In this column, we highlight small and not-so-small acts of kindness that happen each and every single day.
A Warm Final Sendoff an a Below-Freezing Day
On a frigid Ontario afternoon in January 2019, more than 150 members of Toronto’s Jewish community stood on the open grounds of a snow-covered cemetery in the freezing wind, at the newly dug gravesite of an eighty-five-year-old Jewish man who had died two days earlier.
Almost none of the parka-clad mourners knew Eddie Ford, the deceased.
They came to Mr. Ford’s funeral because they didn’t want Mr. Ford—a child survivor of the Holocaust—to make his journey to the Next World alone.
Mr. Ford (his original first name in Budapest was Ervin; his Hungarian last name has been lost to history) had been taken in and protected by a Hungarian Christian family during the Nazi occupation and was raised without a Jewish upbringing, as was common in communist Hungary. Besides his mother and a brother, the rest of his family perished in the Shoah.
Mr. Ford, who knew he was a Jew, remembered singing in the choir of Budapest’s famed Dohany Street Synagogue as a child, said Rabbi Zale Newman, a teacher, activist and director of a specialty financial firm in Toronto, who arranged for the uber-minyan at Mr. Ford’s levayah. (Rabbi Newman formerly served as international director of NCSY.)
Mr. Ford did not lead a Jewish life when he moved to Canada about a decade after the end of World War II. He lived in Toronto’s Jewish neighborhood but was not a member of a synagogue. He worked as a handyman by day and performed stand-up comedy at night. He married and then divorced and had no children; besides a nephew in Detroit, he had no known relatives.
Rabbi Newman, a longtime volunteer for Toronto’s The Village Shul’s Bikur Cholim Committee, pays visits on Friday afternoons to residents of Sunnybrook Hospital. He had befriended Mr. Ford in 2018 when the octogenarian was battling the cancer that took his life seven months later.
“He was funny. He was articulate,” said Rabbi Newman.
Two days before he died, Mr. Ford, who had shown a renewed interest in Yiddishkeit, told the rabbi that he wanted a Jewish funeral.
Rabbi Newman said he would take care of it.
After Mr. Ford’s death, the Steeles Memorial Chapel prepared his body for burial at no charge and offered a plot at the Pardes Chaim Cemetery, twenty-six miles north of Toronto. Rabbi Newman put out a late night call on social media for people to ensure a minyan at the gravesite; bureaucratic requirements had delayed the funeral for one day.
“We need to have a minyan present tomorrow at noon for a sweet Holocaust survivor who passed away,” the rabbi wrote. “Can you come escort a Hero of the Holocaust for his final journey . . . This is a huge pure act of kindness.”
The note included the cemetery’s address and some sartorial advice: “Please dress warmly.”
With an unfavorable weather report pending (wind chills of 16 degrees Fahrenheit), Rabbi Newman wondered if enough adult males would show up to say Kaddish. Only three people had responded to his postings. “I was hoping for at least ten in total.”
Instead, 150-200 men and women arrived. The line of cars was so long that the rabbi had to get out of his vehicle and walk to the gravesite through the massive cemetery.
“People felt that a hero of the Holocaust should have a proper send-off,” Rabbi Newman said; besides a few fellow Bikur Cholim members, none of the people who drove to the funeral knew, or previously knew of, Mr. Ford.
“When I saw the post on Facebook, I realized the gravity of the situation,” filmmaker Ronen Israelski, one of the people who came to Mr. Ford’s funeral, told the Times of Israel. “Here was a Holocaust survivor who needed to be buried. So, I didn’t think twice. I just left everything and got there as soon as I could.”
On top of the hundreds of attendees, Mr. Ford’s estranged brother, who had read about his sibling’s death on the internet, arrived in time for the funeral.
Rabbi Newman officiated. It was so cold that he could not turn the pages of his siddur, and his phone, on which he had notes for his eulogy, froze.
Why did the rabbi do all this work?
“He was my friend,” the rabbi said. “We sang songs together. I taught him the berachot. I brought him [battery-powered] Shabbat candles.”
“He kept his sense of humor, and his Jewish identity,” Rabbi Newman added. And “it was a mitzvah.”
The Jewish community paid for a gravestone for Mr. Ford and for Kaddish to be recited during the year after his death and on his annual yahrtzeit.
In subsequent weeks, the story of the minyan at Mr. Ford’s funeral made the news in Canada, the United States, Israel, Australia and other countries.
Rabbi Newman is part of a group of volunteers who perform such gratis service for Toronto’s Holocaust survivors who are dying on a regular basis. He does not consider what he did for Mr. Ford to be exceptional.
But many journalists did.
“I do it every week,” Rabbi Newman said. “It’s not a big thing.”
The Marrow of Kindness
Early one Monday morning in November 2018, Binyomin Gewirtz, thirty-nine, a marketing consultant-event planner and part-time kollel student from Lakewood, New Jersey, woke up sixty miles north in a hotel near Hackensack University Medical Center. He was due in surgery soon for a bone marrow donation to save the life of a man whom he had never met.
Using the siddur, tallit and tefillin he had packed, he davened Shacharit in the hospital’s surgery prep room, adding a personal prayer for the health of his recipient during Shemoneh Esrei. Family, friends and Gerwitz’s LinkedIn community prayed along with him for the success of the surgery and the recipient’s health.
