A house of healing for Jewish families

The Vaad Hoeir is helping provide a home for Jewish families to stay in while  they are in St. Louis for medical procedures or treatments. 

By Eric Berger, Staff Writer

A few months ago, Eliezer Hayoun planned a visit to St. Louis from Israel because his son needed serious surgery, and he couldn’t believe what the Vaad Hoeir of St. Louis was telling him: It would provide him and his family with free room and board for more than a month. 

Selective dorsal rhizotomy surgery (SDR), which treats muscle spasticity, would hopefully allow his son Michael, 5, who has cerebral palsy, to walk. But the trip and operation were estimated to cost $60,000 to $80,000 for Hayoun, his wife and their four children. Hayoun, 32, a journalist who lives in a West Bank settlement, was able to pay some of the cost but needed help from relatives and nonprofit organizations. 

Money was only one source of anxiety. Hayoun also knew little about St. Louis other than there was a doctor here who is  renowned for his success with SDR surgery. 

Hayoun said through a translator that what he found “amazing and almost essential was the emotional support, knowing that you’re not in this alone, knowing that everyone cares about you and is feeling your emotional pain.”

The house is an initiative of the Vaad Hoeir, and it is set up like a Ronald McDonald House, but focused on Jewish families like the Hayouns who are visiting St. Louis for medical reasons. The Vaad house is located in University City, surrounded by families eager to host newcomers for Shabbat. 

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The house, known as Ohel Rina and Michael, cost several hundred thousand dollars, according to a Vaad leader, and was funded by local philanthropists Carol and Michael Staenberg (Rina is Carol’s Hebrew name). It opened in August and is modeled after similar houses in cities with major medical centers such as Cleveland and Los Angeles. 

In addition to the five-bedroom home, the Vaad provides guests with food, child care, translation and transportation. The house is also not limited to members of the Orthodox community.

“The tent is open to all types of Jews,” said Rabbi Zvi Zuravin, executive director of the Vaad.

The organization serves as a resource for Jews visiting St. Louis for medical reasons. In recent years, leaders had noticed an increase in the number of requests, Zuravin said. The demand reached the point where Zuravin and others felt like they could no longer just rely on community members to host visitors in their own homes, he said.

For Zuravin, who started working for the Vaad in 2006, the project was also personal. He grew up in Israel and survived a 1978 bus bombing in Jerusalem when he was 13 years old. Six youths from his neighborhood died; he was left with only a scratch. But it shook him up, he said, and he can relate to a family going through a crisis.

“I can go out there and, for example, raise money for the cause and say, ‘Here’s $2,000 to help you with your local expenses,’ ” Zuravain said. “Or I can take it up to the next level and say, ‘I really want you to be very comfortable. I want you to feel welcome in St. Louis,’ and say, ‘We feel almost obligated to help you out.’ It’s an act of kindness for the sake of kindness.”

Michael Staenberg, who helps fund many other causes and organizations in the Jewish community, said he thought University City was a good location because it’s close not only to the local Orthodox synagogues but also to hospitals in the Central West End and west St. Louis County. 

“We as Jews need to take care of each other,” he said. 

The Vaad house is already booked for November, December and March. Three families are scheduled to visit in November, and two of them will have to stay with people in the community. A family can stay at the house for as long as a patient is receiving medical treatment, Zuravin said. 

Staenberg said he and Vaad leaders have discussed the possibility of adding a second house.

Volunteers such as Arik Levy help visitors with day-to-day life in an unfamiliar city. Two years ago, Levy met a family visiting for the SDR surgery at a Hanukkah carnival at Epstein Hebrew Academy. 

In the past three years, 27 such patients from Israel have undergone the surgery with Dr. T.S. Parks, a leading pediatric neurosurgeon at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, a hospital spokeswoman said. 

(In Israel, the cost of the surgery would be covered as part of its universal health care system, but Israel lacks experienced SDR surgeons. Zuravin said other patients come here to consult with Sherman Silber, a surgeon at St. Luke’s Hospital, who specializes in infertility.)

Levy, who is an Israeli native, said he starts talking with parents before they come to St. Louis and then arranges transportation for them from the airport. He and other volunteers use the smartphone application WhatsApp to coordinate fulfilling the families’ needs. In the past two months, five families have visited from Israel for the SDR surgery and received help from Levy and other volunteers. He said helping the families is “addicting.”

“The reason I started doing it is I feel like it’s a mission that needs to be completed, a mission that needs to be dealt with,” said Levy, who is Orthodox and sells medical devices at military bases. 

SDR surgery does not provide instant results or relief for the patient, family or volunteers. It can take several years and significant physical therapy to reap the full benefits of the surgery. Hayoun said that a month after the surgery, his son’s legs are more flexible but he must still learn how to use them.

Hayoun said he has formed many friendships with people in the University City Jewish community. His family often was invited for Shabbat meals, and picnics and barbecues. When he and his family were about to fly home Sept. 22 from Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, some of the volunteers showed up to say goodbye.

“It was a very emotional goodbye, and I didn’t expect that when I came,” he said. 

Hayoun said he and his wife have talked about wanting to come back — as long as it’s not for medical reasons.