Living out Jewish Values in Every Way: A Life-Saving Mitzvah

By Carly Shapiro

It was Charles Bukowski, the American poet and novelist who once wrote, “You begin saving the world by saving one person at a time.” And that’s exactly what Ryan Woloshin, BBYO’s Eastern Region Regional Director, did last month when he became a Gift of Life donor.

The Gift of Life program matches bone barrow and stem cell donors with recipients using cheek swabs and further blood testing once a potential match is made. For Ryan, the connection to Judaism started when he was swabbed at the University of Arizona in January 2014 at a campus event sponsored by Hillel International and the AEPhi Sorority.

At the time, he was surprised to learn that after the Holocaust, when the drives were first started, there was only a 3-4% chance that an Ashkenazi Jew would be able to find a match for bone barrow and stem cells. He felt passionately about the importance of helping increase the number of matches for Jews and other ethnic minorities, and found his ability to do so to be an important factor in his decision to get swabbed. He always wanted to be swabbed, and agreed to donate if he was ever called. Fortunately, Ryan came to learn that through the years, the registry has successfully been built up; now, the likelihood of a match for Ashkenzai Jews has increased to 75-80%.

“While I am super appreciative of the recognition I have received, I still feel as though I am being rewarded for doing what I am supposed to do – save a life,” Ryan admitted.

When he was contacted in December 2016, he was staffing a BBYO convention in Michigan. Soon after, in January, he did a blood test and became a confirmed match with a 54-year-old patient diagnosed with Myelodysplastic syndrome, a precursor to leukemia. In May 2017, Ryan underwent the donation procedure. He shared how his anxiety about the procedure had nothing to do with doctors and needles, but instead, worried that something would be wrong with his body that would prevent the transfusion from being a success.

Ryan recalls an easy recovery after his six-hour procedure in a hospital in Georgetown in Washington, DC. He expressed tremendous gratitude for the support from his family, friends and BBYO colleagues, some of whom visited him after the procedure.

“The support, understanding, and care I have received from the BBYO community are part of what makes this organization so special. BBYO provides an opportunity to explore Jewish values and relate your own experiences. This model of actively connecting to experiences makes us different from any other youth movement.”

Ryan found this experience especially meaningful in how he was able to live out his own quantifiable Jewish values. He engaged with one of the top tiers of Maimonides’ Ladder of Tzedakah, which emphasizes doing a mitzvah for the sake of solely doing a mitzvah. Ryan did not know the recipient and the recipient did not know him. Ryan’s experience also resonated with a teaching from the Mishnah that one who saves a life is considered by the Torah to have saved the entire world. His continued advocacy for the organization as well as his modeling of Jewish values for his teens in Eastern Region BBYO encompasses this teaching. While most of his giving is typically to values and causes he cares about, this was an extraordinary experience, and he is proud to be in a position to have his Jewish identity connected both to his profession and to cause he cares deeply about.

Since then, some BBYO members in Ryan’s region have shown an increased interest in getting swabbed, plying him with questions about his experience. He enjoys seeing teens become engaged in the cause and being curious how they can impact the world in their own way, and is optimistic about continuing to use BBYO as a platform to advocate for such an important cause.

Carly Shapiro is a BBYO alumnae from Northern Region East: DC Council. She is a rising senior at Tulane University and worked at BBYO the past two summers as the Marketing and Communications Intern.