When Maya Rigler was two she fought and beat kidney cancer. Now 10, Maya has an unrelated, rare presentation of a different cancer—Ewing’s Sarcoma; and the tumor on her pancreas is too large, and compromises too many important blood vessels, to be safely removed.
But Maya is not only a fighter (the world’s most clichéd thing to say about a child with cancer); she’s also an activist. The week, she got her new diagnosis. And with friends and family clamoring with requests to help, Maya told her parents: “I don’t need anything! Tell everyone to make a donation to Alex’s Lemonade Stand, because what we all really need is for no more kids to get cancer.”
Alex’s Lemonade Stand was founded in 2000, by then 4-year-old Alexandra Scott, a Philadelphia-area girl with cancer who wanted to help other kids with cancer. Alex encouraged her older brother, Patrick, to help host a lemonade stand in front of their house to raise money for pediatric cancer. They raised $2,000 in a day.
As the news media picked up the story, a movement began: kids and adults all over the world began to run their own lemonade-stand fundraisers for pediatric cancer research in Alex’s honor. Meanwhile, Alex and her family hosted their own stands for the next four years. Alex died in 2004 at the age of 8, having directly and indirectly raised over a million dollars for research. Today, her foundation has raised over $100 million to fund 475 childhood cancer research projects at 102 top hospitals and institutions in the US and Canada.
Maya was inspired by Alex’s efforts…but interest in tzedakah doesn’t grow in a vacuum. Her parents, Rabbi Peter Rigler of Temple Sholom in Broomall, PA, and Rabbi Stacy Eskovitz Rigler, the Director of Religious Education at Keneseth Israel in Elkins, have always taken gemilut hasadim—acts of loving-kindness—seriously. The two, who met as rabbinical students at Hebrew Union College in New York, taught Maya and her brothers Nathan and Eli about the importance of giving back to their community. “After Maya got better when she was two, we were grateful and we started holding Alex’s Lemonade Stands at our synagogue every June,” Stacy Rigler told me in an interview. “And we’ve done it every June for the last eight years. We live close to where Alex lived, and we wanted to support a local charity that believes in kids being empowered. We have Alex’s book—it’s always been a big piece of our lives and family tradition.”
Part of Stacy’s professional life involves encouraging kids to get involved in mitzvah projects, getting thinking about being helpers and seeing themselves as part of the greater good. “Becoming a Jewish adult involves not just reading Torah but also about making a difference in the world and in the community in which you live,” she said. “There are a lot of Jewish ways to say, ‘When life gives you lemons, make lemonade’—that’s a powerful lesson. For me, as a Jewish educator, one of the best things to teach our kids in a world that’s increasingly individualistic is that there is power in community. You have the power to help others do mitzvot.”
And when Maya got her Ewing’s diagnosis in January, Stacy said: “I watched her become a Jewish adult. She could have looked inside herself and said, ‘This is a really bad thing that’s happening to me.’ But instead, she thought about other kids. ‘Presents are not going to fix this,’ Maya thought. ‘What will fix this is research. Helping people give will help change the world.’”
As Stacy’s HUC professor Isa Aron put it to me, “Being able to understand that we are commanded to engage in tikkun olam not just in the happy moments, but at every moment of our lives, has been a huge lesson for Maya, her friends, and the two congregation-based communities in which she lives.”
Maya describes her cancer as “a bunch of sad cells coming together in a group.” As she told a local news station, “They’re just like Mr. Sad Cell, and they form a weird blob and then you just take the blob out and you shrink it.”
Stacy says Maya worked with another member of their community, a graphic designer, to design an image of a sad blue cell to use as a fundraising tool. “Her language resonates with her friends and little brothers, and other parents have mentioned that she really has an ability to explain what cancer is to her peers,” Stacy said.
Maya’s lemonade stand blew through its initial fundraising goal of $100,000 (as I write this, it’s at $117,459). Now Maya’s set a new goal of $250,000.
“It’s been amazing to watch her advocate for an underfunded cause,” Stacy said. Children’s cancers account for only four percent of the National Cancer Institute’s research budget—hence a hashtag movement, called #MoreThan4.
Maya has had two rounds of chemo since January. The tumor has shrunk some. But the family tries not to obsess about the future; instead, they celebrate doing tikkun olam and living in the here and now. Stacy said, “I hope we can teach kids to want to be involved in something and make a difference over the course of your lifetime. That’s what being a Jewish adult is: Rooting yourself in a community in a continual cycle of giving as well as worship.”
Related: Doing Mitzvah Projects Right