Houston’s Medical Center draws patients and their families from all over the world, and local nonprofit groups offer a variety of low-cost, short-term housing. Aishel House, founded by Orthodox Jews but open to people of any faith, has been so popular since its founding more than 15 years ago that it’s ready to expand.
Chabad House Rabbi Eliezer “Lazar” Lazaroff and his wife, Rochel, run the facility with the help of 200 volunteers and tend to the body as well as the soul of those who stay there.
The Lazaroffs said a recent donation sparked a capital campaign so they can tear down the 16-apartment facility and build a new one with handicapped accessibility and larger living spaces.
“Everything revolves around the ill person, and basic things like a warm meal get put aside because everything else becomes inconsequential,” Rochel Lazaroff said of the families who stay at Aishel House. “We knew there was a need to comfort people coming to the Medical Center, and that is why we do what we do.”
Since its founding in 1995, the facility has accommodated 18,449 nights of stay, with 52 days the average . Eighty percent of the families who stay there are from the U.S. Half are not Jewish.
“I think what sets us apart is that we can be the family for our visitors,” Rochel Lazaroff said. “We are not just a place to stay. They can come in our front door, our back door or any part of our home, and we will talk with them and avail ourselves to them. People facing the challenge of critical illness (in their family) need that kind of support.”
The inspiration for Aishel House came when the Lazaroffs’ infant daughter, who has since died, was born with birth defects. Caring for her opened their eyes to the hardship of illness.
The Lazaroffs then rented a building adjacent to their home at 1956 Dryden to provide temporary housing and later took out loans to purchase the property. Since then, volunteers have helped them renovate the apartments. They named it Aishel House because Aishel was the name of the tent where Jewish patriarch Abraham welcomed wanderers with legendary hospitality.
Now the Lazaroffs are also known for their own brand of hospitality.
Housing is only where the experience begins: The Lazaroffs coordinate volunteers for meals, transportation, child care and anything else that is needed so that family members can focus on the medical care of their loved one.
Rochel, the busy mother of 11, said they consider Aishel House to be another one of their children. She cooks, bakes and leads the network of volunteers; and with a simple e-mail she can arrange for airport pickup and delivery of a new family, get grocery shopping done for the new or existing family, or get a home-cooked meal made and delivered to families, patients or both.
That support was a godsend to visitor Linda McKay of Mississippi. She was sleeping on a hospital floor by the bedside of her boyfriend, Elmer “McCoy” Peterson, who was being treated for congestive heart failure at St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital.
“I am not Jewish, and I prayed for a place I could afford, and I heard right away from Aishel House,” McKay said. “The community here is of mixed ethnicities and religions, and yet we all pray together, lend support to each other, and so our spiritual threads are connected together. I am so proud to be a part of this place.”
McKay described one night in the first days after her arrival. She came home exhausted and hungry at 1 a.m. and found a home-cooked meal at her door.
“I was literally starving, and I sat and cried when I ate that meal,” McKay said.
Volunteers through several Aishel House programs provide meals, one of which is called “Food for Friends.” Volunteers get together with a group of friends to celebrate an occasion or a milestone such as a bar mitzvah, bring ingredients for a meal, and then cook it in the large kitchen and deliver it to patients and residents at Aishel House. From soups to cookies to full meals, Rochel Lazaroff said the volunteers’ “love is transmitted through their food.”
“With our volunteers we have become mitzvah (good deed) matchmakers, in a sense, and have extended this web of goodness,” she said. “People in Houston are so very caring with love in their hearts and a willingness to give of themselves. We at Aishel House put them together with a deed or task that needs to be done for our families here.”
Although the Lazaroffs are devoutly religious, the religious preference of their visitors is inconsequential to them.
“We have devout Christians stay with us, and they feel spiritually uplifted by being here because we are creating magical moments when they least expect it,” Rochel Lazaroff said. “People from all different demographic groups find inspiration from our behavior as devout Jews, and they see our good acts as godly acts. Sometimes Christians tell us that they feel safer being at Aishel House because they are always reminded of God’s presence here.”
Longtime volunteer Holly Harwood Skolkin, who has fought her own battles with a devastating illness, sums up the experience.
“It’s not just a place to stay, it’s a place to find out that (the visitors and their ill family member) are not alone in this journey in that they are surrounded by loving, empathetic people who will cry with them and laugh with them and help them in every way possible,” Skolkin said.