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Boning up on halachah and organ donations

Robert Berman, founder of Halachic Organ Donation Society, will speak at Beachwood Kehilla May 13.

When Robert Berman speaks at the Beachwood Kehilla on Saturday, May 13, he will be addressing a topic that has resonated deep within the Orthodox community and is near to his heart: halachic (Jewish law) issues relating to organ donations.

Founder of the Halachic Organ Donation Society (HODS), Berman has been traveling the world for the past five years, speaking to Orthodox communities about pikuach nefesh, the saving of a human life through organ donation.

In a phone interview from Israel, Berman a journalist who made aliyah in 1989, explained, "For years it has been believed that Jews could not donate organs because of halachic laws. Also, some Jews believe they will be resurrected when the Messiah comes and so must be buried whole in order to live again.”

In 1991, the (Orthodox) Rabbinical Council of America ruled organ donations permissible. According to Rabbi Moses Tendler, chairman of the biology department of Yeshiva University in New York City, "If one is in the position to donate an organ to save another's life, it's obligatory to do so, even if the donor never knows who the beneficiary will be. The basic principle of Jewish ethics, ‘the infinite worth of the human being' also includes corneas, since eyesight restoration is considered a life-saving operation.”

Each day about 74 people receive organ transplants worldwide. However, 18 people die daily waiting for transplants that don't take place because of the shortage of donated organs. While most western countries have an organ-donor membership of 30%, Israel's remains at 3%, the lowest percentage among all ethnic groups worldwide.

Israel was recently expelled from the European Union Organ Donor Network because Israelis accepted donations but did not donate organs in reciprocal numbers.

"Even though most Israelis are secular, when it comes to issues of death, they adopt a more ‘religious' perspective and don't often volunteer to donate healthy, viable organs,” notes Berman. "Israelis are dying needlessly because of the shortage of organs.”

Orthodox rabbis who refuse to take a stand on the issue often frustrate Berman. "As a leader, the rabbi should explain why or why not it is permissible to donate organs,” says Berman. "It is hypocritical that they allow their congregants to buy organs like kidneys, livers or bone marrow on the black market and yet will not encourage their congregants to donate them.”

Members of the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements are much more willing to donate organs and recognize this "gift of a life-time” as a mitzvah, Berman says approvingly.

Serving as head of HODS has involved Berman on many levels of organ donation. He recently was called to the bedside of a terminally ill Orthodox patient. Prior to the death of the family's loved one, Berman discussed the possibility of organ donation. "When the person died, the family willingly donated five of his viable organs,” says Berman. "Four of those five went to Jews.”

Saving a life takes precedence over 610 of the 613 commandments in the Torah, says Berman. "God, Torah and halachah command us to eat pork on Yom Kippur if it can save a life.”

Robert Berman will speak at the Beachwood Kehilla, 25400 Fairmount Blvd., Sat. morning, May 13. Call Mark Wachter for reservations at 216-765-1921.

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