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Rabbi Performs Life-Saving Mitzvah

Thu, 06/08/2023 - 10:57

A member of the Chabad congregation needed a kidney; he was a match

Aizik Baumgarten with his wife, Musia, Terri Levin Davgin, and her husband, Richard, before the surgery.
Moshe Gewirtz

Terri Levin Davgin said she would tell the story of her kidney transplant, but only to raise awareness about organ donation. “I really hope all this publicity helps people understand how crucial organ donation is,” she said.

On May 23, Rabbi Aizik Baumgarten of Chabad of the Hamptons in East Hampton donated one of his kidneys to Ms. Levin Davgin, a longtime congregant who was suffering from kidney failure. Unbelievably, it’s her second organ donation. She swapped out her other kidney in 2016.

Ms. Levin Davgin started to decline again about a year ago, though no one knew why. At first, she experienced no pain or symptoms. A routine blood test indicated trouble, which accelerated. In fact, the day before she got the phone call that Mr. Baumgarten would donate a kidney, she was set to interview at a dialysis center in Hampton Bays. Her situation was critical.

“I was very sick beforehand and doing a lot of hard work to try and hold on, to not have to go to dialysis,” she said.

According to the United States Renal Data System, “The expected survival for a 55-year-old person with a kidney transplant is 15 years, but the expected survival of a 55-year-old person on dialysis is only five years. The mean survival for all people in America who start dialysis is three years.” Ms. Levin Davgin is 73. Further, 8 percent of patients on the national waiting list die waiting for a kidney.

Real estate brokers link buyers and sellers. Online dating sites match potential mates. But who connects people who need kidneys with people willing to donate a spare? In the case of the Jewish community, at least, a not-for-profit kidney donation facilitator named Renewal accomplishes this task, and arranges a unique date at a hospital. Both of Ms. Levin Davgin’s donated kidneys were found through Renewal.

“We started 16 years ago, and our goal was to do one transplant a year. If we did two, that would be amazing,” said Josh Sturm, director of outreach for Renewal. “On average we now do over 100 a year. It’s been an incredible journey.” Mr. Sturm says Renewal’s primary focus is within the Jewish community, but that said, “We do have non-Jews that come into our offices, and we offer the same services. We help people market themselves. We don’t have a refrigerator full of kidneys to give away,” he said.

“We tell everybody there’s nothing proprietary about what we do. It’s a community-based approach. We hope and pray that other communities out there copy our model, and leverage the power of their communities,” he said. DOVE transplant has done just that, providing kidney matching services for the veteran community.

Rabbi Baumgarten’s second cousin does volunteer work for Renewal. When he heard about Ms. Levin Davgin’s predicament while visiting last summer, he had Renewal send swab test kits to try and find potential donors.

“They found a bunch of people who were possible donors,” said Richard Davgin, Ms. Levin Davgin’s husband. Of those, Renewal contacted three of the best matches for a day of vigorous screening in the hospital.

Mr. Baumgarten was the only potential donor who made it through the screening.

“When he found out at the hospital that he was a match, he said, ‘When do you want to do this? I’m ready now,’ “ said Mr. Davgin.

“We are emissaries of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson,” said Mr. Baumgarten. “He preaches unconditional love for a fellow human. This is the education we’re brought up with. We try to help the Jewish community. When there’s an opportunity to help, we help. I thanked God for the opportunity for the chance to save a life,” he said.

“As a rabbi, you’re used to helping with spiritual matters. Here, I had an opportunity to do something physically for a congregant.”

On Renewal’s website, it says the six-week recuperation process includes lots of pain, but also “tremendous joy” because the surgery presents an opportunity to save a life. The recipient’s health insurance covers the costs of the surgery, and Renewal covers all nonmedical expenses for the donor, including lost wages.

The Davgins have been congregants of Chabad of the Hamptons for about 12 years. Their granddaughter was set to be bat mitzvahed and Mr. Davgin wanted to brush up on his Hebrew. Finding no adult Hebrew class in the Hamptons at the time, a neighbor persuaded him to attend services to pick up the language.

“Learning Hebrew like that is like learning how to swim by being thrown into the middle of the ocean,” said Mr. Davgin.

He met Rabbi Leibel Baumgarten, Aizik’s father, who offered to teach him Hebrew free of charge, providing Mr. Davgin be on call should the synagogue need an extra body for a minyan, a prayer quorum. “So, I would get a call every once in a while. That’s what started the relationship,” said Mr. Davgin.

Dr. Joseph Del Pizzo, a surgeon at New York Presbyterian, performed the surgery, at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center in Manhattan. “I’m feeling a little bit better every day,” said Ms. Levin Davgin. “I’ve joked that now I have to learn Hebrew. Maybe that’s something I will focus on in this next chapter.”

Mr. Baumgarten said he had a lot of pain for three days following the surgery, but “the pain and discomfort has been going away drastically.” He remains fatigued. “I wake up from a full night of sleep, but I still feel tired.”

He has zero regrets.

“You get a call that you’re a match. You have a chance to save someone’s life. What are you going to say, no?”

“If we can just educate ourselves and our children just to be nicer, and you don’t have to give your kidneys away, but start with the small things, and hopefully when the big things come, you’re prepared to help,” said Mr. Baumgarten. “That’s really what I want to express. There’s good people around.”

“It’s just so nice to know I have a kidney from such a wonderful person,” said Ms. Levin Davgin.

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