Emily Volz Donates Her Kidney as Exchange of Torah

Emily Volz Donates Her Kidney as Exchange of Torah

Emily Volz, daughter of Beth Darmstadter,  is a rabbinic student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, and a graduate of Oberlin College (with degrees in Jewish and Gender Studies) and a graduate of our religious school.  I wanted to share her recent email with our congregation, as she updates us on how she will be donating her kidney, and includes information on organ donation.  Our prayers for a refuah sheleimah – a complete healing – are with her and her recipient… and I hope to share post-operative updates as I receive them. 

Emily Volz

Dear Family, Friends, Professors, Rabbis, and Colleagues—

 If you’re receiving this email, it’s either because you have requested that I keep you abreast of significant updates regarding my intention to donate my kidney, or because I assume that you would be interested in hearing this update.  You likely already know this, but I have been planning on and actively working towards donating my kidney to a stranger for just over a year now.  I’ll spare you of the many details that have transpired over the past twelve months (but feel free to ask if there is anything more you would like to know or need to be convinced that this decision isn’t reflective of a loss of sanity on my part), except to say the following: Surgery has been officially scheduled for Thursday, August 5th, at 11:00 am, at New York Presbyterian-Columbia. Now, even though this is less than two weeks away, we still have to hope that any number of things won’t go wrong on either mine or the recipient’s end.  I have some pre-op labs and appointments this week, just to make sure that I have remained healthy since my initial battery of medical tests late last year.  I imagine that no major surprises will be discovered, but I suppose the definition of a surprise is that it is unexpected.  I have been reflecting on an excerpt from Bereishit Rabbah 95:3 (with thanks to Aryeh Bernstein, whom I do not personally know, but whose post on his own kidney donation is where I originally encountered this text): “…But at that point [the time of the Patriarchs], Torah had not yet been given, yet it is written about Avraham, ‘And he has kept my charge: [My commandments, my laws, and my teachings/Torah]’ (Genesis 26:5). So from where did Avraham learn the Torah?! Rabbi Shim’on says: his two kidneys became like two pitchers of water, and they flowed Torah. And from where is it that this can be so? ‘My kidneys instruct me in morals at night’ (Psalms 16:7).” Humorous mental image of talking kidneys aside, I think there is truth in the idea that the enterprise of teaching and learning Torah is a profoundly embodied act.  I believe that Rabbi Shim’on is revealing a truth that remains fundamental today: we are sustained by both the mental and physical strengths of the people around us.  These are not separable realms, and (in my opinion) we all face a moral obligation to sustain life by giving both of our minds and of our bodies.  According to Rabbi Shim’on, we have Torah flowing through our bodies, and, according to me, we must be willing to give of this source in order to be considered authentically engaged in matters of Torah.   Kidney donation also calls on a lot of metaphors of childbirth, at least for me.  In this weekend’s New York Times Magazine, I read a wonderful article by Leslie Jamison, a favorite author of mine, called “The Imperial Cut: A Personal History of the C-section”. In describing the history of the caesarean section, Jamison quotes an earlier (1925) history of the procedure by Herbert Spencer, who calls it “the greatest of all operations, in that is directly affects two lives”.  I was immediately struck by the realization that any living organ donation surgery also fits into this rare surgical category.  However, whereas a c-section represents the severing of the physical connection between two lives, donor nephrectomy represents the beginning.  By the time I wake up from my procedure (with an incision that will scar to closely resemble one from a c-section), my life will be entangled with that of a woman who is presently a stranger to me.  These parallels have been floating in my mind for quite some time now, to the point that about a month ago I dreamt of a surgeon pulling out my kidney to find that it had been attached to me via an umbilical cord.   I am holding these two ideas—kidney donation as an exchange of Torah and kidney donation as echoing birth—as I move forward towards next Thursday, and then hopefully through a smooth recovery process.   If you are of the davening/praying type, my Hebrew name is Amalya Miriam bat Batya עמליה מרים בת בתיה, and for those who are of the Tehillim-reciting type, I am asking people to recite Psalm 16 for me on the day of my surgery. There will be more to follow sometime soon in regards to a Meal Train and other types of support/bikkur cholim; if you are local to NYC and would like to be looped in to that, please let me know.  L’chayim—to life,Emily  P.S. – I have been meaning to send out an ‘annual letter update’ of sorts for many months, and pledge to get around to it before my surgery, so be on the lookout for that if you fall into the ‘friends and family’ categories. P.P.S. – My surgeon is supportive of my request to take a picture of my kidney after its removal.  Let me know if you’d like to see that (to avoid traumatizing this entire listserv). 


Last week we shared that Emily Volz was having surgery this past Thursday to donate one of her kidneys.  The surgery on Thursday was successful; Emily got to speak with the very grateful recipient before their surgeries.  Emily is now home from the hospital and looks forward to a 3-4 weeks recovery.  We wish them both continued renewal of body and spirit.