NFTY’s impact is different on everyone. When Ross Bear, JFTY ’90, began working as an advisor at URJ Kutz Camp and met a new friend, student Cantor Brad Hyman, he realized quickly he’d made a friend for life. What he didn’t expect was that this friendship would later save his life.
On March 12, 2015, Bear woke up in the emergency room, told his kidneys had irreversibly failed. In a matter of moments, he was faced with only two options for survival: find a donor for a new kidney, a list that was 100,000 people long, or live out his life on dialysis, which would involve dozens of hours of treatment each week and likely offer a life expectancy of ten years or less.
With his wife, Marnie (JFTY ’92), whom he met at Kallah back in their NFTY days, and their two young children, Ethan and Henry, by his side, the need to fight was clear. Once he learned that no one in his family was an eligible match, Bear added himself to several organ donation registries local to his Bucks County, PA home, and began the grueling process of dialysis. Unbeknownst to him, Bear’s sister, Stacy, shared his story on Facebook and asked friends and family to spread the word that he needed a donor. Bear began getting phone calls from NFTY friends he hadn’t spoken to in decades, and former camp counselors who still felt an obligation to look after him, even after all these years. One lifelong NFTY friend in particular took the story and ran with it—Hyman, now a Cantor at Temple Chavarim in Plainview, New York, shared the story to his network of friends, family and colleagues, hoping to help the friend who had become like a brother.
It wasn’t long before Bear received a phone call from his transplant coordinator, Maria, that a match had been found, but she couldn’t say who. A few days later, Bear received a Facebook message from a man named James Baker, who introduced himself as Hyman’s brother-in-law and the living donor for Bear’s new kidney. Though the two were complete strangers aside from their shared connection, Baker had witnessed the miracle of organ donation first-hand and felt compelled to help.
Many years prior, his boss’s daughter died suddenly. Her organs were viable to give, and ultimately, six lives were saved. It was a story that stuck with him, so when Baker saw his brother-in-law’s call to action on Facebook, he got tested without telling anyone, and when he came up as a match, he took the next steps to donate his kidney to a complete stranger. “He saw the need to do good for someone else and just did it,” says Bear. “He’s that kind of person. He’s a Marine—he sees a problem and he walks toward it, not away from it.”
After exchanging messages back and forth, Baker, who lives in Michigan with his wife, Julie, and their three children, flew to New York City to prepare to donate his kidney to a man he’d never met. They met briefly the day before the surgery, and learned they had more in common than expected—they shared a wedding anniversary, and their birthdays were just a day apart. After their meeting, they went their separate ways to prepare their bodies and spirits for what was to come. Unknowingly, the two each simultaneously tapped into their own religious traditions just prior to the procedure—Bear went to the mikvah, and Baker, a practicing Catholic, to St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
After a successful transplant, Bear was able to return to a normal life, teaching language arts and history at a substance abuse high school in Philadelphia, and Sunday school at a local temple. He’s made a life of working with youth, first as a volunteer with his TYG after high school, then for many years in his “part-time career” as a youth advisor in positions across New Jersey, while he still had a full time job. Just before he got sick, he got his Master’s degree and became a teacher to finally turn working with kids into his full-time focus, and he believes that his years of dedication to the youth movement and working with children played an integral role in his recovery.
“There are so many metaphors of paying it forward by paying it back. All the graces that came to me through this whole process of illness, potential mortality, rebirth and renewal. You don’t realize the impact,” says Bear. “This is karma. This is dedicating time to working with people, promoting the mission of NFTY, getting kids involved, helping others. Suddenly, it came back to me.”
Now outfitted with his new kidney, Bear has advocated for the gift of life at synagogues and other venues both in his home states of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and as far away as Michigan, the home state of his generous donor. “As someone who teaches and practices Judaism, we’re here to help each other. That’s our job as partners with the Almighty—to help fix the world. We are obligated to save a life whenever we can,” he says.
One avenue for getting the word out about organ donation has been an initiative called the National Donor Sabbath, which brings together members of various faith communities across the United States in an annual observance during the month of November. Reach out to your local synagogue to find out when there is an observance near you.
Now, more than ever, Bear also works hard to promote the mission of NFTY and the importance of Jewish summer camping. As a parent ambassador for URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech, he says he speaks to parents on the fringes of Judaism about what it means for kids to be involved in a Jewish summer camp. “Your children are going to live Judaism, not just be taught about Judaism,” he says. “There’s a lot more that we have to learn about the world than we can learn in high school.” NFTY and Jewish summer camp, he says, fill that gap. “There’s nothing better than Jewish summer camp,” he says. And you never know when or how it might change your life. “Had I not gone to Kutz that day as a young kid, this never would have been possible.”