Rabbinical Student "Gift of Life" Bone Marrow Donor and Recipient Meet for First Time at HUC-JIR Graduation in New York -- Jewish Week, May 15, 2007
Painless Gift Of Life
Reunion of bone marrow donor and recipient at HUC shines a light on new
technology in the field.
Steve Lipman - Staff Writer
One of the guests of honor at the recent commencement exercises of
Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, sitting at the far
left of the first row of the sanctuary in Temple Emanu-El, was neither
guest speaker, college official Nor financial supporter of the
Dalia Samansky, a third-year rabbinical student at the school's Los
Angeles campus who received her master's degree in L.A. the following
week, was invited to the New York commencement as role model.
She had saved a life.
Philanthropist Lynn Schusterman, keynote speaker at the Temple Emanu-El
ceremony, made brief remarks about Samansky, who had served as a bone
marrow donor two years ago for Wendy Feller, an actress from Providence
who had leukemia. Then Schusterman introduced Samansky and Feller, who
was also sitting in the front row, at the far right.
The two walked onto the bima, where they saw each other for the first
time, hugging and holding hands, in a meeting arranged by the Gift of
Life Bone Marrow Foundation.
"We just held each other and looked into each other's eyes for I don't
know how long," Feller, 59, says, "Dalia gave me orchids. I gave Dalia
an antique pin."
"Thank you for saving my life," Feller whispered.
Each said a few words to the audience.
"As future Jewish leaders we will be given many opportunities to touch
and inspire lives, but rarely are we given the opportunity to truly
partner with God in helping to save a life," Samansky said. "Two years
ago when living in Israel for my first year of rabbinical school, I was
given that opportunity. And thankfully, with the help of good doctors
and your inspiring determination to live and thrive, you and I are
blessed to be meeting today."
Samansky, 27, a native of Los Angeles, was introduced to Gift of Life
(www.giftoflife.org) during a CAJE educators' conference in Columbus,
Ohio, in 2003. Jay Feinberg, Gift of Life founder and himself a bone
marrow recipient, described the foundation's work - it facilitates bone
marrow, blood stem cell and umbilical cord transplants for children and
adults suffering from life-threatening illnesses.
The foundation concentrates on the Jewish community, because the odds of
finding a transplant match are greater in a recipient's ethnic
community, and because the pool of potential Jewish donors was
substantially reduced by the murder of six million people during the
The 16-year-old organization has a donor base of 115,000 donors, and has
made 1,500 matches.
Samansky signed on.
She joined "a bunch" of CAJE participants who were tested in a lobby of
an Ohio State University building.
The next year, Gift of Life called.
"You are a potential match" for someone who is critically ill in the
United States, the caller told Samansky. "Are you still willing to be a
"The question seemed silly," she says.
"From the beginning my only stipulation was as long as it didn't require
me to drop out of my classes I would go through with it," she told her
friends. "For the chance to save a life I am willing to go through
inconvenience and pain, but I could not redo the year in Israel."
Further testing at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem confirmed that she was
a good match - "an exact match, 10 out of 10" antigen and sub-antigen
proteins, genetic markers - for the anonymous recipient.
During a winter break, Samansky underwent further testing at a Boston
hospital and donated the bone marrow - actually, the same stem cells
from her blood that actual bone marrow yields.
Her experience reflected recent advances in transplant technology. Her
original test for compatibility was conducted with a cotton swab in her
cheek, instead of a blood sample. And her donation was done, like
platelet donations at blood centers, with needles in both arms, instead
of, more invasively and more painfully, through a bone in the leg.
The changes "make [the donation process] a little more appealing," says
Shauna Sheffer, public relations coordinator for the Minneapolis-based
National Marrow Donor Program.
Since its first successful use in 1968, bone marrow transplants have
been used to treat patients diagnosed with leukemia, aplastic anemia,
lymphomas such as Hodgkin's disease, multiple myeloma, immune deficiency
disorders and some solid tumors such as breast and ovarian cancer.
"Donating bone marrow is not what it used to be," Samansky says. "There
is now a much easier process for the donors." She was put on a five-day
regimen of Neupogen, a protein-based drug that stimulates the production
of white blood cells. "There are a few side effects that come along with
the Neupogen. A headache and an 'achy' feeling." Her discomfort, she
says, "is nothing compared to the benefit this has the potential to
At the same time, Feller, in the same hospital as Samansky, underwent a
high dose of radiation and chemotherapy to kill her entire immune system
and prepare her to accept Samansky's bone marrow.
Samansky went back to school, receiving periodic updates about the
improvement in Feller's condition. They exchanged unsigned notes. After
a year, they could meet, if they wished; federal law bars bone marrow
donors and recipients from identifying themselves to each other for a
year after a transplant.
Gift of Life arranged the meeting at the HUC commencement to promote its
work before a large audience of current and future Jewish leaders.
Feller and Samansky agreed to the public meeting. "It will give Gift of
Life publicity," Samansky thought.
"I wanted to meet her and I know she wanted to meet me," Feller says.
"What an ideal way to meet."
"It was quite an emotional experience," Feinberg says. "People were
The foundation stages a similar meeting at its annual Partners for Life
dinner in Manhattan each spring. Three donor-recipient pairs were to
meet at the seventh annual dinner at the Grand Hyatt last week.
At the HUC commencement, Samansky says, she was approached by several
people, including Rabbi David Ellenson, president of the school; Rabbi
Sally Priesand, the first woman ordained by HUC; and singer Debby
Friedman. "People I looked up to were thanking me."
After the ceremony, Feller and Samansky went to dinner. They plan to
stay in touch. "We are connected for the rest of my life," Samansky
She says she will give sermons about the donation experience when she
has her own pulpit. "It had a huge impact" on her life, she says. "It
shows you can save lives - anyone can."
Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion is the nation’s oldest institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates men and women for service to American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR’s scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement’s congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR’s campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish history, identity, art, and archaeology, and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding.