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Holy Land pilgrims donate blood in record numbers


Magen David Adom/RNS

American Friends of Magen David Adom, Israel’s national blood bank, has organized blood drives from Jewish and Christian pilgrims from North America to help boost the agency’s supply of available blood.

JERUSALEM — Deep inside the bowels of the historic King David Hotel, below the luxury lounges and fine suites, a line of people is forming.

American tourists chat up local Israelis in New York-accented Hebrew as they wait for their names to be called. Then, accompanied to a gurney, they roll up their sleeves and wait for a medic to stick a needle in their arm. After donating a pint of blood, they munch on the hotel’s legendary sweets.

Donating blood may not top many tourists’ to-do lists in a foreign country, but it’s a growing trend in Israel, where a small but increasing number of Jewish and Christian pilgrims see it as a religious imperative.

Laying on a gurney after donating a pint at the King David, Elliot Prager, the principal of the Moriah Jewish day school in Englewood, N.J., says he decided to give blood “because this is the homeland of our people.

“As much as I respect and value the life of every person in the world, the lives of my family are dearest to me, and Israelis are my extended family.”


Something meaningful

Magen David Adom (MDA), Israel’s national blood bank, launched a program in 2001 to enlist foreign donors during “an ongoing wave of terrorism,” said Jonathan Feldstein, Israel representative for MDA. The agency “wanted to give the few American tourists coming on solidarity missions the opportunity to do something that was needed and meaningful.”

The solidarity blood drives were successful, but as the Palestinian uprising waned in during the next three years, so did the number of foreign donations.

Faced with a blood shortage precipitated by the 2006 war with Lebanon, a group called the American Friends of MDA actively began asking American groups to make time for a blood drive during their stay in Israel. The response was almost immediate from U.S. synagogues, Jewish organizations, and schools.

Not long after, evangelical Christian leaders also took up the challenge and scheduled donations during annual pilgrimages.

“When Christians donate blood in Israel it is a way to show our love and solidarity with Israel and the Jewish people,” said David Parsons, a spokesman for the evangelical International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, which holds a large blood drive during its annual Feast of Tabernacles celebration.

Jewish youngsters marking their bar- or bat-mitzvah also heeded the call; one extended New York family donated 47 units in a single afternoon as part of the coming-of-age celebrations.

The number of U.S. and Canadian donors has grown from 350 in 2006, to 802 in 2007 and skyrocketed to 1,500 last year. North Americans have already donated more than 170 units in 2009, and several drives have been scheduled for the busy Easter and Passover tourist season.

While foreign donations account for only a tiny fraction of the overall number of donated pints – 287,500 in 2007; and 290,000 in 2008 – “what is significant is that the foreign donations accounted for 25 percent of the increase between 2006 and 2007, and helped maintain the blood supply in 2008,” Feldstein said.

“That may sound underwhelming,” Feldstein admits, “but when you consider that one unit can save up to four people, this is very significant.”

If foreign visitor contributions continue to grow in the coming years, “they could reach 15,000 to 18,000 units per year – 5 percent of what MDA collects annually,” Feldstein predicts.

Just as organs donated in Israel are transplanted into people of all faiths, “the blood collected goes to serve all the people of Israel,” Feldstein stressed. “They may be Jewish, Muslim, or Christian, Baha’i, Copt, or Samaritan. They may be tourists or diplomats. The recipient is anyone who needs it.”

That’s a message that resonated with Judy Silverman, an Orthodox Jewish tourist from New Jersey who regularly donates blood back home but said donating in Israel holds special meaning.

“These are my people,” Silverman said, glancing around the crowded room just before the medic drew her blood. “I realize that my blood may go to an Arab or a Jew and that gives me a good feeling. In the end, we’re all people.”