St. Louis woman donates kidney to help beloved B’nai Amoona cantor emeritus

Lynnsie Kantor donated a kidney to B’nai Amoona’s Hazzan Emeritus. Photo: Bill Motchan

By Ellen Futterman, Editor

The idea began percolating three years ago, when a friend in Israel talked about how donating a kidney had changed her life. Lynnsie Balk Kantor was intrigued.

“She wound up leaving her job and working for the organization that gets recipients for kidney donors in Israel,” said Kantor, 55, a St. Louis-area real estate agent and B’nai Amoona congregant.

A year later, a distant cousin of Kantor’s in Dallas needed a kidney and posted a phone number on Facebook for possible donors. “I called the number in Dallas but they never got back to me,” said Kantor, “so I put it out of my mind.”

Then this February, Kantor heard through Facebook and the B’nai Amoona grapevine that Hazzan Leon S. Lissek, 81, needed a kidney. He had been the cantor at B’nai Amoona for 30 years, retiring in 1998 as cantor emeritus, a title he still holds. He and his wife, Michal, now live in Teaneck, N.J. The couple has three children and six grandchildren. 

Kantor had grown up with Cantor Lissek, who as a child was placed in a French Catholic orphanage by his mother during World War II to escape the Holocaust. He had officiated at Kantor’s bat mitzvah and those of her siblings and became good friends with her parents. Kantor’s father, Edward Balk, was president of B’nai Amoona for several years during Lissek’s tenure.

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“I remember being scared of the Hazzan when I was little because he had this amazing, booming voice that could fill a massive room,” said Kantor. “He and his family were such a big part of our family when I was growing up and we stayed in touch after they left.”

The information Kantor had picked up from Lissek’s Facebook page pointed her to Renewal, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based nonprofit that works to save lives through kidney donations. Founded in 2006, its roots are in Brooklyn’s ultra-Orthodox community of Borough Park.

Wanting to help Lissek, Kantor contacted Renewal and received a package, which instructed her to swab four areas inside her cheeks, then mail the swab sticks back. A blood test and cheek swabs are often the first steps in determining donor-recipient compatibility. 

About a month later, on March 19, Lissek’s wife and son, along with Rabbi Josh Sturm, director of community outreach at Renewal, held an informational meeting at B’nai Amoona to answer questions about kidney donations. Kantor attended the meeting, which she found to be extremely educational and uplifting. 

Sturm’s presentation included videos of living donors talking about their experiences. He noted that kidney donation is considered a low-risk surgery for the donor, with few long-term complications, and has a very high rate of success for the recipient. 

Sturm also spoke about Lissek, who though in his 80s and significantly older than most kidney recipients, takes meticulous care of himself, working out regularly with a trainer and eating healthfully. He is in such good shape, in fact, that he didn’t yet need to be on dialysis, which is unusual for a patient waiting for a kidney. 

If there was any doubt in Kantor’s mind, the Renewal presentation convinced her that donating a kidney was right for her. She also wondered if her kidney would be compatible and find its way to Cantor Lissek. 

***

“The relationship between the Lisseks and the Balks began when Hazzan/Cantor Leon Lissek was hired by B’nai Amoona. The entire synagogue fell in love with his voice and wonderful soul, with Michal’s vibrant spirit and their three kids, Devorah, Shmuel and Shira. Though I was a shy girl at age 13 and quite frankly terrified of this big man as I studied for my bat mitzvah, I grew to understand what a gentle giant he was.” 

— July 30th, 5:25 p.m. Lynnsie Balk Kantor’s Facebook page

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About 11 years ago, an acquaintance of Renewal founder and chairman Mendy Reiner approached him, asking for help in finding a kidney. Reiner decided they should advertise in a couple of Jewish newspapers.

“Lo and behold,” Sturm said, “not only did they get a number of people who responded that they were willing to donate, but they also had a number of people who reached out and said, ‘Would you be willing to do the same for my sister, my brother, my aunt, who also need a kidney?’ 

“Mendy realized there was such a need in the Jewish community — not that the need is greater in the Jewish community than any other community — but that’s where he was dealing. He saw the need and Renewal was born,” Sturm added.

The organization’s first-year goal was to help facilitate one kidney transplant. “They figured if they could save one life it would be awesome,” said Sturm. “The next year they doubled their goal with two transplants. 

Last year, the organization was involved in 67 kidney transplants, Sturm said. And it hopes to surpass that number this year.

