Ariel Fixler was a communicator, by profession and temperament.
“And a conversation with Ariel was never short,” her mother Rona said. “I still remember her coming downstairs in her little nightgown, aged two, when we were having a meeting with people from the synagogue, and [Ariel] asking, ‘Can I say hello?’”
It was only when saying hello had become a burden that Ariel finally began to surrender. Fixler, who grew up in Springfield and attended what is now the Golda Och Academy in West Orange, died on March 13, at 32, after a grueling three-year battle with cancer — a struggle that she shared with extraordinary openness in a blog, as well as in patient support groups and other forums.
But one of Ariel’s final achievements came out of the last few months of increasing isolation, and builds on the insights gained from her own experience: She created The Fixler Foundation, to promote open, nurturing communication for those suffering from serious illness.
“I hope it helps you say the right thing,” she declared, in the mission statement she recorded just a few weeks before her death.
Ariel said: “Many of us do not know what to say to someone with a life-threatening illness or diagnosis. A quick Google search leaves you with generic lists of what to say and what not to say, but doesn’t delve much deeper. This site focuses on what to say, how to listen and support. To allow the patient and family to feel loved, but most importantly feel listened to, heard, and understood.”
Fixler, who lived in New York City, was a film-marketing executive. After her cancer diagnosis, she founded a company that did marketing and social media work for wellness and holistic community providers.
Her family, longtime activists with the historic Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey, belonged to Congregation Israel in Springfield and were — and are still — members of Temple Beth O’r/Beth Torah in Clark.
Cantor Steven Stern, the leader of TBOBT, participated in her funeral service on March 16. He described the mood in the crowded Plaza Community Chapel in Manhattan as “a complex mixture.”
“There were about 12 speakers — more than I’ve ever come across at a funeral. She had been strong for so long, and though there was anguish, there was also relief that her suffering was over,” he said.
Speakers drew gales of laughter as they related anecdotes about Ariel’s numerous projects — from matchmaking, to working with show business personalities — including Matthew McConaughey — to promoting alternative healing and healthier food choices.
Ariel was one of the first b’nei mitzva students Stern coached, back in 1995. Even then, he said, her “zest for life” and her extraordinary composure were evident.
“Her father Gene came up to me to say there was bad news; they had left all her notes and paperwork at home,” Stern recalled. “There was a moment of panic, but we sat down and made some new notes. She did a superb job, and it ended up being a magnificent bat mitzva.”
The funeral was another Ariel achievement. “She loved to be the connecting person,” said Mallory Zipkin, who knew Ariel from when they were little girls, and whom Ariel asked to help plan her funeral. “She left me 10 pages of notes,” Zipkin said. “She knew her death would rock people; she was so young and she had fought so hard to live.”
That is the spirit that Rona said “made me so proud of her, always.” She is proud too of Ariel’s foundation, whose site will offer resources for caregivers and information on alternative health and physical therapy, volunteering, and coping with chronic illness.
Rona will oversee the foundation, in addition to caring for Gene, who has advanced Parkinson’s, and working full-time as an expert witness dealing with employability and family court issues.
“Ariel always loved being at the nexus of things,” she said.
Being sidelined by her illness, after all her efforts to try new therapies and pursue every possible way to prolong life, made Ariel angry and envious at times, and she searched for some last way to make her mark.
“The foundation gave her a way to do something that would last long after she’d be gone, a way for the work of her soul to be carried on,” Rona said. “She worked so hard on it, it was taxing the hell out of her, and she kept tweaking things until she couldn’t do it any more. Then she said, ‘It’s in your hands.’”
Ariel wrote that being resilient and giving hope to others wins one admiration and approval, and those mattered a lot to her. It was tough to accept defeat. But even in her surrender, she strove to help others by sharing her insights.
She wrote: “You should know part of letting go of your pain, your life, your fight, means finally losing your grip on the control button. You have to have faith the people you love will mourn you in the way that best suits them. You have to hope you won’t be a topic to be mourned and thought of for a fleeting moment, day, or week after your passing (like a trending topic). You have to hope you will be a memory to be treasured and revisited.”
Rona said, “We eagerly welcome volunteers to help bring in new content on resources and personal writing about experiences that can inform and support. Of course, Ariel focused on what she knew best, cancer, but it has always been the foundation’s mission to build relationships with the community involved with chronic and progressive or life-altering illness, disability, etc.”
To find out more, or to make a donation to support the work of the foundation, go to thefixlerfoundation.org.