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With my sons Josh and David in August 1989, after I had received a bone marrow transplant.
Networking Central

Hosts for Hospitals
The way the world is supposed to be

-- Mike Aichenbaum

Imagine that you or someone you love have to go out-of-town to receive specialized medical care, only to find that when you arrive, there is nowhere for you to stay, certainly not for any length of time, certainly not at a price you can afford. Where would you turn?

If you are coming to Philadelphia, you could stay at the home of a host-family arranged through HOSTS for HOSPITALS (HfH), a unique nonprofit agency that provides free lodging and support at volunteer-host homes as a caring response to the housing needs of patients and their families who come to our city for specialized medical care.

The History of HfH

HfH was founded by Nancy Wimmer and myself after our respective treatments for leukemia and non-Hodgkins lymphoma necessitated long out-of-town hospitalizations. In addition to the anxiety of working with physicians to find the best treatments (including bone marrow transplants), each of our families had to bear numbingly expensive lodging costs for the accompanying family members. Later, both Nancy and I relocated with our respective families to the Philadelphia area, where they met as members of Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley.

From July 2000 through November 2008, 266 host-families have now provided almost 1,350 patient-families a combined total of over 37,500 nights of lodging, thus saving these guests an estimated $2,307,000 in equivalent hotel expenses.

HfH guests receive much more than the mere saving of money, though, for integral to HfH are the values of Bikkur Holim (Visiting the Sick), Hachnasat Orchim (Bringing in Guests), Gemilut Hasadim (Acts of Kindness), and ultimately Kiddush HaShem (Making G-d’s Name Holy in the World).

Indeed, something almost beyond words happens when a host invites a patient-family over the threshold into the host-home. Many different hosts have expressed to me that they “get more out of hosting” than do their guests. For my own part, the phrase that “the reward for a mitzvah is the mitzvah itself” has taken on a new, deeper and emotional meaning as I act as a shadchan, matching host families with patient-families in need.

HfH is not a Jewish program per se, though, for just over 25% of our host-families are Jewish. This being said, HfH came into existence and thrives because of people acting upon and consistent with the types of values noted above.

Elkins Park host and Beth Sholom member Lynn Oxenberg with one of her guests.

Bikkur Holim (Visiting the Sick)

One reason why people become hosts is to model for their children how to be a good person in the world. When I was a small boy in the 1960s, I took notice of my cousin Sam Yagoda. He was a large man well over six feet tall, bald and outgoing with a big, booming, Yiddish accented voice. He also had a wooden leg—how this came to be us kids didn’t know—which in no way hindered him from dancing up a storm at family celebrations.

What I really noticed about Sam, though, was something I never witnessed but only heard about: his trips every Friday to visit total strangers at hospitals. Perhaps one day when I was older I could have enough courage to do this, too. I never asked Sam about his trips and he never knew of my interest, but the seed had been planted.

Simply put, the merit of helping the sick is self-evident to many children, and with this thought in mind, we are thrilled to work with B’nai mitzvah students on recruiting new host families as a B’nai mitzvah project. Imagine—if just one new host is recruited, and that host lodges three patient-families a year for each of five years, the B’nai mitzvah student would have been responsible for helping fifteen patient-families in need!

Hachnasat Orchim (Bringing in Guests)

In Parsha Vayera, Abraham does not merely welcome the three “guests” who are passing by, but actively brings them to his home to be refreshed. Similarly, the vision of HfH is for every family in need of hospital-related lodging within the Philadelphia area to be informed about the option of staying at a HfH host home, and, to have made available to them a host- home suitable to meeting that family’s specific lodging needs.

We presently are conducting a host recruitment campaign, with hosts making presentations citywide at their own places of worship. Many of our Jewish hosts spoke at synagogues on November 15, when Vayera was the Torah portion for the day. Amazingly, as a result over forty Jewish families have become new hosts!

Nevertheless, many more new hosts are still urgently needed throughout Greater Philadelphia, especially in Center City and the University City areas.

HfH co-founder Nancy Wimmer celebrating the brit of her first grandchild Jonah, December 9.

Gemilut Hasadim (Acts of Kindness)

On a tape of Rabbi Berl Wein I once heard him describe Gemilut Hasadim as “going out of your way to do something that you normally wouldn’t do until doing so becomes a habit.”

This is exactly what happens when you become a host. At first you’re hesitant about bringing someone you don’t know into your house. Then once you do it, you realize that’s easy to do and you are eager to do it again.

HfH hosts provide bed, bath and a little bit beyond: a comfortable bed, a clean bathroom and a feeling of home. Guests are responsible for their own food and transportation, and hosts only lodge guests who they want, when they want and for how long they want. In this regard kashrut has not been a problem, as guests agreeing to stay at such homes have proven to be quite willing to abide by any requirements of their hosts. Guests are also screened and provide references.

Kiddush HaShem (Making G-d’s Name Holy in the World)

As Jews make up little more than 2% of the population of our country, not surprisingly the vast majority of our guests are non-Jewish. For many of these guests, they may not have met many Jewish people prior to their stay with their Jewish host-family. A typical result was captured in the words of one of our very first guests when writing to us after spending a Shabbat dinner with her hosts who were members of Temple Beth Zion Beth Israel in Center City, “I am strong in my own faith and sharing your faith with me brought me much calm and peace.”

In parsha Vayera, the text “My Master, if I find favor in your eyes, do not pass over your servant” is ambiguous in that it is not clear if Abraham is speaking to G-d or the travelers. If to G-d, then Abraham in effect is asking G-d not to leave as Abraham chooses to interrupt his interaction with G-d in favor of doing a kindness to another, a human being. By this reading, the text suggests that the highest levels of holiness are not to be found in merely going off in isolation to commune with the divine, but rather, by bringing heaven down to earth in simple acts of kindness and hospitality.

Making lodging available to patient-families nationwide

Almost as soon as we started offering HfH services in Philadelphia, people in other communities began asking us to help establish programs to provide free lodging to patients that travel to their cities for medical care. The birth of Nancy’s grandson Jonah this November propelled her to leave her position as Director of Development – Planned Giving at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and to begin a project to model HfH for locations away from Philadelphia.

As Nancy has announced to rabbis across the country that a patient hospitality program may be coming to their communities, she has received very supportive encouragement for reaching out to their respective congregations to attract host families. Just as our local experience has shown, we predict that synagogue members will have a great impact in making these new programs a success elsewhere as well.

Please feel free to contact Nancy or me directly with any thoughts or questions that you may have:about any aspect of HfH: 215-472-3801 or HfHospitals@aol.com. Thank you so much for your time in reading about our program.

Mike Aichenbaum is the director of Hosts for Hospitals.

To view previous editions of "Networking Central", please click here.

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