George Weiner, right, with his uncle Michael and cousin Margie in 2009.
by Hillel Kuttler
BALTIMORE (JTA) — When his uncle Michael was diagnosed with brain cancer just over a year ago, George Weiner dug his cleats deeper in the batter’s box while also skating hard to check their foe into the boards.
That’s because George, now 13 and a dedicated ice hockey player, was very close with Michael Weiner, the Major League Baseball Players Association’s executive director. So as he considered last August what project to embrace for his upcoming bar mitzvah, George honed in on fighting the disease that would take his uncle’s life.
George has already raised more than $1,800 through sales of Voices Against Brain Cancer: Friends of Mike decals — one 1-inch-diameter, $1 sticker at a time — to young hockey players and their parents.
In Facebook posts about the cause, George, a defenseman on a team near his Wayne, N.J., home, also has found supporters clear across the country. A youth hockey team in Los Angeles ordered $50 worth of decals, and other teams followed. At a November tournament in Chicago, David Weiner said, he was stunned to see his son “walk up to strangers to say, ‘I’m selling these stickers because my uncle was diagnosed with brain cancer.’”
At that event alone, David related, George raised about $300. “He was very poised,” he said.
Michael Weiner attended his nephew’s bar mitzvah on Nov. 16 at Wayne’s Temple Beth Tikvah, but died five days later at age 51, leaving behind a wife and three daughters. Along with the decal sales whose proceeds he forwarded to the New York-based charity Voices Against Brain Cancer, George contributed $1,000 from his bar mitzvah gifts.
George “taking something dear to him, which is hockey,” and applying it to help his uncle and others afflicted with the disease demonstrates that performing mitzvot “is fun because it’s innately rewarding, and it’s fun helping other people and working for a truly worthy cause,” Beth Tikvah’s rabbi, Stephen Wylen, told JTA.
While a cure for brain cancer isn’t imminent, “as Rabbi Tarfon said, ‘It’s not your obligation to complete the work, but neither are you to desist from it,’” Wylen, quoting from Pirkei Avot 2:21, said.
JTA spoke recently with George Weiner.
JTA: How did you design the sticker you used in your fundraising effort?
GW: I found a website that said you could design your own sticker. I just had to find the measurement. I knew the color of the [official] ribbon was gray. I had trouble thinking of what to actually say on the sticker. I started off simple, by writing, “Join the Fight Against Brain Cancer.” Now the sticker says, “Voices Against Brain Cancer: Friends of Mike.”
Your mother Ronni faced, and has beaten, breast cancer. How have you, as such a young person, dealt with the terrible things that have happened to people around you?
With my mom, I was very little, so I wasn’t really aware of it. I think back to what she must’ve been going through and think of how lucky we are that she got cured of it. With my uncle, over the summer I heard that he was having trouble walking, so I visited him a lot, but he drastically got worse and worse and worse. I was just watching the disease slowly take away my uncle, so I think of it as: Now, he’s better off where he is in heaven than here with the cancer, suffering.
What role does sports play in your life?
With my uncle, sports was more than just winning. It was having fun. He’d take me to Yankees playoff games and Devils games, and we didn’t have to worry about winning and losing — just having a good time.
What memories do you cherish of attending sports events together?
Against the Detroit Tigers in a playoff game a few years ago, the first pitch of the game was a foul ball that the batboy gave to me. That was the coolest thing: that I got the first pitch of the game. The hot chocolate at the Yankee games we’d always go to — I loved it!
What experiences in Judaism do you enjoy?
The best thing I like is just being with my family on the holidays and celebrating altogether and seeing everybody happy. I always like Chanukah and Passover — finding the afikomen. I remember one time, at our house, my uncle hid [the afikomen] in the basement. I remember walking over a mat and hearing a crack. He told me he’d hide it again, and he hid it upstairs.
What are your hobbies?
I like watching TV or playing Xbox or mini-hockey in the basement with my friends with a mini-net, mini-sticks and a foam ball. We try to split up and have tournaments: two-on-two or three-on-three.
What’s the nicest thing someone’s said to you about your sticker-fundraising project?
My mom posted stuff on Facebook, and she showed me comments of what people were saying: Parents of my friends and teachers were saying that I’m a great young man and they’re all proud of me. That was special to me because I like making people proud, doing the right thing, making people happy. The night my uncle died, I got a “follow” on Twitter from [Toronto Blue Jays slugger] Jose Bautista. That was pretty cool. It shows that he really cared for my uncle and wanted to show his condolences to my family.
How do you feel about your initiative to honor your uncle?
I feel fulfilled, but not fully fulfilled because I haven’t completed the job I’m looking forward to: to find a cure or raise money to help do that. But it makes me feel really good about myself, because I know my uncle would be really proud of me.
The Teen Heroes column is sponsored by the Helen Diller Family Foundation, which is dedicated to celebrating and supporting teens repairing the world. To learn more about the foundation’s $36,000 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards, visit http://dillerteenawards.org. Please tell us about teens who deserve attention by sending an e-mail to email@example.com.