On August 16, 2005 (11 Av 5765), the Balk family witnessed the hand of God, as my mother A”H received a new liver. Through her illness, we became even stronger supporters of organ donation.
This is a story with spindles reaching back about 50 years. In 1969, Congregation Bnai Amoona hired a new cantor. His name was Leon Lissek. For nearly the next 5 decades, the Balk and Lissek families have been very closely intertwined. He was, and still is, revered in my house, as well as the homes of my grandparents and aunts and uncles. Much of my father and uncle’s cantorial knowledge and repertoire has been gleaned from him. My sister and I grew up listening to Chazzan Lissek’s music among the other chazzanus selections on our family car rides. Only one of us may have gained an appreciation for it to date. He and his wife have celebrated with us and mourned with us as well. I remember at my Bar Mitzvah when my father asked Chazzan Lissek to recite kiddush for everyone at the luncheon after davening. His voice filled the entire massive room. I was no less surprised at my aufruf at Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, only a stone’s throw from his home, when we gave him the Levi aliyah. I left the room to grab a tissue as he ascended the bima for the bracha, and I thought that someone had clandestinely placed a microphone under the table so that the sound would transmit his booming voice out into the hallway. Nobody did. That’s just Chazzan Lissek.
When my father told me that the Chazzan was in need of a kidney, I was floored. Yet, the octogenarian Holocaust survivor takes better care of himself than someone a fraction his age and wasn’t even on dialysis! It was due to this self-care that he got the okay to be put on a transplant list. Renewal, an unbelievable “kidney shadchanus” organization, was on the case in order to find him a suitable donor. It was amazing to see that there was an awareness event at Bnai Amoona in St. Louis, where if the walls could talk (even in the new building), they would tell you of the liturgy that Chazzan Lissek chanted so beautifully. While this was going on, many people sought to see if they were a match. One such individual who wanted to help out was Rabbi Shelley Kniaz, a friend of the Lissek family. Although she was not a match for the Chazzan, she was a match for someone else! She donated a kidney to someone in need just a few weeks ago. (You can read about her story here and here). Rabbi Kniaz was my wife’s boss when she worked at her synagogue’s Hebrew school. She, like Chazzan Lissek, were both at our wedding.
A few weeks ago, my father called me after 10:00 PM, something that doesn’t usually occur unless there is news. I asked what was wrong and he assured me everything was fine, and that Chazzan Lissek had found a kidney! Estee and I were ecstatic, but when he told us who the donor would be, we were shocked: my Aunt Lynnsie. My Aunt Lynnsie who was raised in the sanctuary and hallways of Bnai Amoona, when the Chazzan’s voice still permeated the building. The same Bnai Amoona where her own children were raised. My Aunt came in to visit my cousin, while clandestinely undergoing more testing. Everything looked great, and she was cleared for surgery, which took place today. She told us that she was donating her kidney in honor of my mother, not in memory of her. Thank God, both she and Chazzan Lissek are recovering nicely, and we could not be more proud.
There is plenty more to say about this amazing story. It’s hard to know what our lives have in store for us, or how the people in our lives from various points will make their mark on us, or in us for that matter. Who would’ve imagined that two families, close for decades, could be brought even closer together through something as magical as this. We always knew that part of Bnai Amoona was inside of the entire Balk family. It’s touching to see that part of our family, literally, is inside of part of the Bnai Amoona extended family as well.
Please continue to daven for the continued refuah sheleima of Miriam bat Rachel and Aryeh Shimon HaLevi ben Chana. We look forward to sharing many more happy occasions together!