a marrow bridge

AEPi Reaches 613 Matches for Gift of Life Bone Marrow Donations

The fraternity has swabbed over 16,000 people in its 19-year partnership with the non-profit, which finds matches for people in need of bone marrow or stem cells transplants

When Raphael Eidelman was called to donate to Gift of Life, a bone marrow and blood stem cell registry with headquarters in Boca Raton, Fla., he saw it as an opportunity to give back. 

He was an Alpha Epsilon Pi International Fraternity (AEPi) brother at California State University – Northridge (CSUN). His brothers liked to have fun, Eidelman told eJewishPhilanthropy, but were also sensitive and caring, saying “I love you” to each other. They were involved in tikkun olam, with most jumping at the opportunity to enter the Gift of Life registry, an AEPi partnership since 2004. A year and a half after he swabbed himself, he was given the opportunity to save a life. The person he donated stem cells to in March 2022 was a close genetic match, so he figured they were an Ashkenazi Jew. He saw his donation as a chance to “do something for the Jewish community like the Jewish community at CSUN has done for me,” he said. “There’s a sense of brotherhood among all Jewish people, whatever fraternity they may be in, whatever social group, it doesn’t matter.”

Since AEPi first partnered with Gift of Life, the nonprofit has swabbed over 16,000 students through the fraternity, sparking 613 matches, and saving 80 lives. For Gift of Life – and Jews in general – 613 matches represents a significant milestone, matching the 613 commandments in the Torah. They hit the notable number on February 5.  Gift of Life was launched in 1991 by Jay Feinberg, who was diagnosed at age 22 with leukemia that year, right as he was beginning law school. “I was diagnosed and told that the likelihood of finding a match for me was like looking for a needle in a haystack,” Feinberg told eJP, “and the reason for that was because my background was Eastern European Jewish. The reason behind that is purely biological, the fact that we inherit our genetics from our parents, who inherited it from their parents, and so on and so forth. It spans generations.” Tissue type, like hair color, is inherited. The more diversity there is in a registry, the more possible matches that can occur. Gift of Life reports that, should a sibling need a bone marrow transplant, even brothers and sisters from the same parents have only a 25% chance of being a match; as a result, 70% of people, according to the nonprofit, don’t have a match in their family. 

The American Cancer Society estimates that during 2023, nearly 60,000 Americans will be diagnosed with new cases of leukemia, and around 24,000 will die of the disease. The likelihood of finding a match that can save your life varies greatly by ethnic group. Gift of Life reports that 79% of whites will be matched, 60% of Native Americans, 48% of Hispanic or Latinos, 47% of Asian or Pacific Islanders, and 29% of Black or African Americans. The fewer people from your ethnic group getting swabbed, the lower the likelihood of you getting a life-saving bone-marrow transplant. 

For Ashkenazi Jews, the probability of finding a match was severely compromised as bloodlines were destroyed during the Holocaust. “There were so many people that weren’t available to be in the registry,” Feinberg said. “There were 6 million fewer people who could have had families and children and grandchildren who ultimately would have been eligible to be in the registry, but weren’t even born because those people had died during the Holocaust.”

Feinberg started a search for his match that turned into the Gift of Life registry. Many in the Jewish community joined the search, but it took four years before he found a life-saving match. Since then, Feinberg has dedicated his organization to adding diversity to the global donor pool. 

Even before partnering with Gift of Life on bone marrow donations, AEPi was already involved in similar charitable work, with many branches regularly holding blood drives. In the early aughts, Feinberg spoke at an AEPi regional conclave, a conference at Temple University in Philadelphia that was attended by hundreds of undergraduate brothers, “We saw our undergrads really gravitated to this idea of getting involved with Gift of Life,” Jonathan Pierce, an AEPi brother who was on the board of directors when the partnership began, told eJP. “It’s because it’s a way for college students [to] do a mitzvah; they can do something that’s good, but they don’t have to go raise money.”

