Changing Lives, Saving Lives
by Rabbi Avi Katz Orlow
L’chaim! To life! In Jewish culture, we give small gifts in multiples of the number 18. This may seem arbitrary but in Gematria (an ancient and esoteric method of interpretation in which the numerical value of words can be found in their constituent letter values), “chai” – meaning “life” – is equal to the number 18. In an act that is part gratitude and part mindfulness, we give multiples of the Jewish ‘lucky number’ 18. We take a conscious moment to recognize how fortunate we are for this life we have been given and the blessings in it. While Gematria is a game of sorts, a type of Jewish numerical poetry that has become embedded in the culture, there is no doubt that we as Jews we take life very seriously. We believe that small, symbolic acts like this are habit-forming and ultimately create a life of great character. For Jews, the goal is to live as a Mensch.
Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) is celebrating a special chai benchmark- the 18th bone marrow transplant found and facilitated by the Gift of Life Marrow Registry from a member of the FJC Gift of Life donor circle. Through our partnership to grow the donor registry, one quick and painless act- swabbing your cheek to enter a public bone marrow and blood stem cell registry- can result in a match and a transplant for a child or adult suffering from a life-threatening illness, including leukemia, lymphoma, other cancers and genetic diseases. For Jewish camp counselors that sign up with Gift of Life, this is one small act of many, is part of a pattern of kindness and caring for others.
Throughout the summer at camp, the youngest campers are taught to share responsibility with and for their bunkmates by caring for one another and working to keep their communal space clean. They learn kindness and service are Jewish values. Approaching the age of 13 (bnei mitzvah and beyond), even more trust and training is instilled in the camper, who takes on responsibility for leading Jewish traditions at camp and helping younger campers. As counselors at the age of 18, they are trained to nurture the safety, well-being, happiness and Jewish identity of their campers. At this young age they are charged with caring for a bunk of campers, to teach and model these small acts that make Mensches. It is also at 18 that counselors becoming eligible to test – swab- to join the public bone marrow registry to save a life.
Since the founding of FJC’s partnership with Gift of Life in 2010, 4,298 people have swabbed at FJC network camps, providing 120 matches, and recently the 18th transplant. These are extremely high rates of matching and transplants, due in-part to the uniqueness of Jewish DNA, which – like all minorities – is currently underrepresented in the national bank. A non-Jewish Caucasian person has a 98% chance of finding a match in the national bone marrow registry. In 1991 when the Gift of Life was founded, there was only a 5% chance for an Ashkenazi Jew to find a match. With each drive for the registry at Jewish camp, we increase the likelihood that a Jew will find a life-saving match. Thanks to Gift of Life, Ashkenazi Jewish people now have a 85% chance of matching.
We still have much more work to do to ensure that everyone in our family – regardless of ethnic or biological origins – can find a DNA match if they need it. Jewish family extends far beyond the DNA of Ashkenazi Jews, to include Sephardic Jews, Jews of color, Jews by choice, Jews who join their families by adoption and others. Family is not simply an identity, or DNA – it is an act, a behavior, and practice in giving and gratitude. No matter what our genetic makeup, we care for each other and show up to help. Jewish camp is a family.
A DNA match is necessary- but not sufficient to facilitate a transplant. What must really be celebrated as the true success of this program, is the consistency with which former and current Jewish camp counselors answer the call to care for others, help someone in need, and donate. In order to match, facilitate a transplant and share that gift of life you need to first be willing act. At Jewish camp, we are training one generation to look after the next.
We all know how much Jewish camp changes people’s lives; we do not always think about how it could actually save someone’s life. With this 18th transplant, we celebrate Jewish camp for all of the small, symbolic actions that make up this kind, giving, life-saving family.
Contact Lindsay Katz at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a bone marrow registry drive for your staff.
Rabbi Avi Orlow is the Vice President of Program and Innovation at Foundation for Jewish Camp. Before joining FJC in 2008, Avi was the Campus Rabbi and Assistant Director of the St. Louis Hillel at Washington University and has held numerous positions as rabbi, educator, and youth leader. He spent 17 years as a camper and then educator at Ramah Camps in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and YUSSR camps in the Former Soviet Union. Avi has a B.A. in religious studies from Columbia University. He was ordained in the charter class at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the open Orthodox rabbinical school. Avi lives in White Plains with his wife, Cantor Adina Frydman, and their children, Yadid, Yishama, Emunah, and Libi.
This post is a part of Foundation for Jewish Camp’s summer blog series “Because of Jewish Camp.” Each week, we will be featuring personal reflections from camp parents, staff, and alumni exemplifying they ways that Jewish camp impacted their lives. Follow along all summer long, and share how Jewish camp impacted your life! Tell us your story in the comments, on Facebook , or tweet @JewishCamp using the hashtag #JewishCamp.