Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

21 Shevat 5761 - Febuary 14, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Ezer Mizion Bone Marrow Drive Exceeds Expectations
by Linda Feinberg

Traffic was sparse at Israeli polling stations last Tuesday, but Yerushalayim's Malcha Mall was packed wall-to-wall with thousands of people enjoying a day off from work. Shoppers faced long lines everywhere they turned -- restaurants, music stores and cellular phone outlets. But by far the biggest line was to save the life of a little girl named Naama.

Four-year-old Naama Bitoun has leukemia, and there is only one thing that can save her life -- a successful bone marrow transplant. But a matching donor has not been found in any of the international bone marrow databases, and time is running out.

To help Naama find that elusive donor, Ezer Mizion, an international medical assistance organization based in Eretz Yisroel, and Magen David Adom joined forces and held blood drives on Election Day in dozens of locations throughout the country, including Malcha Mall.

Although both organizations have vast experience in organizing and running blood drives, officials did not foresee such a turnout. A crush of people flocked to the makeshift blood donor station set up on the top floor of the mall. By 3 p.m. test tubes for the blood samples were running low, and additional supplies had to be rushed in because so many people wanted to help save Naama's life.

Despite the fact that many volunteers were on their feet for hours, and the donors had to interrupt their shopping to wait in line, no one was complaining -- quite an unusual thing in Eretz Yisroel. In fact, this was one day at the mall that had people positively beaming.


Yonatan Zeevi is a 17-year-old yeshiva student from Yerushalayim. But today he is taking time off from his studies (because of the pikuach nefesh involved) to perform one of the toughest jobs in the world: He is responsible for making sure that more than 1,000 Israelis get directed to the right line, and that they all stay happy while they wait to donate blood samples for bone marrow transplants.

Israelis are notorious for their lack of patience, but Yonatan is an expert at crowd control. After five hours on the job and answering the same questions countless times, he is still smiling.

To Yonatan's left is the area where people can give just 5 cc's of blood -- the small amount needed for tissue-typing -- so that they can be registered as a potential donor at the Ezer Mizion Bone Marrow Data Registry. This process takes just a few minutes.

To his right is the area where people can donate blood to the Magen David Adom national blood bank -- a full 450 cc unit -- in just 20 minutes. A small amount of their donation will also be sent for tissue-typing as part of the drive to find a bone marrow donor for Naama and other cancer patients, while the remainder will be stored at the blood bank for use in a medical emergency.

Before people can donate blood at either area, they have to go to a table and fill out a medical questionnaire. And there is yet another table where people can make a financial contribution to help cover the cost of tissue-typing the samples.

Yonatan has to explain all this to people -- over and over again.

While many people had heard through the newspapers or radio about the bone marrow drive to save Naama's life -- and the lives of dozens of other Jewish cancer patients all over the world who are in desperate need of bone marrow transplants -- others didn't know that they would have this opportunity to perform a mitzva while out on a routine visit to the mall.

Ro'i, 20, is an IDF soldier who came to the mall just to have fun, but then decided to spend part of his day helping others after he saw the poster advertising the campaign.

"I want to contribute and try to help," he says, as he waits in the line to donate the full 450 cc's. "Maybe I can save this girl's life."


If the average age of the people waiting in line is any indication, the importance of donating blood is one lesson children in Eretz Yisroel have absorbed well. The majority of the blood donors were in their 20s, and their enthusiasm was inspiring.

Where does this urge to help out others with such enthusiasm come from?

A clue comes from a man who chooses to stand in line for the Ezer Mizion Bone Marrow Data Registry. "I give blood to Magen David Adom twice a year at work," he explains to Yonatan. "Today I want to help this little girl -- Naama."

The man goes to wait in line with his young son. Although blood donors have to be between the ages of 18-55, and the boy is only 8 years old, the time he spends waiting in line is not wasted. He, like the hundreds of other kids who are at the mall with their parents, are getting an invaluable lesson in what it means to help others.

Yardena Cohen is another parent who is teaching her kids about the importance of helping people in need. She came in all the way from Beit Shemesh with her two teenaged daughters specifically to donate blood for the campaign.

"We know it's always important to give blood," says Mrs. Cohen, "but when we saw the advertisements for Naama, it became more real."

Her 19-year-old daughter points out that they're not just helping Naama, but also all the other cancer patients who need to find a matching donor. Her younger sister is only 17, so she is still too young to donate blood, but she says that when she turns 18 she will follow in the family tradition.

"We're always happy to give," Mrs. Cohen says.


Dr. Bracha Zisser, Director of the Ezer Mizion Bone Marrow Data Registry, had expected the national campaign to add another 25,000 potential donors to the registry. But the daylong drive exceeded expectations and brought in a total of 32,000 new donors, making it Ezer Mizion's most successful campaign ever.

"I say this after every campaign -- that Israelis are incredible givers -- but this time all of us are completely blown away," she says.

The Ezer Mizion Bone Marrow Data Registry was founded in 1998, and it began with just 5,000 donors. This year that total exceeded 60,000, and once the 32,000 new samples are tissue-typed, the registry will have more than 90,000 potential Jewish donors.

"We need to have at least 250,000 Jewish donors worldwide," says Dr. Zisser, "in order to give a Jewish cancer patient a reasonable chance of finding a matching donor. Before this campaign, there was a total of 120,000 donors registered in databases around the world, so now we have passed the halfway mark in reaching this goal."

That's good news for little Naama, who is too sick to leave her hospital bed, and needs to find a matching donor soon. All Jews have a special genetic makeup that makes it extremely rare for them to find a non-Jewish donor. Naama's problem is compounded by the fact that she has an extremely rare tissue type, and she needs as wide a donor pool as possible to find that one person who may be able to save her life.

Despite the large turnout on her behalf, the struggle is not yet over. Each of those 32,000 samples has been sent to the United States to be tissue-typed, a process that can take anywhere from six to eight weeks, at a cost of $65 per sample in lab fees.

"The costs of running this campaign are close to $2 million," says Dr. Zisser. "Many Israelis who were unable to donate blood because they were over 55 or not in good health made financial contributions. But Jews all over the world can also make a donation to the campaign and have a share in this mitzva."

At the Malcha Mall, Naama's family members were raising those funds -- one shekel at a time.

Two older women, who are both cousins of the little girl, have been at the mall since the doors opened at 9 a.m. Although they are heartened by the tremendous amount of people who have come to donate blood, their job is to convince the passersby to donate even a little bit of change to help cover the lab costs.

And they are taking their job very seriously.

"How long will this interview last?" asks one of the women, who does not want to be distracted from her task for even a few minutes. "I don't have a lot of time."

"Shekel, shekel," calls out her cousin, as she holds out a large bag that is heavy with coins.

"Even a small contribution helps," she says to a young Arab couple who are pushing a child in a stroller.

The man reaches into his pocket to make a donation.

At the mall, at least, all members of Israeli society seem to have agreed to put aside their differences. For one day -- for one little girl -- the cultural barriers dissolve, and everyone is momentarily united.


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