'Saving lives is the pre-eminent kindness we do for others'

Leslie Kaufman shares how the rabbi taught her the importance of saving lives when he put out a call to help save hers.

Pikuach Nefesh. Saving a life. It is our obligation, as Jews, to do so. Leviticus 19:16 tells us “Neither shall you stand by the blood of your neighbour.” Rabbi Reuven Bulka Z"l told us: “Our challenge, as religious leaders, is not merely to affirm that organ donation is ok, or nice. It is to impress upon our communities that organ donation is a supreme obligation, a fundamental responsibility. In the Jewish tradition, saving lives is the highest fulfilment. Organ donation gives us this great opportunity.”

Rabbi Bulka taught me the importance of saving lives when he put out a call to action for our community to help save mine. In October of 2015, I was fighting for my life as I awaited a liver transplant. Finding a living liver donor was the priority, and Rabbi Bulka partnered with the Jewish Federation of Ottawa in a public appeal. Over the years, he made similar appeals for other members of our community, whether for blood donations, stem cells, organ donation registration, or living organ donation.

“Organ donation is all about saving lives. Saving lives is the pre-eminent kindness we can do for others… It enhances lives and uplifts the donor and the donor’s family. It is magical.”

Two years later, Rabbi Bulka invited me to speak to a room of 300 family members of deceased organ donors who were being honoured for giving the gift of life. I asked him what I should say, and he told me to speak from the heart. And when he introduced me, he told these families that I was speaking to them as if they were my own donor family. Having this opportunity to say thank you for the hundreds of lives saved by these families was a blessing and an honour, thanks to this remarkable man who knew that these families wanted a connection to the gift their loved ones had given and that I, too, wanted a connection to my unknown donor.

As Chair of the Board of the Trillium Gift of Life Network for over a decade, Rabbi Bulka was influential in spreading the message of pikuach nefesh province-wide. As a member of the board of Canadian Blood Services from 2010 to 2014, he similarly promoted their mandate for donations of blood, plasma and stem cells. Saving lives was one of his missions. Anyone you speak with in the Ontario transplant community knew Rabbi Bulka, either personally or by reputation. And we all speak of the sadness that we could do nothing to save his life.

Yet, we can continue his legacy for kindness and saving lives by registering to be an organ and tissue donor, by donating blood, by supporting those who need a kind word or deed, and by living our best lives to serve others.

I will miss Rabbi Bulka for his friendship, guidance, wisdom, humour, and his ability to bring people together, to find their common ground, and to lead us all in the path of kindness. May his memory be a blessing.