Chesed has a new home in Houston, where volunteers and hospital patients come together to widen the circle of giving and “to bring more light into the world.”
Aishel House, which provides housing and assistance to patients and their families who come from all over the world for treatment at the Texas Medical Center, will celebrate the opening of its new facility on Sunday, Dec. 4.
Festivities begin at 12:30 p.m. with an open house, food and activities for children. An official ribbon-cutting will take place at 5:30 p.m., followed by a gala dinner, entertainment and the presentation of awards, beginning at 6 p.m. All events will be held on the campus of Aishel House, 1955 University Blvd.
The focal point of the new Aishel House campus is a $6 million, 35,000-square-foot Barbara Hines Building that offers patients and their families the comforts of home, while also serving as a place for spiritual healing and support. The four-story building houses 23 fully furnished apartments, two kosher kitchens, a synagogue and the first handicap-accessible mikvah (ritual bath) in the State of Texas. The new Aishel House continues to be a place for visiting patients from any religious, ethnic or socioeconomic background.
“With the new Aishel House, we’ve created a space of intersection,” said Rabbi Lazer Lazaroff, executive director of Aishel House, who founded the 501(c)(3) with his wife, Rochel, as part of Chabad at Texas Medical Center.
“Oftentimes, patients from out of town are given housing, but they are quarantined from real life,” Rabbi Lazaroff told the JHV. “The only people they encounter during their stay are either medical professionals or other patients, who are going through treatment, as well.
“Aishel House provides a place where patients can intersect with a wider, living community,” he said. “Our new campus enables us to accommodate greater numbers of volunteers and support programs, and it also creates new opportunities to engage college students, involved with Chabad at Rice University, with chesed, volunteering and all the things we do here.”
According to Rochel Lazaroff, the new Aishel House allows the organization to be more inclusive, while enhancing the reputation of Houston’s world-renowned Texas Medical Center.
“As Jewish people, we believe in miracles – and we’ve facilitated a place, here at Aishel House, where many people can be angels in other people’s miracles,” Rochel told the JHV. “The only way we can create a place like this is through our understanding of the value of chesed – acts of loving kindness.”
She added, “Loneliness is one of the most dangerous illnesses we face today. Volunteers who come to Aishel House help alleviate the loneliness experienced by patients, and the patients provide a service to our volunteers by being there for them. It’s a circle of giving.
“When we’re in the circle, we give to each other and produce greater light,” Rochel said. “The more light we make, the less darkness there will be. The less darkness there is, the more light there is.”
Under one roof
The original Aishel House was an amalgam of smaller apartment buildings and converted homes. The new Aishel House brings all of its housing and services under one roof.
The new campus was designed to make visitors feel at home. Aishel House leaders worked with architect, Mark Mucasey, to design a space that provides the highest possible levels of comfort during one’s stay.
“We want people to feel like they are in the lap of luxury while they’re here,” Rabbi Lazaroff said.
The building’s interior is lined with mahogany wood trim and doors. Mosaic tiles accent archways, corridors and travertine floors.
Apartments are located on the upper levels. There are three two-bedroom units, and 20 one-bedroom units. Six of the 20 single-bedroom apartments have the option to convert into three additional two-bedroom apartments.
Every apartment is furnished and is equipped with granite countertops, a full kitchen, washer/dryer and its own private balcony. The one-bedroom units have two double beds, plus a sleeper sofa and restroom with both a shower and a bathtub. The two-bedroom units have larger kitchens and common areas, and have two separate restrooms, one with a shower and the other with a bathtub. Every apartment benefits from a flood of natural light, while bedrooms are equipped with blackout curtains.
Electrical outlets include USB ports, making travel adapters unnecessary to charge smartphones and other devices. Every apartment also includes one electrical outlet that is wired to a generator in the event of a power outage.
“If someone is on a life-support machine and the power goes out, they can use that outlet to keep the machine running,” Rabbi Lazaroff said.