Although Renewal started in the ultra-Orthodox community, it has since expanded to other streams of Judaism across North America. “We don’t interrogate people about their religious affiliation,” said Sturm. “That said, we are a Jewish organization and the overwhelming number of patients on our waiting list — 95 percent — come from different parts of the Jewish community. Unfortunately, we don’t have a refrigerator full of kidneys. We can’t help everyone.”

According to the National Kidney Foundation, approximately 18,000 people were on the national waiting list for a kidney in 1990; today, that list has more than 100,000 names. Yet there are only 18,000 to 19,000 transplants each year and roughly 5,000 to 6,000 people die while waiting.

Top causes of kidney disease include high blood pressure and diabetes, both of which have escalated in recent decades in connection to the increased rate of obesity. Sturm notes that with dialysis being able to extend life for at least five years, some potential recipients who might have died in earlier years waiting for a kidney stay on the transplant list much longer. 

Renewal helps potential recipients spread the word about their need — a strategy Sturm says is crucial. “We can create ads if they want for their local newspaper and flyers at their synagogue,” said Sturm. “We also encourage a potential recipient to reach out using social media.”

That’s exactly what the Lisseks did, casting a wide net to as many people as possible who might want to get tested and donate. In Cantor Lissek’s case, doctors advised that he seek a live kidney donor as opposed to a cadaver donor — a live kidney tends to work better and longer than a deceased donor kidney. 

In-depth testing on live donors includes blood and urine work (blood and tissue types must be compatible between donor and recipient), a chest X-ray, electrocardiogram, CAT scan of the abdomen and psychosocial counseling.

Then the Lisseks did what is perhaps the hardest thing of all: They waited. And prayed.

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Renewal is paying the costs of transportation, hotels, food, and anything else I might need. The recipient’s insurance pays the medical bills. (Renewal) make(s) the whole process feel incredibly easy and supported.

— Aug. 6, 10:27 p.m. Lynnsie Balk Kantor’s Facebook page 

*** 

At 7:27 p.m. on Wednesday, July 19, Kantor placed a call to the Lisseks at their home in Teaneck. Michal Lissek answered the phone. She sounded delighted to hear from Kantor, who asked how everyone was doing. 

“We’re doing well,” said Michal. “But we still don’t have a match. 

“Leon is at the top of the list,” she continued. By that time, he had been on the Renewal waiting list for nine months.

“As of three weeks ago, we were told there were two people who were a match for Leon who were being tested,” she added.

Kantor then asked Michal to put her husband on the phone, too. After a few pleasantries, Kantor said to the Lisseks, “Guess what? I was one of the people being tested. And as of this morning, I learned I am going to have the honor of giving you my kidney.”

Choruses of “Oh my God” and “I can’t believe it” erupted, along with shrieks of delight. Cantor Lissek started to cry. Tears of joy, Michal said. 

Now that the Lisseks knew, Kantor had others to tell, including her three adult children, siblings, ex-husband and a few good friends — her “board of directors,” as she calls them. Although she was 99 percent sure, she still wanted feedback on whether she should give her kidney to an elderly person like Lissek, or someone younger.

She received two emails that convinced her following her heart was the right decision. The first was from her youngest son, Noam, 22, who wrote: “The chances of you matching with someone you know and love seem pretty rare. I think you should do it.”

The other was from her brother in Cincinnati, Rabbi Hanan Balk. He pointed out that she could donate her kidney to a 30-year-old and some horrible tragedy, even death, could befall that person. “Only God knows how long life is,” Balk told his sister. “Hazzan Lissek could have a lot of good years with your kidney.”

Meanwhile, the jubilation that a match had been found was not lost on the Lisseks. With no family members matching or being able to donate and with his advanced age, they had had their doubts Lissek would ever get a healthy kidney. 

“That such a person exists on this Earth to give of themselves so courageously and bravely . . . Lynnsie is an angel,” said Michal. “We are absolutely overwhelmed by her generosity and selflessness.”

***

Arrived in NYC this afternoon. I had dinner tonight with my sister and 4 of my nieces and nephews. Afterwards we wanted to have a pic taken of us outside and there were two women sitting nearby so we asked them. We were chatting …and when one heard that I was donating a kidney she took me aside and told me that she herself has only one kidney. Hers was removed due to a disease of some kind, and she wanted to assure me that I would be totally fine, that the surgery isn’t difficult at all, and that the only thing she can’t do is play hockey (she was Canadian)! What are the chances of the woman we asked for the picture had had a kidney removed, in all of NYC?

