When a Jewish boy turns 13, he enters manhood. But what happens when a Jewish boy's organs turn 13?
Frank Bialystok, 64, decided to honor his 13-year-old transplanted liver with a bar mitzvah ceremony, the first of its kind in the world.
Standing before a packed congregation at the Darchei Noam Reconstructionist synagogue in Toronto, Bialystok described himself as "a representative of my transplant brothers and sisters, but also as a fortunate and humble man who was given the gift of life when so many have died in Canada waiting for a healthy replacement organ."
“My pre-owned liver and I are privileged to be here with you as we undertake this symbolic rite of passage,” he said, before reading from the Torah.
A professor at the University of Toronto, Dr. Bialystok related the week’s Torah portion, “Acharei Mot” or “After Death,” to his own experiences as the only child of Polish Jews who survived World War II in the Soviet Union.
Bialystok was born in Poland in 1946, where he and his father unknowingly contracted Hepatitis from the unsanitary conditions surrounding their smallpox vaccinations.
“The tragic irony of our lives is that both of us had Hepatitis, but neither of us knew this,” he explained. His father would die of the condition in 1969.
After discovering he had Hepatitis C, Bialystok underwent a successful liver transplant, and has since celebrated his transplant anniversary as that of a second birthday.
Five years after his successful operation, Frank’s daughter came up with the idea for the bar mitzvah.
At the ceremony, Dr. Bialystok described the experience as overwhelming. “What I'm experiencing today is these marvelous connections: between the Jewish people and the Torah; from the birth of Israel three thousand years ago and its rebirth in our time; […] and my birth in Poland and my re-birth in Toronto,” he said.
The renowned professor is hopeful that more Canadians will be encouraged to sign their organ donor cards as result of his “re-Bar Mitzvah.”
Darchei Noam’s rabbi, Tina Grimberg, urged the congregation to take heed of Dr. Bialystok’s message in an impassioned speech. “There is an unfortunate misconception that Jews are not supposed to donate organs,” she explained. “But I stand on the shoulders of many great and venerable rabbis when I argue that there is no contradiction between Jewish law and organ donation,” she said. “It’s a mitzvah.”
Rabbi Grimberg stressed that organ donation is consistent with Jewish values and does not contradict the controversial passage in Ezekiel that has been cited by some as evidence against organ and tissue donation.
“We’re incredibly lucky to be part of a generation that, thanks to organ donation, can live on after death,” she said. “This is something we owe to ourselves, to our communities and to humanity.”
England’s venerated Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks issued a similar message about organ donation in the Jewish Chronicle in January. “Saving a life is a fundamental imperative in Judaism and, if we can do so without endangering our own lives, we should,” he wrote. “Even those who do not accept brain-stem death would still be able to donate organs in 70 percent of cases,” he wrote, concluding that “I will myself, and will encourage others to do so.”
Dr. Bialystok celebrated his “re-bar mitzvah” on April 16, the day before the start of Canada’s National Organ and Tissue Donation Awareness Week. In the same service, his third grandchild, three-week-old Rebecca, was introduced to the synagogue for her official baby-naming.
Rabbi Grimberg told the congregation that she had a hard time coming up with the appropriate blessings to bestow on the unusual bar-mitzvah subject. “We normally wish our bar mitzvah boy a good education and a nice family,” she joked, “But our bar mitzvah boy has a PhD and three grandchildren.”
In addition to his work with the Canadian Liver Foundation and the Hepatitis C Research and Training Program, Professor Bialystok is a Chair of the Canadian Jewish Congress, a founding member of the Polish-Jewish Heritage Foundation of Canada, and an active participant in several anti-racism organizations. He has been awarded the Tannenbaum Prize in Canadian Jewish History and the Cavalier’s Cross of the Order of Poland.
“And all this before his bar mitzvah,” a congregant teased.
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