On Thursday January 22nd, University of Maryland senior Jared Stein, a stem cell donor through the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation, met his recipient for the first time at a Young Professionals Gift of Life event in New York City. Below, Rabbi Jessica Lott shares the story from her perspective.
Tonight I witnessed something incredible, and I wanted to share. It’s a long story, but, I hope, worth the read.
My first interaction with Jared Stein, then an incoming Campus Entrepreneur (CEI) at Maryland, was a hesitant conversation. “I’m really really sorry this is how we’re meeting,” he said, “but I need to tell you I can’t come to the Leadership Retreat.” Long pause. “I, uh, have to go home to donate some stem cells.”
I told him I thought that was a pretty legit excuse.
“I’m just so sorry I won’t be there, but I think this might be important.”
“Yes,” I said, “I think it might be pretty important.”
This was the beginning of a long journey for Jared, who was then just beginning his sophomore year. He was reluctant to tell the story to friends, but in our one-on-ones he told me how he got his cheek swabbed at summer camp never expecting anything to come of it. But then someone from Gift of Life called to say there was a person for whom he might be a match. He told her he’d be there the next day. There was a physical, and an interview, and a surgery, and then waiting. And all he knew was there was a mom in Texas getting his cells. We had many long conversations after the donation about the strange burden he felt. People who knew him were so excited that he had saved a life, but he felt like all he did was “just sit there.” I told him he did so much more than just sit there. When he was asked to show up, he said yes. That is not nothing; that is everything.
Despite his reluctance to be in the spotlight for this act, Jared was motivated by this experience, agitated toward action. He told me he thought maybe we could hold a drive for students at Hillel to get swabbed. Maybe a few friends might help. As the first drive approached, he struggled with whether or not he should share his story. Would it make him too much the focus? Would people think he was playing the hero? Would it scare people off from putting themselves in the registry?
He overcame the hesitations and got to work, making this his mission. And I must add, this wasn’t even his CEI initiative! In the two years since he donated, Jared has recruited a large team of volunteers who got trained by Gift of Life. They regularly visit sorority and fraternity houses, they set up tables at large events, and they have swabbed over 700 Maryland cheeks since they got started. There have been at least 5 additional matches that have resulted from Jared’s drives at Maryland. Jared has also gone on Alternative Break with Maryland Hillel, served as a student group leader and a Maryland Hillel Fellow.
Last month Jared called me. “RJ,” he said. “I have something huge to tell you.” At this point in his senior year, I thought maybe he was calling with job news, or girlfriend news. “Gift of Life is holding a young professionals event in New York in a few weeks. At the event a recipient is going to meet their donor for the first time. They called and told me it’s me. I’m going to meet her.”
I started to cry. “Would you be able to be there?”
Jared Stein meets recipient Jill for the first time. Photo courtesy of Gift of Life.
So I’m writing this on the train back to DC after a couple hours in a noisy bar in Chelsea with hundreds of young professionals, mostly Jews. I stood between Maryland Hillel’s Director, Ari Israel, and Jared’s mom as Jill, a breast cancer survivor from San Antonio, talked about Jared. “You are my family,” she said through her tears, “like it or not! Your cells are in my body. My blood type switched to yours. I am so grateful that you have given me this second chance.” As she trembled, Jared put his hand gently on her back.
Jill speaks to Jared at Young Professionals event. Photo courtesy of Gift of Life.
I’m still picking apart all the remarkable pieces of this story. There’s magic in a Jewish summer camp that holds bone marrow drives. There’s so much humility in this young man who did what seemed like a little to him, but was huge to someone else. There’s bravery in his parents’ consent to their son’s elective surgery for the sake of a stranger. And there is depth and power in our work, reflected in the fact that the people in Jared’s life who he called to ask to be there in this moment, after his immediate family, were his rabbis from Hillel.
Thanks to everyone for all you do that allows this holy work to happen.
Jared Stein stands with Rabbi Jessica Lott and Maryland Hillel Executive Director Rabbi Ari Israel. Photo courtesy of Gift of Life.
Rabbi Jessica Lott is Hillel International’s Director of Jewish Educational Networks, and was previously the Associate Director for Jewish Life and Learning at Maryland Hillel.