At a typical swab drive, a few AEPi guys man a table in the middle of a quad or in a dining hall, promoting why it’s important to swab. Students can swab on the spot or by using a mail-in kit. AEPi brothers swab their brothers. They swab other fraternity and sorority members. They swab Jews. They swab Christians. They swab Muslims and Bahá?ís and Hindus. They swab anyone who wants to help out. Some chapters have held concerts or other events in support of Gift of Life. At the AEPi conventions, most attendees swab, leading to more matches. 

Once swabbed, you can be called to donate bone marrow or stem cells quickly or it could take years. Many are never contacted. 

When AEPi’s regional director, Grant Bigman, was swabbed in 2015, it took five minutes; his phone rang five years later. Would he donate his stem cells to help save a stranger’s life?

“I had never donated blood or anything prior to this. I hate needles,” Bigman told eJP. “But I was like, ‘Well, if I can overcome my fear to help this stranger, I’m gonna do it.’… I was driven by the fact of knowing that there was a person like me out there who needed help. In the fraternity, we always say the phrase, ‘I am my brother’s keeper.’ And so I’m looking at myself and I say, ‘What if this is a guy who’s in AEPi? What if this is someone who also has a girlfriend? Who also went through a college experience like I did? And I’m the only person who could potentially help them fight cancer. And that’s what really drove me to overcome my fear.”

At 30, Bigman, not knowing anything about the recipient, journeyed to northern Virginia, where medical staff gave him filgrastim shots for five days to create increased white blood cells and stimulate bone marrow. “They even put up my partner and I and our dog at a hotel so that we could be together,” he said. “It was unique because generally Gift of Life sends a representative to be with you through the process, but with COVID, that wasn’t an option.”

The day of the procedure, doctors connected him to an apheresis machine, which draws blood from one arm, identifying and collecting the needed stem cells, and then returns the rest of the blood to the other arm. This procedure is called a Peripheral Blood Stem Cell (PBSC) donation, and accounts for over 90% of transplants. Less than 10% of donors give bone marrow, which is an outpatient procedure where the patient is put under general anesthesia and marrow is extracted from their hip bone with a needle. Bone marrow is normally only taken if the recipient is a child. 

Sometimes, one donation can turn to more opportunities. For Eidelman, the person he donated to needed “an immune boost,” so he was called back in December 2022. “This guy wants to double dip,” he recalled joking. Of course, he was happy to help, watching movies as his blood filtered through the machine. “I recommend going to Boca Raton… It’s a free trip to a beautiful place.”

AEPi’s partnership with Gift of Life has led to other such partnerships. “We have our undergrads who have one foot in the Jewish world,” Pierce said. “They do a lot of work with Hillel and Shabbat organizations like that, and then they’re involved in the international world. So one of the things that AEPi has done is gotten other fraternities and sororities involved in Gift of Life, having events, getting them to do swab events with them.” Today the list of Jewish organizations involved with Gift of Life includes, among others, the Jewish Multiracial Network, Hillel, Taglit Birthright Israel, Chabad and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. 

“Because of the success in the Jewish community that we had, we were approached by many families and organizations to try to replicate what we did in the Jewish community in other underserved populations to increase chances of finding a match,” Feinberg said. Gift of Life now works with Black, Hispanic and Latino populations, “to help improve their chances as well,” he continued. “So far the biggest impact that we have had has been in the Jewish community, where, at the time that I was diagnosed in the early 90s, the likelihood of an Ashkenazi patient finding a match was 5%. Today, it’s upwards of 80%. And that’s really thanks to a recruitment that’s taken place over time.”

Eidelman is grateful that Gift of Life contacted him because, when he gave his PBSC donation, he “was really lost in what I wanted to do in life,” he said. “I was a student, figuring all that out, and all of a sudden, this incredible opportunity landed in my lap. I didn’t really think much of it other than at face value, which is having the opportunity to save a life… I felt like I had to say yes, because, if for some reason I said no, I would regret it the rest of my life. Thank God, I could have done something.”