Kitchen surfaces and appliances in the apartments were designed to accommodate patients and families who keep kosher. Those who keep kosher will be supplied with two sets of cookware and utensils.
“We are here for everybody, regardless of the level of observance,” Rabbi Lazaroff said.
The new Aishel House’s front lobby has lounge seating and a coffee bar. Off to the right is the reception desk, along with a cluster of offices and a luggage room. To the left is a garden area, complete with a water detail and pool.
The ground floor includes a 1,300-square-foot synagogue, with another 700-square-feet for balcony seating upstairs. The shul’s western wall is lined with authentic Jerusalem stone from Israel, featuring alternating bands of polished and chiseled bricks. The Aron Kodesh (Holy Ark) is made from mahogany with glass tile and gold trim.
A custom-built bimah sits on casters and can be moved about the room or broken down into three parts for storage when not in use. Rather than having fixed pews, the synagogue is furnished with chairs and narrow tables, opening up the space to additional use.
Adjacent to the synagogue is a dining hall and Kiddush room. Next to the shul and dining hall are Aishel House’s new kitchens.
The larger of the two kitchens is for volunteers, who prepare meals and dishes for Aishel House patients. The other kitchen is for Aishel House staff. Both kitchens are kosher and enjoy access to a large, walk-in cooler.
Aishel House’s new kitchen facilities are a major upgrade to its old setup, where only a few volunteers at a time were able to work in a cramped space. According to Aishel House leaders, having kitchen facilities that can accommodate larger groups of volunteers was equally important to having an appropriate place for prayer and Torah study.
“Spiritual growth and healing doesn’t happen in shul alone, just as learning doesn’t happen in a classroom alone,” Rochel said. “We have two shuls at Aishel House: there’s the synagogue, and there’s also the kitchen, which combine to offer spiritual and physical sustenance.”
The new Aishel House is home to Texas’ first handicap-accessible mikvah, which also includes a private entrance.
Adjacent to the synagogue’s balcony seating on the second floor is a space that doubles as a family room on Shabbat and a multipurpose room for patients during the week. The second floor also contains a kitchenette, restrooms and a lounge/balcony area that can pipe in music for relaxation.
The campus is rounded out with onsite parking, a butterfly garden and a children’s playground. Phase II of the building project will see the construction of a gatekeeper home for the Lazaroffs on the campus of the new Aishel House that will include additional rooms for hospitality.
Aishel House’s newly expanded campus and facilities necessitate the hiring of new staff to help run volunteer programs, operations and housekeeping services. It also enables Aishel House to offer a new internship program, aimed at teaching Torah, Hasidic philosophy and unconditional love for others.
Community members showed their support for the project by sponsoring rooms and amenities at the new Aishel House. The project was made possible through support from designers, suppliers and builders, who either donated their services or kept costs to a minimum.
Supporters included Mark Mucasey, Mucasey & Associates (architect); Marvy Finger, The Finger Companies, (contractor); Jair Vasquez, HGE Engineers (MEP drawings); Gerry Wynne, MSP Engineering Group (structural drawings); Leslie Cohen, Cohen Industrial Supply (pipe and fixtures); M&M Lighting (lighting); and Avi Ron (interior and exterior painting).
During the Dec. 4 gala, Aishel House will present awards to Mucasey, Finger, Aishel House volunteer Ellen Kleinman and physician Dr. Benjamin Musher.
The Lazaroffs began Aishel House after learning that out-of-town patients lacked Jewish housing options while seeking treatment at the Texas Medical Center. They experienced, firsthand, the embrace of a supportive community after their daughter, Chaya, of blessed memory, required months of treatment at Texas Children’s Hospital.
When the Lazaroffs opened their first hospitality apartment near the Med Center in 1995, they never could have imagined what Aishel House would become, today, they noted.
“This has been an incredible journey,” Rabbi Lazaroff said. “To devote your life to helping others and to really provide so much to so many people, we feel truly blessed to be able to provide this.”