Hillels Stage College Drives To Save Lives

Thousands 'Get Swabbed' as Bone Marrow Volunteers

Filling a Need: A Hillel drive at Ohio University last February added 750 potential bone marrow donors to the Gift of Life database.
Ohio University
Filling a Need: A Hillel drive at Ohio University last February added 750 potential bone marrow donors to the Gift of Life database.

By Blair Thornburgh

Published August 14, 2012, issue of August 17, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

For Ohio University senior Lauren Kahn, the most significant test of her college career wasn’t a term paper or a final exam. It was a quick swab on the inside of her cheek her sophomore year, an easy, painless way to gather genetic information for a national database of potential bone marrow donors.

On February 25, 2009, Kahn was one of over 2,500 people who participated in the “Got Swabbed?” drive organized by Ohio’s Hillel, where dedicated interns and volunteer students run one of the most active campus swabbing efforts in the country. The idea is to raise awareness about the need for volunteer donors, especially those of Jewish ancestry. Ohio, now one of 88 campuses partnered with the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation, is a “superstar campus,” says Jay Feinberg, the foundation’s executive director.

Since the beginning of “Got Swabbed?” in 2008, Ohio’s bone marrow drives have registered over 5,500 students, both Jewish and non-Jewish. Some 200 were contacted as potential matches, and 13 of them ended up donors. Including, just over two years after she scraped her cheek, Lauren Kahn.

Involvement with Hillel at Ohio seemed natural for Kahn, now 23, who grew up attending Jewish day school in Cincinnati and spent six months before college volunteering at an Israeli nature preserve and preschool. Equally obvious was the decision to throw her genetic hat into the ring when the opportunity presented itself.

A simple, painless cheek swab gathers genetic material.
Ohio University
A simple, painless cheek swab gathers genetic material.

“Everyone cares when you hear about kids getting sick,” she says. The simplicity of the test — a cotton swab in the mouth that removes a slight amount of tissue — was a relief for Kahn, an admitted needle-phobe. And the chances of being contacted as a donor — about 1 in 60 for those registered through Hillel drives — seemed only a distant possibility. Even then, more tests would be needed to verify that her marrow, the spongy material inside bones that helps manufacture blood cells, was genetically similar enough to avoid igniting an immune response in a patient with a disease such as leukemia or multiple myeloma.

With her sample collected, labeled and filed away with her contact information, Kahn joked to a friend that with her luck, she would end up a donor.

As luck would have it, she was right.

Finding a bone marrow donor is a race against time and nature. Patients and doctors search for — and hope for — a close genetic match that will replace the sick cells and integrate seamlessly with the recipient’s body. Close family members are easily testable but have only about a 30% chance of matching. Since tissue type is inherited, a stranger of the same ethnic background may be a fit — but will only turn up if his or her genetic data is on file with a donor registry.

“It’s the needle in a haystack,” says Feinberg, whose organization has been a strategic partner with Hillel since 2004.

Feinberg speaks from experience: He was diagnosed with leukemia at age 22, but with Jewish donors widely under-represented, his doctors were blunt about his chances for survival.

“They told me to prepare my bucket list,” Feinberg, now 43, says. Instead, he and his family organized over 250 drives to screen for a match. After registering 60,000 people, Feinberg finally found a donor and received a transplant in 1995.

His foundation, launched in 1991 as Friends of Jay and named Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation in 1996, has grown to a nationwide organization that pioneered the use of swab tests and broadened its search to donors of all backgrounds.

Still, Feinberg calls the partnership with Hillel, the national organization for Jewish college students, “a no-brainer.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • "I feel great sorrow about the fact that you decided to return the honor and recognition that you so greatly deserve." Rivka Ben-Pazi, who got Dutchman Henk Zanoli recognized as a "Righteous Gentile," has written him an open letter.
  • Is there a right way to criticize Israel?
  • From The Daily Show to Lizzy Caplan, here's your Who's Jew guide to the 2014 #Emmys. Who are you rooting for?
  • “People at archives like Yad Vashem used to consider genealogists old ladies in tennis shoes. But they have been impressed with our work on indexing documents. Now they are lining up to work with us." This year's Jewish Genealogical Societies conference took place in Utah. We got a behind-the-scenes look:
  • What would Maimonides say about Warby Parker's buy-one, give-one charity model?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.