Their prayers were successful.
Gerwitz’s bone marrow was flown that day, taken by carrier in a small IV bag, to a hospital in Kansas.
The recipient who started the treatment the next day with Gewirtz’s bone marrow was Scott Novorr, a forty-seven-year-old sales team manager in the Kansas City area, father of four young children and a lifelong member of a Reform congregation.
Novorr had been diagnosed in February 2014 with a virulent form of leukemia after a routine physical exam. After four years of draining, unsuccessful treatments, he was told by his doctors that he required a bone marrow transplant, a last-resort treatment for some forms of leukemia. Doctors compare specific genetic antigen markers, proteins that recognize cells that belong in a person’s body; then they transfer from a compatible individual the immature “stem cells” that can develop in the recipient’s body into healthy cells, enabling that recipient to function and fight infections.
For a successful transplant, physicians normally check ten crucial markers and require at least six—ideally more—compatible markers. The high number of such individualized markers in each person’s blood (the International Society of Blood Transfusion lists more than 300 antigens) can reduce the odds of finding a compatible match.
In 2003, Gewirtz, studying at Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, had joined the worldwide database of potential bone marrow donors through a cheek swab campaign conducted in the yeshiva’s cafeteria by the Gift of Life Marrow Registry (giftoflife.org), which gears its outreach to the Jewish community. (By recent count, the thirty-one-year-old organization had registered 419,450 people as donors, made 24,198 matches and saved 4,367 lives.)
Outside of one’s immediate family, the best chances of finding a compatible match are in a person’s ethnic group. This is especially vital among minority group members, like Jews, who offer a limited number of potential donors.
Most people have hundreds of potential matches.
No one in his family qualified as a match.
“The odds were against Scott Novorr,” according to the University of Kansas Cancer Center Facebook page. “Near impossible,” he wrote in a gofundme.com fundraising appeal set up to cover some of the expenses he and his family would incur during his leukemia battle. “I have a rare strand in my DNA. Out of fifty million donors” on worldwide bone marrow registries that oncologists consult, “I have three matches.”
One of them was Gewirtz, located 1,100 miles away.
“A complete stranger,” Novorr described his then unknown donor, who would undergo “an invasive surgical procedure, two nights’ stay in a hospital, and up to ten [recuperation] days off work … for a complete stranger.”
Even with a transplant, Novorr’s doctors cautioned him, he had only a 45 percent chance of surviving the next 100 days.
Novorr beat the odds.
Why did Gewirtz, a native of Flatbush, Brooklyn, do it?
Because it was a chance to save a life, he says. “There’s no question … it’s a rare opportunity, you jump at it,” no matter the recipient’s religious or ethnic background.
Per national donation procedures, Gewirtz knew virtually nothing about his bone marrow recipient besides gender and age. Which was enough information for Gewirtz; rabbis he consulted had stressed the importance of taking part in Gift of Life activities, citing the Talmudic assertion that saving a life is tantamount to saving an entire world. He was slightly nervous about the general anesthesia that the physicians would use to spare him the pain of the bone marrow’s removal and would leave him temporarily out of control. But the idea of saving someone’s life, he decided, overrode that concern; he was able to return to work a week after the surgical procedure.
“He saved my life … it’s the ultimate selfless act,” Novorr says.
He was the second person to whom Gewirtz has made such a donation. In 2015 Gewirtz donated stem cells in a less-invasive blood donation procedure to a fifty-five-year-old Conservative Jewish woman from New York State’s Westchester County; she subsequently died—despite the transplant—in 2017. That woman’s death, and his emotional investment in her recovery, didn’t discourage Gewirtz from donating his marrow again. “It’s so rare to get a second opportunity” to save a life, he says. “My donation blessed her and her family with two years of life … even half a year is a gift.”
Gewirtz later learned that part of his family and Novorr’s have roots in the Odessa region of Ukraine, a possible explanation for the pair’s antigen compatibility—a common geographic background can increase the chances of a donor-recipient match.
About 100 days after the bone marrow entered Novorr’s system, he was declared cancer-free. Gewirtz, who had prayed daily for his unknown recipient’s health, has continued that practice since meeting Novorr, he says.
Due to medical anonymity laws, donor-recipient pairs are barred from meeting for at least a year. Both wanted to meet face-to-face; the meeting took place in early 2021, at a Gift of Life “Celebrating Life” gala dinner in Manhattan. The event was “sensational” says Gerwitz, “a national kiddush Hashem” that made headlines with Jewish and secular news outlets, including ABC.
What did Novorr say to Gewirtz?
“I wouldn’t be here without you.”
Gewirtz responded, “You blessed me with this opportunity.”
Gewirtz praises Novorr’s humility for admitting his debt to another person. “It’s not always easy for a person to say, ‘You gave me life.’” And he brushes off praise for his own action.
“I am not a hero,” Gewirtz told the Kansas City Jewish Chronicle. “We are put in this world to make a difference.” He receives calls all the time from people that are potential matches to donate bone marrow and strongly encourages them to donate. “The large number of people in our community donating bone marrow and stem cells to save lives is astonishing,” he notes.
Would he do it again if he proves to be a match with someone else?
“One thousand percent!”
Steve Lipman is a frequent contributor to Jewish Action.
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