— Aug. 6, 9:54 p.m., Lynnsie Balk Kantor’s Facebook page

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Renewal only works with certain hospitals that have a lot of experience with kidney transplants, explained Sturm, including New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. That’s where #OperationKantor2Cantor  — as Kantor had named it — took place on Tuesday, Aug. 8. 

Kantor and Lissek each had their own team of doctors and transplant coordinators, as well as friends and family to support them. The day before the surgery, Kantor, Lissek and their supporters gathered for a prayer service. Among those in the group was Rabbi Shelley Kniaz, 57, who knows the Lisseks because they belong to the same congregation in Teaneck. When Kniaz first heard about Lissek’s need for a kidney, she, too, decided to get tested in the hopes of donating hers to him. But they were not a match. 

Still, she said, she decided to donate to someone else in July, who turned out to be a 61-year-old woman. Kniaz neither knew this woman nor have they since met, though she hopes one day they will.  Nevertheless, she says donating her kidney was one of her best decisions, ever. “I only wish I had another kidney to give,” Kniaz said.

“Shelley Kniaz was two weeks ahead of me, so it was great to meet her, especially so soon after her surgery,” said Kantor. “She reassured me how easy it was and showed me her scar.” 

Like Kniaz and many other donors, Kantor’s left kidney was removed laproscopically. This form of surgery, performed under general anesthesia, uses a very small incision, a thin scope with a camera to view inside of the body, and wand-like instruments to remove the kidney. The surgery took three hours.

Two days later, she left the hospital for a nearby hotel that had been arranged — and paid for — by Renewal. Donors typically spend two weeks or so after surgery recuperating, which mostly entails getting over minor pain and discomfort. So while Kantor was told she couldn’t do yoga for six weeks, she was quickly able to walk all over the city and take in the sights. The only medication she took after surgery was Tylenol, and not even much of that. 

“The worst part of the whole thing was the anesthesia because it caused dry mouth,” said Kantor. “The risk of this surgery is less than that of an appendectomy or gall bladder removal. With those, the patient is sick, so they’re going into the surgery with a disadvantage. 

“The process of organ transplantation makes sure the donor is healthy. I felt healthier than any other time in my life because everything was checked and re-checked.”

Still, before she did any celebrating, Kantor needed to make sure Cantor Lissek also had fully healed. She knew that as the recipient, it would be harder for him, and he did feel nauseous, weak and dizzy for days after the surgery as he was being pumped with anti-rejection drugs. 

On Aug. 18, just 10 days after the surgery, Lissek was discharged from the hospital, though the couple stayed for five days at the same hotel as Kantor. For the next three months, Lissek will see his doctors at Weill/Cornell once or twice a week. He reports his new kidney is doing “fantastically.” 

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We have reached a new and wonderful milestone in our adventure: we are returning to Teaneck today for our first Shabbat at home since Leon’s transplant. Leon’s new kidney is going strong and he is now up and about. 

Aug. 25, Michal Lissek on Leon Lissek’s Carebridge Page

*** 

Lynnsie Kantor’s daughter, Nava, 27, admits she gets “anxious” about medical procedures, so she was more than a little concerned about her mother’s decision to donate a kidney. Nava took some comfort in knowing that as a donor, should her mother need a kidney in the future, she would be moved to the top of the waiting list.

“Mostly, I’m very proud of her,” said Nava Kantor, a social worker at the Missouri Foundation for Health. “My mom has been very open sharing every part of her experience on social media. I hope the result is that more people become donors.”

Rabbi Carnie Rose of B’nai Amoona calls Kantor a “hero.” He also notes that Lissek’s situation inspired another congregant to get tested, and she, too, plans to donate as soon as Renewal contacts her.

“What Lynnsie did was such an act of altruism and love,” said Rose, describing it as a “mitzvah goreret mitzvah,” one good deed brings another good deed. 

“Cantor Lissek gave his life to our synagogue and Lynnsie felt she could give life back to him,” said Rose. “She is a true heroine.”

Kantor doesn’t see herself that way at all. In fact, she bristles at the suggestion.

“I am definitely not a hero. I am just someone who heals well and doesn’t particularly mind medical stuff or is terrified by it,” said Kantor. “I was healthy enough to do it and for everything else there is Xanax. 

“If I was going to give my heart, then I’d be a hero. But a kidney is a spare part. I wish more people would do it.”