Bikur Cholim Takes Community Care to a Whole New Level

Written by Barbara Trainin Blank on . Posted in Community Spotlights

Bikur Cholim literally means “visiting the sick” in Hebrew, but some organizations with the name go well beyond that mission. Bikur Cholim of Greater Washington (BCGW) is one of them.

Debi Wildman founded BCGW, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, in 1997 in memory of her late husband, Howie. During Howie’s illness, the family was lucky enough to have a support system–– people visited, made meals–– but Debi knew not everyone had the same good fortune.

Over the years, Bikur Cholim has evolved to do much more than just send friendly visitors to the ill and elderly, itself a laudable activity.

Volunteers with the organization’s J. Peter and Shoshana Lunzer Food Program deliver store-bought and home-cooked meals to hospital patients and their families, the ill and homebound, and caregivers as well. During the past year, the organization provided close to 3,000 meals as well as 800 rides for medical appointments. It also lends out medical equipment and helps pay medical bills for those who qualify.

There is also the Meir L’Olam Fund, dedicated to the memory of Mel Rishe, which runs kosher pantries at Children’s National Medical Center in DC, The Children’s Inn at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, and Adventist HealthCare Shady Grove Medical Center in Rockville, Maryland.

On May 18, Bikur Cholim will hold its annual “My Brother’s Keeper” workshop, geared for hospital staff and others who want to understand the special religious needs of Jewish patients in their care. BCGW offers educational programs for the Jewish community at large as well, often related to elder care, women’s wellness–– and most recently a health and halacha series in coordination with Young Israel Shomrai Emunah and many local synagogue chesed communities.

And thanks to BCGW’s brand-new SmileMakers program, dedicated in memory of Rabbi Yosef Samberg N'E, a child who had undergone brain surgery and longed to see a basketball game between the Wizards and the New York Knicks was not only able to attend but received VIP treatment as well.


“It was a dream come true for him,” said Audrey Siegel, BCGW’s executive director.

Similar to the work of Make-A-Wish Foundation, SmileMakers provides local outings for kids under treatment for serious illness and caregivers. “It’s a day to just have fun and to make memories,” she said.

SmileMakers held a pre-Purim program on February 26 in which participants not only received but also gave back to the community. In addition to enjoying entertainment by a magician and refreshments, they prepared mishloach manot packages for isolated individuals in the community.

For the wider community, BCGW arranges Megillah readings for those in the hospital and unable to make it to synagogue and sells mishloach manot cards as a fundraiser. BCGW fundraising events also include annual boutiques around Chanukah and Pesach; a percentage of the profits made by vendors is donated to the organization. A bike-a-thon is also planned for this spring.

The organization acts as a sort of matchmaker between volunteers and clients, and they are sometimes connected more by a shared personality than a similar cultural background, said Siegel.

“On the books, we have some 400 volunteers,” she said. “Some might volunteer once a year, and others every week.”

BCGW was staffed solely by volunteers until 2006, when Siegel was hired to work part-time. “Eventually the volunteers in charge of intake couldn’t keep up with the volume, and I was hired as a professional,” she said. “Volunteers deliver our services, but they have to be coordinated.”

Also on staff are Rikki Reifer, BCGW's director of special programs, and Rabbi Elie Gayer, part-time service coordinator and chaplain.

At first, Siegel worked out of her house. Now BCGW has offices in the building of the Jewish Council for the Aging in Rockville, Maryland.

Siegel and Reifer also offer counseling and coaching, for which they have received special training. They help individuals based on their needs: going through the hospital process, for example, or connecting them with all the community resources that would benefit their specific situations.

Transforming the Hospital Experience

About 15 years ago, Reifer instituted and still manages two programs to help meet the needs of patients in area hospitals and family members.

Nine hospitals in the Greater Washington area offer Shabbat Boxes, which contain electric tea lights for candle lighting, grape juice and a Kiddush cup, a challah cover, and b’samim (spices)for Havdalah. The same hospitals are also equipped to provide Emergency Bags: prepackaged, kosher-certified snacks, juice, and matzah for Hamotzi (one of the mitzvot of Shabbat is making this blessing with one’s meal).

Sulam students pack the Shabbat Boxes and supply them to BCGW, who distributes them with the Emergency Bags and meals to patients spending Shabbat in the hospital. 

In short, BCGW is helping local hospitals provide all the ritual items one would need for an unexpected Shabbat in the hospital.

“They’re to be used in cases of emergency hospital admittance on Shabbat when kosher food is not immediately available,” Reifer said.

All BCGW services are offered without cost to the recipient, and confidentially. Volunteers deliver these services, with professional coordination.

Another one of BCGW’s recent endeavors is the Bikur Cholim House, a home of hope and healing for Jewish families from around the world who receive lifesaving treatments at the NIH and other area hospitals.

Jewish families have always sought treatment at NIH and participated in clinical studies to find cures for their illnesses. But they faced obstacles other patients did not, such as not having a place to stay on Shabbat within walking distance of the hospital or access to kosher food. Individual Jewish families in Bethesda provided hospitality, but couldn’t keep up with the constantly growing need.

Aside from Shabbat and kashrut issues, patients who come from out of state or all over the world to be treated at NIH can’t go home every night and come back to the clinic the next day. “Either they’d have to stay in a hotel, which is very costly, or possibly with friends or relatives in the area, if they have them,” said Siegel.

BCGW purchased the formerly private house on the edge of the NIH campus in July 2015, after years of trying to find such a residence. It is now named after Bernard Creeger, the father and father-in-law of Kemp Mill residents Fran and Alan Broder, who helped enable the organization to buy the house.

Although it won’t officially open until after a ribbon-cutting ceremony this spring, BCGW started receiving–– and responding to–– inquiries last June from families needing the Creeger House’s services.

“Since then, there hasn’t been a week without someone staying there,” Siegel said. “The Bernard Creeger Bikur Cholim House offers these patients and family members accompanying them more privacy and a home-like atmosphere, as well as contact with people who are in a similar situation. They find a place to stay, meals, and compassionate support from the community and each other.”

When patients come from overseas – frequently Israelis – the community redoubles its efforts to welcome them. A volunteer picks them up at the airport and tries to make them feel as at home as possible.

A challenge remains to adapt the house to its new purpose. BCGW is modernizing the kitchen for guest use and is building a professional kitchen to prepare food not only for guests but also for the many people the organization serves in hospitals and other facilities. That will be a big money saver; up until now, the organization has usually bought catered meals.

BCGW launched a $2,773,050 campaign, in part for renovations and for an emergency fund. It still has to raise some $1.5 million. The fundraising campaign was announced at the Annual Gala, BCGW’s main fundraising event, held November 20 at B’nai Israel in Rockville.