Jay Feinberg wants to be your Jewish hero


The Gift of Life

By Michael Orbach

Issue of September 17, 2010/ 9 Tishrei 5771

At the cozy restored mansion in Hewlett that houses the Stella K. Abraham (SKA) High School for Girls, Jay Feinberg, executive director of the Gift of Life, was convincing the roughly 200 girls in the auditorium to vote for him. Feinberg wasn’t running for political office, but on a quest to capture one of the top 20 spaces on the Jewish Community Heroes contest.

The contest, sponsored by The Jewish Federation of North America, is conducted through online voting. As of The Jewish Star’s press deadline on Wednesday afternoon, Feinberg was safely ensconced in second place with over 9,000 votes. The top 20 vote getters present at an annual Jewish Federation meeting and possibly win $25,000 for their organization.

Feinberg knows exactly what he would use the money for. The Gift of Life is a bone marrow registry. Bone marrow comprises the stem cells found inside large bones that produce the components of blood — red, white and platelet cells. Bone marrow transfers are an effective treatment for a number of cancers. Possible donors are tested through a cheek swab, each at a cost of $54 to process. Winning the contest, Feinberg explained on Monday, Sept. 13, would mean “450 cheek swabs.”

Feinberg delivered his speech during the Aseret Y’mei Teshuva, the 10 days of repentance that began with Rosh Hashanah and will culminate with Yom Kippur this weekend, since the school had chosen Gift of Life as the charity they would raise money for during the school’s annual tzedaka campaign.

“Last year, our community became more aware of the need for a larger bone marrow donor registry,” Rabbi Yosef Zakutinsky of SKA explained. “In addition, we were so awed and inspired by Jay Feinberg’s story, and felt the need to spread awareness and raise funds for his fantastic organization.”

As for stories, Feinberg has a compelling one. As he explained to the audience, he was not coming as the executive director of the Gift of Life, but as a cancer survivor. At 22, he recalled, “Everything was going along great,” until he found himself in the emergency room with a doctor who was explaining that he had leukemia. Later at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Feinberg’s situation proceeded to get worse.

Chemotherapy would work for him for three years, but after that would probably become ineffective, he was told. The doctor advised him to go home and make a bucket list of everything he wanted to do before he kicked the bucket, as the expression goes, and do them in those three years. After that, doctors would reassess what methods could be used to fight his cancer. However, the doctor did offer one slight ray of hope.

“Transplants can save your life,” Feinberg said the doctor told him. “But, you’ll never get one, since you’re Jewish.”

The doctor was not being anti-Semitic; he was simply pointing to the fact that at the time of Feinberg’s diagnosis in 1991, very few possible Jewish donors were in the existing bone marrow registries. The doctor didn’t count on one factor, however.

“The power of the Jewish mother,” Feinberg told the audience. “She wasn’t going to see her son die.”

The Feinberg family began a marathon of bone marrow drives across the United States, Canada and Israel. Even the tiny Jewish community in Tokyo held one. At the time, samples were obtained through blood samples instead of the easy cheek swabs. Over 60,000 people were tested in 240 drives.

After four years the chemotherapy became ineffective but Feinberg still did not have a match. The Wisconsin Institute for Torah Study, a small yeshiva of 130 students held one of the final drives. At the last minute one of the volunteer organizers couldn’t make it and his sister took his place. The sister was afraid of needles but at the last minute decided to get tested. She was Feinberg’s perfect match.

“That’s the reason I’m here today.” Feinberg explained.

After his successful transplant, Feinberg continued to the organization his family founded.

“I couldn’t let what we created vanish,” he said.

So far the organization has over 170,000 possible bone marrow donors in its registry; he hopes to eventually have 300,000.

Though while he’s aiming to be a Jewish community hero, Feinberg maintains that he himself is not a hero; the donors are. As an example he pointed to a red haired teacher in the audience: Yael Gelernter, a Tanach teacher, whose husband, Eli, has been a bone marrow donor on two separate occasions.

“You’re saving someone’s life,” Gelernter explained. “It’s painful, but it’s worth it.”