With Help From Jewish Group, Woman Seeks a New Kidney

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Janet Berkowitz with her husband, Phil
Janet Berkowitz with her husband, Phil, before he died (Photo by Lynda McCourt)

Janet Berkowitz needed a break.

Berkowitz, 61, has long suffered from bipolar disorder, and struggled with suicidal ideation for most of her life. She and her husband, Phil Garber, who died just a few years ago, spent a significant amount of their time together checking in and out of various mental health programs. And just as Berkowitz was beginning a search for a new kidney a few years back, the result of her long-term lithium prescription, Garber became very sick, and her search was put on hold. After she was able to process Garber’s death, Berkowitz was finally mentally prepared to begin the arduous, emotionally taxing search for a new kidney, while continuing on dialysis.

Enter Renewal.

Renewal, a Jewish nonprofit organization based in Brooklyn, pairs strangers in need of kidneys with living donors who are willing and able to give up one of their own. They provide guidance, transportation and medical advice from experts to recipients and donors. In addition, Renewal covers the cost of transportation for the donor, should they need to travel for testing or donation, as well as food and lodging for a family member of the donor as they make their trip. Renewal even covers a donor’s lost wages during the donation and recovery period, all covered by private donors.

All Renewal asks of Berkowitz — and other recipients — is to put together an awareness event, which will feature a speech from Renewal’s director of outreach, Rabbi Joshua Strum, titled “The Anatomy of Kindness.” Berkowitz, along with her sister, Cynthia, and her friend, Edie Moser, are trying to bring over 100 people to Temple Sinai in Cinnaminson, New Jersey, Jan. 5, at 2 p.m., to hear Strum speak. If she’s lucky, she
might even find a donor out of the crowd.

A pretty good deal, all things considered.

“She’s in desperate need of a kidney transplant,” Moser said. “She’s one of the most loving, nurturing people I’ve ever met.”

Berkowitz lives in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey, and is heavily involved in suicide prevention and mental health efforts in her state, as she has been for decades. She and her husband even started the first New Jersey meetings of Suicide Anonymous.

After years of just keeping her head above water when she was relying on medication, she found that what helped her live a full life was combining the medication with her love of the arts. Berkowitz, besides creating her own work, has taught mime, theater and art to her peers at mental health facilities for many years.

A group that she ran with her husband, called Creative Crisis Care, continues to organize and facilitate a wide range of workshops for those struggling with suicidal ideation, all of which play to Berkowitz’s strengths as an artist and performer; there are role-plays, mime performances, and even a short play written by Berkowitz herself, one that she calls “my greatest joy.”

It has been a long road for Berkowitz, one that was made easier by Garber, who she calls “a genius.” Together, she said, they were able to find joy and even laughter in their struggles with suicide. “This is the most fun I ever had in the mental health system,” she recalls a client telling her. It’s those sorts of reactions that help her to push forward.

Thus far, the dialysis has been tough on Berkowitz. She’s an active, energetic person, deeply committed to the people she works with and a dedicated swimmer, too. She finds that her energy is often depleted, and that the activities that help her and those around her are becoming more and more difficult for her to perform.

The average life expectancy on dialysis is typically not more than five to 10 years, according to the National Kidney Foundation. And though Berkowitz is already registered with United Network for Organ Sharing, the group that oversees the U.S. organ transplant system, that’s no guarantee of a timely transplant. She hopes to find a living donor through Renewal.

“I want a kidney transplant,” she said.

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