Arik Levy: Easing the burden on ill out-of-towners


Last spring, a Los Angeles man named Pejman learned that he had cancer in his bile duct, a tube connected to the liver, and would likely need a transplant.

He met with doctors at LA-area hospitals and learned that the wait time for a liver transplant would be a minimum of two years, his younger brother Parham said. (The brothers asked that their last names not be used.)

“We just looked at other options to see if we could do it any quicker,” Parham said. “He was going to make it either way, but the quicker the better.”

Other family members found Barnes-Jewish Hospital, where he would be at the top of the recipient list. 

They were, of course, relieved. But it also meant that Parham –  and supporters to help him – would need to relocate and rent hotel rooms or find other accommodations.

Fortunately, they learned about a Jewish program that provides housing, kosher meals and community support. 

Arik Levy initiated the project more than four years ago after meeting an Israeli family who were in St. Louis because one of the children needed surgery to treat muscle spasticity, a condition that limits a person’s ability to move normally.

It turned out that dozens of Israelis were visiting St. Louis to see Dr. T. S. Park, a leading pediatric neurosurgeon.

Levy, who is also Israeli, started thinking about all the day-to-day challenges these visitors face in addition to the health issues. He made it his mission to help them. 

“I felt like it was an obligation that I need to fulfill,” said Levy, who started the effort in conjunction with Vaad Hoeir of St. Louis, an Orthodox organization. “I saw it this way: I have three kids, and if one of my kids needed to go to China for treatment, it would be very hard for me to learn the language, the logistics, the culture shock. It’s all surrounded by a lot of stress.”

Since Levy started, he has helped more than 70 Jewish families. He has transformed the program from an informal initiative where and he other volunteers coordinated assistance for visiting families to one that now has a house for families to stay in and funding from local philanthropists. 

“Arik is the driving force behind this entire project,” said Rabbi Zvi Zuravin, executive director of the Vaad. “He is the one who identified the need. He is the one who put a lot of pressure on me to get this house and dedicate it for the use of people traveling for medical care.”

The University City home, known as the Ohel Rina and Michael Bikur Cholim  House after donors Michael and Carol Staenberg, opened in August 2016. (Rina is Carol’s Hebrew name.) Since then, it has never been unoccupied. The organization also is now hosting other families at a homes around St. Louis.

In addition to housing, Levy and other volunteers will often accompany families who might not speak English well on visits to the hospital and help translate. 

“When people came in for a complicated surgery and Arik knew that there was a language barrier, he used to sit in the hospital for five or six hours at a time and not go to work,” Zuravin said. 

Levy’s business selling medical devices at military bases provided him with some flexibility, but Zuravin said the time with patients and families certainly cost him some income. 

“That’s what has impressed me the most: his total and complete devotion, treating each and every person, regardless of who they are, as someone who needs attention and someone who he is obligated to help,” Zuravin said.

The brothers Parham, 23, and Pejman, 36, have been in St. Louis since March 28, waiting for a call from the hospital to inform them that they have a match for the liver. 

“You get a little anxious,” Parham said. “It’s also exciting because we are so close to the finish line.”

The wait would be much for difficult and expensive if it weren’t for the Vaad’s program, he said. The brothers and other family members who have been traveling back and forth to California have received invitations for Shabbat meals each week.

“We don’t always get to go because he is in pain and has to lie down, but we are always getting calls and invitations in shul,” Parham said.

Though Levy is the one who initiated the effort, the brothers have not actually met him. That’s because he has been in the process of moving to Hollywood, Fla., to take a new job. Despite that distance, Levy emphasizes that he is not stepping away from his project.

“I’m leaving physically, but I’m not leaving the bikur cholim (the mitzvah to provide aid to the sick),” he said. “I’m not leaving the families, everything stays the same.”

And even if Parham hasn’t met Levy, he appreciates what he started:

“None of this would have happened if it weren’t for this person’s idea to get this house.”