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Pastor's compassion gives rabbi gift of life

The Rev. Karen Onesti and Rabbi Andrew Bossov share a moment together during a special service at Adath Emanu-El Synagogue. A UMNS photo by Frank Onesti.

A UMNS Report
By Kathy L. Gilbert*
Feb. 20, 2007

It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke: A minister and a rabbi walk into a hospital.

But the Rev. Karen Onesti and Rabbi Andrew Bossov of Mount Laurel, N.J., don't care if people laugh—as long as they get the message that being an organ donor is the ultimate act of compassion.

Rabbi Andrew Bossov reads Scripture during a prayer service at Masonville-Rancocas United Methodist Church in Mount Laurel, N.J., as (from left) the Rev. Karen Onesti, Rabbi Emeritus Richard Levine and the Rev. Bob Smith, Capital District Superintendent, listen. A UMNS photo by Frank Onesti.

On Jan. 23, Onesti, pastor of Masonville-Rancocas United Methodist Church, donated her left kidney to her friend Bossov, rabbi at Mount Laurel's Adath Emanu-El synagogue.

Now recovering, Onesti is scheduled to return to her pulpit on Easter Sunday, and Bossov expects to be back at his synagogue in time to celebrate Passover in early April.

Journey of faith

For the two spiritual leaders, the operation in Philadelphia was the culmination of a year-long odyssey that began in January 2006 as both attended an interfaith council of churches meeting in Mount Laurel. Onesti noticed people asking Bossov how he was feeling, and she stayed afterwards to inquire about his health.

Bossov, 47, shared that his kidney disease had progressed and that he had been placed on a waiting list for a transplant. Without hesitation, Onesti offered, "I'll give you one of mine. My family has great kidneys, and we live into our 90s."

Bossov was astonished. "I hadn't even thought yet about asking people to donate; I was just telling everyone I was listed."

Onesti, 49, never wavered from her offer, though she had to undergo a hysterectomy and many tests before she could be a donor.

The fact that both got the green light for proceeding with the surgery during the seasons of Christmas and Hanukah attracted a lot of media attention. “That and the fact that we sound like a bad joke—a rabbi and a minister walk into a hospital," Bossov says. "There are so many bad stories out there about religion. To have a good one right around the holidays, like one reporter told me, ‘This story just writes itself.’”

Sharing the love

The first article was written by a member of Bossov's synagogue, a reporter for the New Jersey Courier-Post, which started the media rollercoaster. An Associated Press story followed and landed in newspapers around the world, including The Jerusalem Post. Onesti and Bossov were interviewed by ABC network’s “Good Morning America,” as well as local television stations.

The day of the surgery, crews with several TV stations were at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, where the transplant took place.

"I woke up the following day and saw on TV that the surgery was a success," laughs Onesti.

"I just see God very much at work in all of this. The ripple effect of what God is doing is a blessing."

Rabbi Emeritus Richard Levine bestows a blessing on the Rev. Karen Onesti and Rabbi Andrew Bossov before their surgeries. A UMNS photo by Frank Onesti.

Masonville-Rancocas United Methodist Church held a 12-hour prayer vigil for Onesti and Bossov before the surgery, and both houses of worship held special services as well.

Describing the experience, Onesti cites Romans 8:28: In all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. “Both Andy and I love the Lord and we are called to do God's purpose," she explains.

Gift of hope

Bossov and Onesti want people to consider registering as organ donors and to make sure family members know their wishes.

The United Methodist Church supports organ transplantation and organ donation in its Social Principles as “acts of charity, agape love, and self-sacrifice.” The church also encourages “all people of faith to become organ and tissue donors as a part of their love and ministry to others in need.”

Organ and Tissue Donor Sunday is observed in The United Methodist Church the second Sunday in November. National Donor Sabbath, an interfaith celebration of the gifts of hope provided through organ and tissue donation, is held in November and observed by many religions.

World Kidney Day will be observed on March 8, and the National Kidney Foundation urges people to learn about how to prevent chronic kidney disease.

In the United States, more than 95,000 people are on a waiting list to receive an organ transplant. Some 26,000 transplants have been performed, and approximately 14,000 donors have given organs.

"This is not just our story," Bossov said. "This is the story for all those people who have been giving before us and for those who gave the day after us and those who will give in the future."

*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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