Rabbi Donates Kidney To Save A Stranger's Life

He gave new meaning to the words 'Love thy neighbor.'

For most people, "donating" means giving money or time or goods. But for Rav Shmuly Yanklowitz, 33, a modern Orthodox rabbi based in Arizona, it meant giving a kidney to a complete stranger. The recipient of this gift was Yossi Azran, an Israeli who spent 15 years of his life on dialysis. 

"I can't believe there are people like this … The truth is, I'd started losing hope," Azran told a Hebrew newspaper about Yanklowitz's generosity. 

Yanklowitz — a father of two and the founder of Uri L'Tzedek, an Orthodox nonprofit committed to social justice work — spoke to A Plus while still recovering about living up to his (quite lofty) ideals and donating a kidney to Azran.

When did you first realize that you could donate a kidney to Yossi Azran?

I did not donate because of him. I decided to donate. I decided it was my responsibility to give somebody life. When I reached out for the matches, the only criteria I gave was that I wanted somebody young and he was the first person that was suggested to me. I could have rejected him and had lots of other options but I thought he was a very worthy person.

What went into making the decision to donate a kidney?

I feel that I've been blessed with more than I deserve in my life. I have a wonderful family, a wonderful career as a rabbi. I have good health. So many blessings. I felt that I needed to find more intense ways to give back to people who were suffering. I came to the conclusion that even though there were risks of pain and long-term risks and recovery, that one kidney inside me, God has placed there for another person. I feel that our primary responsibility in this world is to give whatever we can. We all have different ways to give. I had been thinking about this issue for about a decade and only about a month or two ago did it really kick in, how serious the opportunity was, that somebody would die if I did not choose to give. I felt called to respond to that.

What was your family's reaction? What are their thoughts about this decision?

My family shared those deep concerns for me doing it. They were very aware that there were serious risks. They didn't want me to experience that pain. But they also stood by my side. They knew I was very thorough in my research and in my deliberations, so I'm really very grateful, in particular to my wife, who has not left my side this whole time. That's been very challenging especially since we have two little babies.

What were some of the risks that came up in your research into donating a kidney?

The general stats is that 3 out of 10,000 die in the surgery. Also, that, of course, if whatever develops, any type of kidney disease one is at greater risk. And it's not totally clear yet among the researchers if this puts one at greater risk for other things. I studied all the reports. There are risks. I felt that it was still my responsibility. It wasn't totally clear that I would have any problems but it was totally clear that somebody else would die.

It felt strange to be a healthy person and walk into the hospital and place myself on the operating table for a surgery when I was totally healthy.

Yanklowitz giving a "thumbs up" as he's being wheeled into the operating room for his kidney removal.
Yanklowitz giving a "thumbs up" as he's being wheeled into the operating room for his kidney removal. Courtesy of Rav Shmuly Yanklowitz

Had you spoken to Yossi Azran before you made the decision to give him your kidney?

No. The first time we met was a few minutes before the surgery. We both broke down and we were hugging and sobbing, and I was giving him blessings. It was a very emotional meeting.

How is Yossi doing?

Thank God, his body received my kidney well. Sometimes the body does not receive it well and they have to take it out. He received it well and he's coming back to life. He was on dialysis for 15 years and was basically at the end of his life. In addition to his body recovering so quickly, which is miraculous, he's starting to dream again about what he wants to do with his life.

How did you prepare yourself spiritually and emotionally to undergo the surgery?

It was very difficult. I felt a lot of fear and anxiety. I learned some new meditation techniques. I really studied a lot and prayed a lot. I found that it was a real test for me, a real challenge for me to try to come closer to God in feeling that presence because there was a lot of time of solitude and isolation, laying upon the operation table for awhile before they put me out, just feeling like I needed to bring my consciousness to a new place. So I've been blessed with a lot of teachers, family and friends who have supported [me] but in the end, I really needed to look above and look within to garner strength and the courage to move forward.

Was there ever a moment when you thought you would back out and not donate your kidney?

No. There was never a moment like that even when I was in the most difficult of panic. I kept reminding myself that I really believe in the verse in the Bible, "Don't stand on the blood of your fellow." I really believe that that trumps any concern that I had. From the beginning, as soon as I decided, the imperative for me was clear. I never looked back.

Yanklowitz rising to pray for the first time, post-organ removal.
Yanklowitz rising to pray for the first time, post-organ removal. Courtesy of Rav Shmuly Yanklowitz

What do you hope people who hear about your story take away from your experience?

Donating a kidney is probably not for everyone, but I hope that everyone will just continue to feel enormous gratitude for how much they have in their lives and translate that gratitude into opportunities to serve and give back wherever they feel called. I think that the opportunities to bring light into the world and expel darkness are enormous and they're everywhere. We're all trying to learn together how to actualize our short lives in that way. I just give a blessing to anyone else who is on that journey.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Cover Photo: Courtesy of Rav Shmuly Yanklowitz

H/T Times of Israel