Like far too many in the Jewish community, Mel Cohen was unaware of the lifesaving mission of the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation until his own life was in danger.
Suffering from a chronic blood disorder, the Ocean resident received a stem cell transplant three years ago that saved his life. The cells came from an anonymous donor through the foundation, the only donor registry in North America dedicated to recruitment within the Jewish community.
Now Cohen is helping raise awareness about the registry, as president of the foundation’s newly formed Central New Jersey chapter. It covers Middlesex, Monmouth, Union, Morris, Mercer, Somerset, and Ocean counties.
“We need local people to connect with their own synagogues, JCCs, schools, or federations,” said Cohen, also a member of the organization’s steering committee. “In order to make an impact, we have to network within our own community. Too many learn about Gift of Life only when they or someone they know is in need of a transplant or is a donor.”
Founded by former West Orange resident Jay Feinberg, the organization seeks compatible donors for people with forms of leukemia, lymphoma, immuno-deficiencies, and aplastic anemia.
Feinberg called Cohen after his transplant to inform him that his donor had come through the foundation.
Cohen retired in 2006 after serving 30 years as the executive director of the Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Greater Monmouth County. His wife, Sandy, is the former director of the what was then Jewish Family Service of Southern Middlesex County. Both are actively networking to get others involved in the registry’s work.
Susan Greenspan, coordinator of the foundation’s ambassador program, said the decision to begin local outreach was made at a meeting convened at Cohen’s suggestion in New York in August. The committee met Feb. 18 at Rutgers Hillel in New Brunswick. The second meeting is slated for Thursday, April 22, at Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth.
Greenspan is now organizing another chapter covering Bergen, Passaic, Hudson, and Essex counties.
“We have a goal of reaching 300,000 potential donors on our registry list; we currently have 153,000,” said Greenspan. “It is a massive undertaking so we need to have our feet on the ground in local communities.”
Testing involves only a cheek swab, said Greenspan. Tor those who have been donors, the experience has proven “life-altering.”
“Without fail, donors have told me, ‘It’s changed who I am as a human being,’” she said. “You would be amazed how being able to save someone’s life has changed these donors.”
Cohen laments that the Holocaust has severed many bloodlines, making it imperative that as many Jews as possible be included in the registry.
“It has given me a whole new perspective on the Holocaust and what a lasting effect it continues to have on the Jewish community,” said Cohen. “If we are able to double the registry, we’ll be able to match as many as 80 percent of all those in the community who need transplants.”