Inspired by her brother’s childhood battle with cancer and a trip to Israel, Syracuse Sophomore Helene Kahn organized a record-setting, life-saving event that connected Jewish Greeks on campus with the university’s Hillel.
Helene Kahn and brother Eli.
Helene Kahn admits that Hillel “isn’t always the cool choice” on campus. But the 19-year-old Policy Studies major (minoring in Entrepreneurship) is hoping to change that. Kahn, who serves as Hillel’s Social Action and Tzedek Chair, is also involved with Syracuse Greek life through her sorority, Kappa Kappa Gamma. Earlier this month, she staged a campus-wide event that brought both communities together.
“There are about 3,000 Greeks on campus,” says Kahn. “A lot of them are Jewish but don’t get involved with Hillel. This was an opportunity for them to connect.”
Helene’s vision for a university-wide bone marrow drive came to her over the summer while on a 10-day trip to Israel courtesy of Hillel and Taglit-birthright israel. There, she participated in the Mega Event, an evening of celebration for Taglit-birthright israel participants which featured a bone marrow registry hosted by Gift of Life (GOL).
“Kids my age were running [the registry],” recalls Kahn. “I thought, ‘Oh, this is so easy!’”
When she returned to campus, she proposed the idea to Hillel Executive Director Lowell Lustig who informed her that, ironically, a university parent had just offered to pay for the necessary testing should Hillel decide to run a bone marrow drive on campus. The cost of testing, approximately $72 per sample, often prohibits groups from running drives.
“When I found out about the donation, I knew we better go big or go home because you don’t get that opportunity every day,” says Kahn.
And “go big” they did. Kahn recruited 175 of her closest friends, many from other sororities and fraternities on campus, to serve as captains. She held four separate training sessions where the captains learned how to fill out paperwork, properly affix bar codes and package swab samples.
Using money collected through personal fundraising, Kahn and her captains distributed 5,000 glossy postcards advertising the drive and made sure to wear customized tee-shirts a few days in advance as a reminder. The drive was also advertised in the student newspaper and at local synagogues.
It all paid off. On the day of the drive, the nearly 200 captains spread out over nine locations across campus to collect 1,123 samples for GOL. GOL Executive Director Jay Feinberg describes Syracuse’s work as one of the most successful bone marrow drives his group has ever seen.
The day was also especially significant for GOL and Syracuse University because alumna Lillian Baharestani, who organized a GOL drive in 2004, was at a GOL regional collection site on November 1, donating her bone marrow for a baby with whom she matched.
“Never did I think my involvement with GOL would be anything more then spreading the word about its vital work,” said Baharestani “But I did always secretly wish that I could be a lucky donor.”
A baby in need of bone marrow is a something Kahn knows a lot about. When she was 5 years old, her younger brother Eli was diganosed with Acute Lymphomatic Leukemia. He made a full recovery after months of treatment at the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.
At the age of 12, in preparation for his Bar Mitzvah, Eli started the non-profit organization Cartridges for a Cure. Now 16 years old, Eli has raised more than $80,000, well over his original goal of $1,800. In 2007, Eli was honored as a “Volvo for Life Hero” and donated his $50,000 winnings to Johns Hopkins.
“This is something that’s really important to me,” explains Kahn. “You take four minutes out of your day and you could save someone’s life.”