Rabbi Reuven Bulka has spent years spreading that message within the Jewish community and beyond with limited success. He is up against centuries of the cultural belief that one should be buried "whole." This prevents people from supporting organ and tissue donation and costs lives: One person dies every three days in Ontario awaiting a life-saving transplant.
"You are trying to undo in a relatively short time, a decade or two or three, thousands of years of fundamental practices," says Bulka, 67, a longtime rabbi in Ottawa and chair of the board at Trillium Gift of Life Network, the provincial agency mandated to organize organ and tissue donation and transplantation.
"The most important thing is to change the culture of people from being takers of the health-care system to being givers," Bulka said in an interview ahead of his participation in a forum Tuesday in Toronto discussing organ donation from the Jewish perspective, organized by the National Council of Jewish Women.
It's an uphill battle. At just 12 per cent, the Toronto area has the lowest rate of registered donors of any jurisdiction that performs transplants. Ontario's rate overall is 19 per cent. As of Sept. 29, there are 1,547 people awaiting life-saving organ transplants in Ontario.
Urban centres typically have fewer registered donors than smaller jurisdictions — to compare, 44 per cent of people in Sudbury have signed up. But there is "every indication" the Toronto's notoriously rich diversity of culture is a factor, Bulka says.
Some cultures believe it is critical to preserve the integrity of the body. That's why Trillium engages religious and cultural leaders to help dispel those myths that preclude donation. "When they see positive examples of this in their community, it can make a very big difference," says Versha Prakash, vice-president of Operations and Communications.
No religion prohibits organ donation.