For the last 21 years, Libby Akerman of Wesley Hills has volunteered for Chai Lifeline, a Jewish international support network for children with serious illness and their families. She provides hospital transport and assists at mothers’ retreats.
On July 16, Ms. Akerman will join more than 200 women in the eighth annual 100-mile Tour de Simcha, a bike ride to benefit Chai Lifeline programs, including its summer camps. The funds raised since the ride’s inception total more than $5.3 million; this year, close to $700,000 has been pledged.
Ms. Akerman is delighted about the success of Tour de Simcha because it was her idea in the first place, back in 2011. At that point, her husband had participated in the first two annual Bike4Chai 180-mile men’s rides for Chai Lifeline. That route finishes on an emotional high with a grand entrance at Chai Lifeline’s Camp Simcha boys session in Glen Spey.
“I wanted a women’s ride,” Ms. Akerman says, envisioning a similar grand entrance during Camp Simcha’s session for girls.
When she broached the idea to her contacts at Chai Lifeline, they asked, “Would enough women besides you want to do a long-distance bike ride?” Absolutely, she assured them.
“I made a kickoff party in my house and told everyone I knew about it. I recruited 40 of my friends,” she said. “I love Chai Lifeline and I love their cause and I’m close with some of the families they serve. It was very meaningful and personal for me.”
At a Brooklyn brainstorming session with several friends and with Mindy Tyner, then coordinator of Bike4Chai and later director of Tour de Simcha, fellow Rockland County resident Roz Feinsod came up with the catchy name of the ride, riffing off the Tour de France. (They checked and found that there are no legal problems in using a similar name.)
“Then I went with Mindy to Queens and Long Island and we recruited adventurous women. Many of the women who were interested didn’t even have bikes,” Ms. Akerman said.
The mother of five children, ranging in age from 8 to 24, she is very athletic; she does triathlons and recently completed a 100-mile Gran Fondo bike ride with a group of friends. But the knowledge that Tour de Simcha and Bike4Chai benefit gravely ill children gives participants more than just a good workout. “They have both become major social events,” Ms. Akerman said. “They are really part of people’s identity.”
That is true on an even deeper level for the family and community of Evan Levy, an Englewood child felled by brain cancer in 2016, when he was 4 1/2.
From the time he was diagnosed 18 months earlier, Chai Lifeline provided hospital visits to Evan and was there for his parents, Andrew and Margaret, and his siblings, Max and Zoey. After Evan’s death, Mr. and Mrs. Levy established the Evan Levy Fund at Chai Lifeline to provide financial assistance for families in medical crisis.
Tova Gerson of Bergenfield, Evan’s preschool teacher at Lubavitch on the Palisades in Tenafly, signed up for Tour de Simcha in 2015, the year Evan was diagnosed.
“The first year I did it was really motivated by Evan,” she said. “Chai Lifeline is so huge that it’s hard to see the everyday picture of how it helps people. You want to know that your tzedakah dollars are going to help people. Seeing how they helped the Levys, I felt I had to be part of it.”
Ms. Gerson, the mother of four children, from 8 to 16 years old, went on to form Team Evan on Tour de Simcha. This year, the six-member team is the top fundraiser both in the total dollar amount raised (more than $122,000 as of June 20) and in the average dollar amount raised per team member (more than $17,000).
For the first time, Evan’s mother and his aunt, Emily Lichtman, will be participating in the ride on July 16. That’s two days before Evan would have turned 8.
“Tova Gerson had asked us before, but we weren’t emotionally ready,” Ms. Lichtman said. “This year, my sister was ready, so I would have done it whether I was ready or not. And I’m very excited. It’s the first time I’ve been on a bike in about 20 years.”
Ms. Lichtman, mother of a 9-year-old daughter, a 6-year-old son, and a 22-month-old son, said that she and Ms. Levy bought bikes and gear, raised $90,000 in pledges in just two weeks, and started training together.
“The first two times we rode three or four miles,” she said. “We’re up to 32 miles now. I am happy to ride by my sister’s side, raising money for this organization that provides critical support to families in need.”
The sisters, who live just half a mile from each other, also signed up for the 50-mile Wheels-for-Meals Ride to Fight Hunger on June 23 to benefit the Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Northern New Jersey’s nutrition program.
“It’s for a good cause and we can get some training in,” Ms. Lichtman said. “The riding is exhausting, but it’s a bonding experience for us, and it’s exhilarating.”
Ms. Gerson said that before her first ride she wasn’t sure she would finish. “But I felt like you don’t know what you can do until you try,” she said. “It gave me a new appreciation of what women can accomplish together. The difference between one rider and one hundred is phenomenal.”
Ms. Tyner, the director of Tour de Simcha, agreed. “It’s so empowering to see how strong these women are,” she said. “They are making a big impact on the organization.”
The local contingent in Tour de Simcha includes 10 riders from Teaneck, two from Bergenfield, three from Englewood, one from Tenafly, and 17 from Rockland County.
Riding in the July heat is never easy.
“You pray for overcast but not rainy weather,” Ms. Gerson said. “Last year, the heat was off the charts and pushed a lot of people off the road. The last five-mile stretch is very exposed, and the concrete is very dark so it absorbs heat. You can feel it rising up to your waist.”
But she made it the whole distance, as she’s done each year. Her secret weapon: “I made sure to drink a ton and at every rest stop filled my jersey with ice.”
As they enter camp, the cyclists are greeted by campers, many using wheelchairs or respirators; as well as hundreds of cheering staff members.
Supporters can contribute to Tour de Simcha at www.tourdesimcha.org. All donations are 100 percent tax-deductible.