Discussing his decision to donate a kidney, Rabbi Chaim Soloveichik, spiritual leader of Ohr Shalom Congregation in Beit Shemesh, quotes the talmudic adage: “Whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he [or she] saved an entire world.”
Speaking at his home in Ramat Beit Shemesh Alef, where he was convalescing following the recent surgery, Soloveichik explains: “I don’t like to dwell on it, but I feel it’s a tremendous z’chut [privilege]. I believe we were put in this world to give, and many of us give in different ways. But the best way to give is to give a life.”
American-born and raised, he is a descendant of the renowned Soloveichik rabbinic dynasty. Now in his late 40s and a father of eight, he made aliya with his family 14 years ago from Hamilton, Ontario, where he founded a post-high school yeshiva. The Soloveichiks resided for a year in Jerusalem before relocating to Ramat Beit Shemesh, where they were among the neighborhood’s first hundred or so families.
“I was taught by both my parents that we’re here to give to the world, whether in terms of teaching Torah, of doing hessed [acts of kindness] or in other ways,” Soloveichik says.
His late mother, Ella, a respected teacher for many years at the Hanna Sacks High School for girls in Chicago and a poet, “was very well-read and had a very strong impact on my life. I remember when I made aliya; like a lot of young couples making aliya, [we were] struggling to make a living, taking multiple jobs. My mother said: ‘I’m happy that I’m not wealthy because otherwise I’d give you everything. But now you have to accomplish things and give to the world.’ That was the message in our home,” he states.
“My father [Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik, esteemed Talmud scholar and head of Chicago’s Brisk Yeshiva] always had this line, ‘You have to be a gibor [hero].’ After he had a stroke, he maintained that line and he kept accomplishing things.”
“I had made an intellectual decision to give a kidney, but you still think about it,” he says, noting the occasional feeling of apprehension prior to surgery. “It was my father’s line that kept me going.”
A native Torontonian, his wife, Pircha, also a teacher, is an active community member. She had seen a post on the Beit Shemesh community website that someone was in need of a kidney from a donor with Type O blood.
“I’m Type O,” the rabbi says. “First thing, I did my research and found out that in this day and age, there would usually be no halachic issue. Most of the poskim [halachic decisors] feel it’s a mitzva; they won’t say you have to.
“Obviously, I looked on the medical sites to see what the risks were,” he continued. “They’re very minimal, which takes away any general issur [prohibition] for most healthy people. I also went [to an authority] for a personal psak [decision]. He wouldn’t say that I have to do it, but he certainly said that it was OK. He didn’t want to encourage it because he didn’t want to pressure me.
“So I responded [to the post]; they saw I was a match and started the process.”
Soloveichik points out that it could take up to 24 hours for a new kidney to start functioning properly. When he awoke from surgery, the first thing he asked was whether the kidney took, and the answer was negative. Several hours later, he learned that the operation was successful, and that made it all worthwhile.
According to Soloveichik, several other “good people” also agreed to be tested. Most of the prospective donors were found to be unsuitable, which resulted in a series of disappointments to the person in need.
“So I looked at it as having this z’chut to give a kidney and save a life. Hopefully, when I recuperate, it will be like nothing happened.”
The recipient’s same religious and ethnic background didn’t influence Soloveichik’s decision to undergo the ordeal.
“My father always quoted the Torah principle to have mercy on all of God’s creatures and to respect all mankind,” he says.
Discussing his determination to go public, Soloveichik, who is known for his humility, stresses the importance of setting an example.
Before the surgery, “very few people were aware of what I was doing. Even in my family, only my wife was aware until a day before surgery… I didn’t want to hear everyone’s opinion and I wanted to keep it private. However, after surgery, I felt it was important to talk about it to inspire others. Already, some members of my congregation said I gave them something to think about.”
Many people are in dire need of a new kidney and have difficulty finding a donor, Soloveichik laments.
“No question the surgery involves pain, fear; it’s not for everybody. But people should think about it.”
In fact, “in Beit Shemesh itself, just this week another person donated a kidney, but he kept it a secret.
“Beit Shemesh is a wonderful community and I enjoy living here,” he adds. “There is so much hessed going on here and so much opportunity to grow spiritually.”
Soloveichik’s congregation is considered “religious Zionist,” although “everyone is welcome,” he stresses. “I don’t like labels.”
Regarding the city’s bad press in recent months due to religious intolerance and extremism, Soloveichik says: “I would say that part of the negativity comes from the diversity, but I happen to enjoy the fact that there are so many different types of Jews who live here together. These reports are about a small minority.”
For instance, “the highlight of my year is when I walk home from my shul on Yom Kippur night. My block is very mixed – knitted skullcap, haredi, Ashkenazi, Sephardi – and the highlight is that in one of the parking lots, members of the community are sitting in a circle. Most are shomrei Shabbat, but one or two might not be, and they’re sitting together making New Year’s resolutions. Every year.
“There’s so much that we can all do together, and I’m so fortunate to have the opportunity to live in this community,” he asserts