When a family loses a loved one, as the Rasooly family did in 2014, it can be difficult to find ways to honor their memory. Ilan Rasooly died tragically at age 20, when he fell while running backward during a visit to friends at the University of Maryland. Although he grew up in the Kemp Mill neighborhood of Silver Spring, Maryland, Rasooly was then in his senior year at the Cornell University School of Hotel Management in Ithaca, New York.
On June 8, the Rasooly family dedicated the playroom at the Bernard Kreeger Bikur Cholim House in Bethesda, Maryland, which is located across the street from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Rasooly’s parents, Rebekah and Avi, are longtime employees of the NIH.
At Sunday’s event, which was attended by approximately 35 people, Rebekah related that they were out of town when Ilan’s accident occurred and they rushed down from Philadelphia to be with him at the Washington Hospital Center. Due to the fact that the incident occurred on a Jewish holiday, “our community was isolated from us,” she explained.
She recalled how Bikur Cholim had “somehow figured out” they were in the hospital and brought food, drinks, blankets, and toiletries for the family.
They were “like a lifeline to us the whole time we were in the hospital,” said Rebekah. “The only question they ever asked was, ‘how many people will you be and what else can we do for you?’ ... This [dedication] is our way of giving back a little in Ilan’s memory.”
The Bikur Cholim House is a “Jewish home away from home for patients and their families seeking lifesaving treatment at NIH and area hospitals,” according to the organization’s website. The house is located across the street from NIH’s main campus and has the capacity to house several families, with a well-stocked kitchen, a large garden, and a feeling of warmth for the patients and their families who stay there. And now, it has a beautiful playroom.
Ilan’s sister, Tali Rasooly, said that while the family has dedicated several spaces over the years in honor of her brother, this one is perhaps the most special.
“This dedication, in some ways, was the ultimate tribute to my brother’s memory,” she said. “He was a hospitality major at Cornell Hotel, and the mission of sheltering patient families with love and support is one that he emulated throughout his life.”
Sunday’s event included several representatives from the NIH, including Director Francis Collins.
“I think that what you have done here is a truly beautiful way to have many people who pass through these doors know something about him, and know what a special young man he was. How dedicated he was to make life hospitable for other poeple, to make them feel like they matter, that they are cared for. And this place will very much do that,” Collins said.
Other NIH representatives included Patricia Grady, director of the National Institute of Nursing Research (NINR), where Ilan’s mother Rebekah serves as a program director; Greg Germino, deputy director of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK); and Michael Lauer, NIH deputy director for extramural research.
The playroom itself is bright, fun, and appealing to children. Part of this comes from the artwork, which was created by artists from Youth Art for Healing, a nonprofit whose mission is to bring works of art created by young people into healthcare environments to provide a sense of comfort, inspiration, and healing for patients and their families.
“Together with [Executive Director Jan Papermeister] from Youth Art for Healing, we came up with a concept of what the pieces would look like,” explained Tali.
“At first, I hesitated, not wanting to reduce Ilan to a collection of hobbies. However, the amazing art from the talented student artists really transcended anything I could have expected ... she had so beautifully seen my brother and interpreted his joy, spirit, and persona into the paintings.”
Former President of Bikur Cholim of Greater Washington, Fran Kritz, explained that patients who come to the NIH never know who is helping them from Bikur Cholim, but, when they enter the house now, the children will go straight to Ilan’s playroom.
She pointed to the painting made by the young artist from Youth Art for Healing and told the attendees, “there is no way to look at the picture of that young man and ... not see that that person [from Bikur Cholim] is here to help you.”
Family friend Rachel Levitt-Dratch relayed several personal anecdotes about Ilan, especially his love of food — pizza in particular. (In fact, Ben Yehuda Pizza in Kemp Mill has an annual “Free Slice Day” on Ilan’s birthday in his memory.)
Said Tali, “While the kitchen was probably Ilan’s favorite room, he brought the comfort, happiness, and security of a well-stocked playroom to every situation.”
By Kami Troy
Kami Troy is the senior editor of Kol HaBirah.