Rabbi Ephraim Simon has spent his life trying to inspire others to live better lives.
“As parents, we know that our children hear much more of what we do than what we say,” said Simon on the phone from his home in Teaneck, New Jersey. “They watch how we live our lives; a rabbi’s greatest sermon is the way he lives his life.”
The way Simon has lived his life — having donated both a kidney and a third of his liver to two strangers — is certainly an example, as he’ll recount to a local audience when he visits Chabad of the South Hills on Sept. 17.
“I talk to my children all the time about sacrificing for others, about not just being here for ourselves and gathering as many possessions as we can,” said Simon, who describes himself as a “regular guy.”
His own journey with sacrifice began in August 2008, when he got an email about a 12-year-old girl who needed a kidney donation.
“I couldn’t delete the email. I just sat staring at it,” he recalled. “I’m a father of nine children. I had a 13-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old daughter. She could have been mine. If it was my daughter, I would want someone to step forward.”
Simon knew nothing about kidney donation then. “I thought it was like bone marrow, where there’s a one-in-a-million chance that you’re going to be a match.” In fact, what he learned from subsequent research was that as long as you have the same blood type as the person seeking the kidney, you’ll most likely be a match. After a short conversation with his wife and family, the rabbi offered his kidney to the girl. As it turned out, she’d found another donor already.
Rather than feeling relieved, Simon was disappointed. “I had an opportunity to be an example of everything I talk to my children about and it slipped through my fingers.”
He decided to donate a kidney to someone else, but it wasn’t as simple as he’d anticipated. “It’s supposed to be easy, but I kept trying and didn’t match anyone,” he said. “At this point, we’re seven or eight months from when I placed the first call and really want to be an example of how we’re supposed to live our lives and give to others.”
He finally found a match in a father of 10 from Brooklyn, who was extremely sick. Simon donated the kidney in August of 2009 and the man made a full recovery.
“The surgeon told him his kidney started working on the operating table. He came out of the anesthesia knowing he was better.”
Now, he and the Brooklyn father, who were strangers before the donation, are good friends. “I’m actually going to one of his children’s wedding soon.”
Simon found the experience “moving and powerful. I thought, ‘This is my family’s gift to the man’s family.’ We were able to help bring back this man’s health with God’s help and the help of the surgeons. My community was inspired.”
The story of Simon’s generosity went viral online, inspiring others to come forward for living organ donation. “I lost track of how many people ended up donating kidneys because of my story — 30 or 40,” Simon said.
The whole experience made Simon want to do even more. After some research, he discovered that he could donate part of his liver. This time, however, the process was “much more complicated. Almost no hospital, certainly no hospital in my area, wanted to touch me as a liver donor because I had donated a kidney. Even though one isn’t related to the other, it was just a hospital policy.”
He found an exception through the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. “I ended up finding a recipient. He registered in Cleveland. In December of this past year, I donated a third of my liver to a stranger.”
Rabbi Mendel Rosenblum, director of Chabad at the South Hills, attended yeshiva with Simon. “Even without this story, he’s an extremely engaging, scholarly and funny person,” Rosenblum said. “He could give an amazing talk without this story. For some reason, though, he has this deep need to give. Hopefully, all of us have it to some degree.”
Rosenblum said when he asked his friend why he would do this, Simon replied, “I’m going to go through a few months of pain and loss of income and work, and this man will have his life back. His kids will have him in the future.”
Such a simple explanation was humbling. “The way he said it, I felt foolish,” Rosenblum said. “How many times do we look at someone and think, ‘I wish I could give that person life’? To him, it’s so simple, if you have the ability to be inconvenienced in some small way and someone will get their life back, it’s a no brainer.”
For his part, Simon is not advocating for people to donate organs. “I am advocating that if you’re inspired by this story, take upon yourself an additional act of goodness and kindness to make someone’s life better,” he said. “We can all do that. If each of us do that, and we live with that kind of intention, the world will be a better place. Every one of us has the capacity to transform and change the world.” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at drullo@