Sep 11, 2006 — Rabbis, doctors and computer scientists and nearly 400 people from varying backgrounds came to Yeshiva University’s Wilf Campus on Sunday, Sept. 10 to attend “Organ Donation: A Matter of Life and Death,” a conference organized by the student-run Medical Ethics Society and the Center for the Jewish Future.
Adinah Raskas of St. Louis spoke about receiving a donor kidney. Several people in the audience approached Mrs. Raskas after her talk to tell her that they were considering being kidney donors.
“Getting a transplant is unbelievable,” Mrs. Raskas said in her address. “Someone in the community … called me and offered me her kidney. She saved another person’s life, my life. You can’t even imagine what it feels like to be offered a kidney: it’s the highest form of chesed, kindness, a second chance at life.”
Dr. Stuart Greenstein, professor of surgery at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and consulting surgeon in the division of transplantation at Montefiore Medical Center, discussed live organ donation from a medical perspective, noting that 95 percent of the transferred kidneys are still working a year later and that the risks to the donor are minimal.
Rabbi Mordechai Willig reviewed the halakhic issues associated with live organ donation, concluding that it is not a chiyuv (obligation) to donate, but it is a mitzvah (laudatory).
Four breakout sessions allowed attendees to explore different issues associated with organ donation. Dr. Fred Rosner, director of the department of medicine at the Queens Hospital Center and a visiting professor of medicine at Einstein, discussed end of life issues and advanced directives.
Rabbi Dr. Avraham Steinberg, director of the Center for Medical Ethics at Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical School in Jerusalem and physician in pediatric neurology at Shaare Zedek Medical Center, discussed organ trafficking from a halakhic and practical perspective. He pointed out that organs are available for money outside of Western countries and many people travel to foreign countries to find them. He said that to stop the exploitation of poor or desperate people, some type of program should be created to compensate donors for their time and efforts.
“Everyone involved in organ donation is being compensated: The doctor gets money, the nurse gets money, the recipient gets the kidney, and yet the nicest person –– the donor –– receives nothing,” Rabbi Steinberg said.
Dr. Hindi Mermelstein, senior assistant attending psychiatrist at North Shore LIJ Health System in Manhasset and assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine, discussed the psycho-social issues of organ donation, explaining what kind of life changes are needed for a recipient to have a successful life and how difficult those changes are to make.
Dr. Edward Reichman, associate professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and the chairman of the conference, addressed non-vital organ transplants. Over the last few years, there have been successful transplants of body parts including the face, hand, and uterus. Dr. Reichman discussed the general halakhic aspects of these new cases, which raise a host of new issues, as well as some of the specifics relating to each type of transplant.
Perhaps the most fascinating portion of the day was the discussion of brain death and halakha. Rabbi Hershel Schachter, a rosh yeshiva at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) and the Rosh Kollel at RIETS’ Marcos and Adina Katz Kollel (Institute for Advanced Research in Rabbinics), spoke on the topic by video conference from Los Angeles. Rabbi Dr. Moshe D. Tendler, Rabbi Isaac and Bella Tendler Professor of Jewish Medical Ethics, professor of biology, and a rosh yeshiva at RIETS, spoke near the end of the conference.
Rabbi Schachter has deemed the question of brain death a safek, or a matter of doubt. Rabbi Schachter’s opinion would obligate its followers to act stringently in all cases of doubt, rendering a brain dead person not dead and ruling out the possibility of donating his organs.
The son-in-law of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Rabbi Tendler has interpreted his father-in-law’s stance to support the theory that complete and irreversible cessation of function of the entire brain renders a person “physiologically decapitated,” and is considered legally dead according to Jewish law. According to his opinion, removal of organs for donation is permissible upon pronunciation of brain death.
Medical students in the audience pressed both rabbis on a definitive course of action when they are confronted with this issue. But according to Rabbi Kenneth Brander, dean of the Center for the Jewish Future (CJF), the purpose of the conference was not to give pat answers, but to raise questions and awareness.
“There will be different rabbinic approaches to difficult issues,” Rabbi Brander said. “Intellectual honesty requires that they are presented by people who are recognized authorities on these positions.”
The keynote address was given by Rabbi Dr. Steinberg, who broke down the positions of Israel’s greatest halakhic decisors regarding brain death and organ harvesting and discussed how such issues are handled in Israel.
Many people in attendance commented on how well-organized and thought-out the conference was. “The organizers did a fantastic job of setting up the program and managing the flow of the conference,” said YU almnus Joshua Yuter. “Despite the complexities and nuances of the halakhic and medical issues involved, all speakers were clear, lucid, and articulate making these complicated topics accessibly to a lay audience.”
Yonah Bardos and Zahava Sinensky are the presidents of the student-run Medical Ethics Society. Mr. Bardos, a biology major at Yeshiva College and a first-year student at RIETS, said the conference was the first time to his knowledge that a student group ran an event to educate the greater Jewish community.
“Our ability to share the knowledge of Yeshiva University with the community was only successful because of our student board, our advisory board, the many volunteers, and the guidance of the CJF staff,” Bardos said.