Rabbi Michael Ungar

Rabbi Michael Ungar, rabbi at Beth El-The Heights Synagogue in Cleveland Heights and owner of At Home Senior Fitness, has a photo taken before his surgery to remove one of his kidneys May 25. He donated a kidney to a man from Cleveland’s west side. 

It might have been difficult, looking at Rabbi Michael Ungar and the six other people dining with him in late June, to place how this group of very different people came to be acquainted.

Those gathered lacked a shared background, religion, nationality, occupation and city of residence. And yet, two things united this group: kidneys and modern medicine.

Ungar and two other dinner guests had donated kidneys to three people joining them at the table. The seventh in attendance was their surgeon.

This day was the group’s first meeting, where Ungar and the others met everyone responsible for three successful, life saving kidney transplants.

Ungar’s journey to donating a kidney started during his 16-year tenure at Congregation Tifereth Israel in Columbus, prior to his move to become the rabbi at Beth El-The Heights Synagogue in Cleveland Heights in 2018.

Ungar was visiting a member of his congregation who had finally found a donor willing to provide a kidney he greatly needed. In the hospital’s waiting room, Ungar witnessed the donor’s and recipient’s families meet for the first time.

“I thought to myself, ‘This is so amazing; if I ever had a chance to do this, I would,’” said Ungar, who is also the owner of At Home Senior Fitness. “I sat there for a while, because I just figured I was too old or my medical history wasn’t good enough. I just never really thought I could do it.”

Years passed until winter 2020, when he saw a Facebook post about a Jewish man from Detroit in need of a kidney and asking others for help.

“Something about the picture reminded me of my own family,” Ungar told the Cleveland Jewish News. ... “As a Jewish person, you always learn if you save one life, it’s like you’ve saved an entire universe. We don’t often get the opportunity to do that.”

He messaged the contact listed on the post. The recipient’s son replied and asked Ungar to connect with Cleveland Clinic.

After contacting the clinic’s kidney donor office, he was notified that he could not serve as this man’s match being that he and the man had different blood types.

The clinic instead offered Ungar the possibility of joining a kidney swap that would benefit the Detroit man and two others in need of kidneys, depending on his test results.

Once days of blood work, counseling, telephone calls and assessments were completed, he received a call from Cleveland Clinic telling him that he was approved. The surgery was scheduled three weeks away on May 25 – the day before Ungar’s 58th birthday.

“I really didn’t invest so much into it emotionally at first, because I just figured there was no way I was going to get approved,” Ungar said. “But then once I started going through testing, my biggest fear was that I wouldn’t be able to do it. ... When they said that I was approved, I was literally crying.”

He joined a donating group consisting of another altruistic donor and a woman who wanted to donate a kidney to her husband, but didn’t share his blood type. The woman donated a kidney to the Jewish man from Detroit, the other altruistic donor donated a kidney to the woman’s husband and Ungar’s kidney went to a Cleveland man who had been on the waiting list for years.

The kidney Ungar donated is expected to last 30 years, which, Ungar said, will bring the recipient “pretty close to life expectancy.”

Ungar spent the following two weeks recovering, dealing mostly with lethargy.

Cleveland Clinic organized a brief meeting for the kidney donors and recipients to meet one another in late June. Ungar had a class to teach and had to leave quickly. It wasn’t until that evening when everyone met up again for dinner that Ungar finally met the new owner of his kidney.

“He gave me a big hug and said, ‘I don’t know how I can thank you for this,’” Ungar said. “I was like, ‘You don’t need to; just live your life.’ I didn’t do this for thanks, for the publicity. I just did it because I wanted to try to help someone.”

Ungar encouraged others to follow in his footsteps, citing the great need for donated organs like kidneys and livers.

“I’m glad that I did it,” Ungar said. “I’m proud of the fact that I did it. But I still don’t fully understand why, and I don’t understand why it took me 58 years to do it.

“We’re all capable of making huge differences in people’s lives. You just have to ask yourself what’s holding you back?”

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