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JERUSALEM (Reuters Life!) - Organ donations in Israel rocketed in January after the death of an Israeli soccer star prompted a religious debate on brain death into the headlines.
Former Israel and Liverpool defender Avi Cohen sustained severe head injuries in a motorcycle crash in December. He was pronounced brain dead and put on a respirator.
Cohen had signed an organ donor card. But his family refused to give away his organs. Newspaper reports said rabbis had appealed to the family not to donate. Cohen's widow said the decision against donation was her own.
Some influential rabbis teach that taking organs from a person who is brain dead is tantamount to murder. "The number one reason people give for refusing to donate organs is religious. Jewish law is perceived, mistakenly, as being against it, when as you know in Judaism it depends which rabbi you ask," said Professor Jacob Lavee, head of Israel's Transplant Centre's Steering Committee.
In general, most ultra-orthodox rabbis are against organ donation while others adopt a more liberal interpretation of Jewish ritual law.
Rabbi Yossef Eliashiv, one of the most influential rabbis in Israel and regarded by Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox Jews as "the Sage of the Generation," has ruled that death can only be pronounced when the person's heart has stopped beating.
Other leading rabbis have come out against Eliashiv's stance, contesting his ruling on the moment of death.
Rabbi Reem Hacohen, head of Otniel Yeshiva in the occupied West Bank teaches that a person is obliged by Jewish law to sign a donor card.
"Organ donation is a great Mitsvah, or good deed," Hacohen said. "If pronounced in keeping with Israeli law, brain death is in fact death."
In 2008 Israel passed a law which states the conditions for pronouncing a person brain dead. The bill was negotiated with leading rabbis who wanted to ensure doctors were not too quick to diagnose brain death in the interest of harvesting organs.
The law stipulates that only doctors authorized by a special committee, which includes rabbis as members, can determine brain death and only with the evidence of medical imaging machines.
According to Israel's Transplant Center only 10 percent of people in Israel carry donor cards. Israeli law states that family members have the last word and can veto a person's own will to donate his organs.
About half of the families of potential donors give their consent to recover organs, a rate Lavee said is low in relation to other Western countries.
Dvora Szerer, spokeswoman for the Transplant Center said transplants suddenly increased by 150 percent in the weeks after the highly emotional moment when Cohen's son announced on national television that his father had been pronounced brain dead "which is to say, he has died."
"Avi Cohen's death came up in every conversation with the donors' families," Szerer said. Awareness was raised and readiness to donate jumped.
Editing by Douglas Hamilton and Paul Casciato