Meet Zach, Jewish Stem Cell Donor of the Week!

by Samuel Milligan / July 12, 2023

I met Zach nearly two years ago, and I’m still not sure I’ve ever seen him frown. Whether he’s your point guard playing pickup basketball at Rose Park, roaming center field on his title-winning Sunday softball team, or playing Saboteur in an apartment full of strangers, Zach approaches each and every opportunity for competition and connection with unfettered enthusiasm and an unwavering grin. He Zooms in from Quito, Ecuador late one night to chat about his DC Jewish community, the power of a consistent routine, and becoming a stem cell donor!

Zach sits mid-hike in front a river and woods.

Samuel: What brought you to the DMV? What’s made you stay for the past two years?

Zach: When I was applying to jobs and determining where to start my post-college life, I was looking for a really vibrant, young, Jewish community, ideally with observant people who were interested in having services, doing Shabbat meals, hanging out in parks and playing sports on Shabbat. Also, I sought out a prayer space that was both observant and egalitarian.

Zach in a canyon next to flowing water. Not only did DC fulfill my expectations, it exceeded them. It’s a tight-knit space where I can pray and build a foundational community in the spaces that work for me, but still engage and have Shabbat meals with people in so many different spaces without judgment placed on people who go to one service or another. We can pray the way we want and still come back to our Shabbos tables and sports fields and come together, embracing that we’re all Jewish and want to do Jewish things together. 

Samuel: I know you and a lot of our mutual Jewish friends from playing basketball, football, and softball together. How has that association of Jewish community and athletics come together for you? 

Zach: I grew up playing sports for Jewish schools and Jewish programs outside of school. It’s an easy way to connect with other Jews, get to know new friends, and meet people across the country and world. And DC has spaces where, on Saturday afternoons, I can relax, hang out with friends, and be active and outdoorsy. 

And, this isn’t just a Jewish thing. I’m in Ecuador right now, and my brother and I had this incredible opportunity to play in a soccer game with the staff at our lodge. It was a way to connect with other people through sport in a way that we wouldn’t be able to otherwise. The staff members don’t speak English, and we don’t speak Spanish, but if you love something and I love something, and then we do that thing together, it’s really easy to connect. 

Samuel: How do you see Judaism manifest in your day to day life? 

A softball team poses on the National Mall. Zach: I love this question because everyone’s answer is so different and unique. For me, Judaism has been a constant in my everyday life; I went to Jewish day school my whole life, Jewish camp, youth group, things like that. One thing I pride myself in is that I wear a kippah all the time, whether it’s at work, or going for a run, or playing basketball, football, softball. I don’t hide my identity because I’m doing a certain thing. It’s cool to embrace that identity in a healthy, exciting way. 

In DC, I don’t get many people saying nasty things. It’s the opposite. Just from my kippah, people immediately know I’m Jewish, that I went to UT Austin, and that there’s a Texas connection. I have amazing conversations with folks who identify with those things. Like, I was playing in a basketball league and a guy on the other team, in the middle of the game, told me he was Jewish, too. I got his number and it turns out I knew his girlfriend from a program I did in high school. I had him for Shabbat dinner, reconnected with the old friend, and knew that none of that would have happened had I not been wearing my kippah. 

Zach, wearing tefillin in the rainforest in Ecuador. Also, in the day-to-day, I keep a Kosher home and pray in the mornings as part of my daily routine. Then, come the weekends, I’m observing Shabbat each week. 

Samuel: You place a lot of value on having a consistent routine. 

Zach: Absolutely. Motivation to accomplish what you want is a great kickstarter, but I think discipline can be more important. The discipline to do things over and over allows you to embrace them as part of your identity rather than it being just an activity. If we want to do great things in this world – and we do! – having that routine is so key. The consistency allows us to invest more time and effort into what we want to accomplish. 

Samuel: You recently traveled to Texas to donate stem cells. What was that process like? 

Zach: I swabbed for the bone marrow registry Be the Match five years ago. Out of the blue, I got an email saying I’d matched with a 67 year old man, asking if I’d be willing to donate stem cells and potentially save a life. I believe that if anyone has this opportunity, if they’re healthy and able, they should consider saying yes. It’s noted in Pirkei Avot that if you save one life, you save the entire world. So, I said yes to this stem cell transplant. 

Zach holding a bag of stem cells and plasma after his donation. In many ways, it was similar to donating blood, plus I had injections for five days before the procedure to help me produce extra stem cells. I was tired for maybe a day or two after, but I was back running and playing sports pretty quickly. The process is fascinating afterward, too. There’s complete anonymity between the donor and recipient for the first year, but I have the capacity to reach out anonymously and I will be reaching out soon. 

Samuel: What do you think you’ll say? 

Zach: Most importantly, I want to tell them that I’m thinking of them and wishing them wonderful health and so much strength in this process. It can’t possibly be easy, and they’re brave for going through it. My biggest wish is that this person stays healthy and survives for many, many years to come. If they feel comfortable talking to me in a year, I’d be honored. Not everyone who needs one has the opportunity to get a transplant. Any person donating really could save that life and allow someone’s parent, someone’s child, someone’s sibling to live for five, ten, twenty more years. 

Samuel: Okay, it is late at night for both of us – let’s run through a few more and I’ll get you out of here. What’s the greatest piece of art you’ve encountered lately? 

Zach on a trip with his brother. Zach: Definitely Spider-man: Across the Spiderverse. I saw Spider-man: Into the Spiderverse as a break from studying for finals in college, not expecting anything, and walked out of the theater with my mind blown. And Across the Spiderverse came out and blew my mind all over again. I was leaning forward in the theater the whole movie, just trying to comprehend that something so beautiful, intricate, and brilliant exists.  

Samuel: You can invite any three people to Shabbat dinner. Who are they? 

Zach: First and foremost, Barack Obama. I can’t imagine he wouldn’t be a fascinating dinner table conversationalist. I like engaging with people who have interesting life experiences; it’s hard to get more interesting than his. Second, completely different, I’m inviting Adam Sandler. I have this funny connection to him in that he’s this small, Jewish guy who is widely known for showing up to random basketball courts. He’d just be fun at dinner. Finally, Deni Avdija, the Jewish and Israeli player on the Wizards. 

Zach near the Capitol building. Samuel: You’ve been away from DC for a lot of this summer [Editor’s note: Wedding SZN is in full swing]. What’s the perfect DMV day you’re looking forward to living when you get back? 

Zach: It’s absolutely a Shabbat, so I’m going with the 25-hour day starting at sunset on Friday. I’m starting with a beautiful Kabbalat Shabbat at DC Minyan, then coming home and hosting a lively Shabbat dinner on my roof with friends. I wake up, go to DC Minyan again, then to a friend’s for Shabbat lunch. I play football with my many friends at the Shabbos football game and then hang around the park for a while to meet all the new, incoming DC folk who just moved here in the summer since I’ve been out of town. Then I go home and say havdalah to end Shabbat with a bang. 

Samuel: Last one. Finish the sentence for me: When Jews of the DMV gather…

Zach: Magic is made.

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