Bikur Cholim seeks to open house for families of NIH patients

Bikur Cholim of Greater Washington bought this house in Bethesda with plans to use it to temporarily house families and caregivers of NIH Clinical Center patients. Photo by Emilie Plesset

Bikur Cholim of Greater Washington, a group that serves families and caregivers of patients at the NIH Clinical Center with hospitality, kosher food and a family atmosphere, is one step closer this week to establishment of a permanent residence within walking distance of NIH.

Some of these patients, who come to National Institutes of Health for cutting-edge medical treatment, need to stay for months or return regularly for follow-up. Often they travel long distances for treatment, including from Israel.

Community members have provided home hospitality on a limited basis; patients have sometimes had to leave family members behind, coming for treatment without emotional support.

After a private home came on the market close to a central NIH entrance and only a block from Suburban Hospital — another one of BCGW’s service hospitals — the group made its move.

The nonprofit organization bought the house, at 9014 Old Georgetown Road in Bethesda, in the spring for $940,000, according to public real estate records, with the intent of converting into a Bikur Cholim residence where families and caregivers of patients of the NIH’s Clinical Center can stay while the patient receives treatment.

Before that can happen, a zoning amendment allowing “residential support for charitable institutions” must be adopted by the Montgomery County Council. If adopted, the amendment would apply to many other charitable institutions.

One step forward in that process took place at a July 14 County Council hearing in Rockville.

Speaking for the amendment were Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington; Audrey Siegel, executive director of Bikur Cholim of Greater Washington; and Rabbi James Kahn of the Jewish Social Service Agency, speaking on his own behalf.

Bikur Cholim helps the sick and those in need “feel connected to the community,” said Halber. “It brings community to the bedside.”

A Bikur Cholim house would serve many families and function like others that have been built recently near major medical centers, including Friendship House near Memorial Sloan Kettering in Manhattan and Tikva House next to John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Siegel said. She added that BCGW had researched these and similar facilities in planning its own proposed residence.

“Having such a facility nearby [NIH] is hugely important,” she said.

Also testifying at the hearing were Nancy Weisman and Eve Farber, two community members who through the years have opened their homes to the families of NIH patients.

William Kominers, with the law firm of Lerch, Early & Brewer of Bethesda, represented Bikur Cholim.

Casey Anderson, chairman of the Montgomery County Planning Board, told the Council that the board is seeking a few changes for the Bikur Cholim proposal, including that on-site parking be provided at the residence.

Eight of the nine Council members cosponsored the amendment. No one spoke against the proposal at the hearing.

Although a few steps remain in the legal process before the Council votes on the proposed amendment takes place, Bikur Cholim’s representatives and supporters sounded encouraged after the hearing. BCGW president Fran Kritz gave Siegel a tearful hug.

It is uncertain when the final vote would take place, but it would probably be by the end of the month, Siegel speculated.

Though “bikur cholim” means visiting the sick in Hebrew, the almost entirely volunteer-run nonprofit also delivers kosher meals to patients, lends medical equipment and provides transportation for medical appointments to the Jewish community in Montgomery County, Northern Virginia, and Washington. It also trains volunteers and offers continuing education to hospital professionals about the special needs of Jewish patients.

“We support patients, families and caregivers in the area as well as across the United States and the world,”
said Siegel.

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