As Jay Feinberg, founder of Gift of Life, looks ahead to the upcoming twelfth annual Partners for Life Gala to be held on May 17, he concisely describes the vision of his organization — one that has touched so many lives in the Five Towns. Simply put, “ No patient [in dire need of a bone marrow transplant] should ever be told that there is no match for them.”
Years ago, “My entire family was crammed in the consultation room when the doctor came in and told my mother, ‘take your son home and help him prepare his bucket list,’” Feinberg recalled.
“The doctor understood hematology and transplant tissue, but didn’t understand the power of the Jewish mother,” Feinberg explained. He was referring to his mother’s strength and conviction during her indomitable hunt for a bone marrow match for her son.
Donors of the same ethnic background as recipients often make the best match, so the Feinbergs launched a worldwide grassroots effort — extending as far and wide as Belarus, Russia and Israel.
After five years and 60,000 people tested, Feinberg’s family and friends didn’t give up, raising money for one last drive. That drive yielded Jay Feinberg’s miracle match and set him on a course to start a bone marrow registry. July 2012 marks eighteen years since Jay’s transplant.
“The Five Towns has been extraordinary for years,” noted Feinberg. “It goes back to when I was looking for a donor. Arthur Friedman, A’H, was involved back in 1991. Yoni Nierenberg, of Woodmere, became involved when his brother-in-law needed a transplant in 2002. Yoni was the first one to say let’s do a drive.”
Feinberg credits Nierenberg as the catalyst for the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns & Rockaway’s involvement as an institution. HAFTR’s president, Adam Lish, a parent at the school, was tested at a drive, and matched with a young boy. “We see him every year,” noted Lish.
Since then HAFTR has held several drives — yielding 36 matches — and has been honored by Gift of Life.
“It has been an incredible chesed partnership,” says Lish, noting how significant it has been for his kids to have grown up experiencing receiving a call and witnessing a school and community mobilizing in space and personnel for such a vital cause.
Woodmere’s Yaacov Hagler found his donor through Gift of Life, now Feinberg calls him “part of our extended family.”
“Eight years ago I had my transplant. I met my donor, a 21-year-old from North Miami Beach a year after my transplant. Four years ago, I had the honor of singing under her Chupah. It was an awesome experience,” he said.
Testing for potential matches is no longer an elaborate process. It can now be done with a simple cheek swab. Hagler stresses the simplicity in testing. “Everyone over the age of 18 should get tested,” he said, “Can you imagine the feeling of being the person that can save someone’s life?”
The generosity of the Five Towns Jewish community can’t be overstated.
Hagler was quick to point out that Tzvi Lewisohn, a young man from his shul, Anshei Chesed, recently donated his bone marrow to save someone’s life.
Nicole Goldstein of Woodmere, was a donor and has spearheaded many testing drives, both here and in Israel.
Shlomo Haskell donated twice, to two different patients. According to Feinberg, one of Haskell’s recipients is a Professor of Judaic studies at University of Hartford. The professor is also an archeologist who is one of the people who discovered the cave of letters. He has been credited on PBS for having found what may be the lost city of Atlantis. “ Not only did Shlomo give him his life back but he led him to discovery,” says Feinberg.
The Maccabeats, an a capella group, who will perform at the gala and receive recognition for their coordinated “Miracle” CD release and Gift of Life campaign which raised over $80,000.
Actress and author, Mayim Bialik, who is slated to emcee the gala, has formed an attachment to three-year-old Ezra Feinman , who is officially still searching for a donor.
“Mayim has been a great advocate for the organization,” noted Feinberg.
The gala will be the setting for first time introductions of transplant recipients to their life-saving donors. “It’s very generous of both to allow us to witness something so personal in such a public way. It’s a good way to share our mission. How their support has directly and measurably effected people’s lives. Theres a reason why we have Kleenex on every table”