crisis.

One new project monitors the health of past kidney donors, who are supposed to have a blood test every year. Matnat Chaim has started ensuring donors go over their results properly and take care of their health after donating.

Another initiative in development will see the organization engage more with secular, Arab, and minority communities in Israel. Only 40 of Matnat Chaim’s 854 kidney donors have been secular.

Singer said the problem is in communication. “It’s not that they don’t want to donate — they don’t know about us. It’s our fault, we didn’t use the media enough.”

In adapting to COVID-19, the organization has taken to Zoom, hosting two meetings for people in the middle of the donation process, along with a medical panel which attracted over 200 people. They also started a support group on the WhatsApp messaging platform for kidney recipients, who are considered to be at higher risk from the coronavirus.

Most kidney donors report feeling a great deal of satisfaction from the experience of saving a life, and often believe that they received more from their kidney donation than they gave. Despite the shock of Heber’s tragic death and COVID-19, Matnat Chaim is poised to continue his legacy of saving lives.

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