bat mitzva 224 .
(photo credit: Ruth Eglash)
The old adage "blood is thicker than water" could not be more aptly summed up than by the endeavors of a New York native who has spent her bat mitzva year raising funds to build a playground in Israel in memory of her 23-year-old cousin Noam Mayerson, an IDF soldier killed during the Second Lebanon War.
Katy Mayerson arrived here late last week to lay the cornerstone of a playground in a Kiryat Shmona neighborhood that was bombed during the same war. As part of the UJA Federation of New York's "Give a Mitzva, Do a Mitzva" project, in which bar and bat mitzva kids are encouraged to donate their gifts to a project of their choice that is funded by UJA-Federation in Israel, New York or the Former Soviet Union, the 13-year-old raised some $10,000 by auctioning off specially designed T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan: "Make Play, Not War."
The Jewish Agency for Israel matched Mayerson's funds with an additional $15,000.
"I wanted to do something that would be a memorial to his life, not his death," Mayerson told The Jerusalem Post in an interview just before the playground's official unveiling Thursday. "[Noam] was such a great person, with wonderful values and I'd like to see those who use the playground grow up to be just like him."
Noam, who had just been released from the army and was due to be married in the summer of 2006, was called up for reserve duty days after the war broke out. Part of a tank battalion, he lost his life during a battle near the Lebanese village of Bint Jbail.
"It was really hard for us as a family," recalled Mayerson, who was only 11 when her cousin died but had grown close to him during many family visits to Israel. "I had just returned from school and my mom [Sandy] said she wanted to tell me something. I had no idea that someone had died, let alone my own cousin. At first I didn't know what to do. I think I cried. But then we had to go immediately to my grandfather in Ohio, who was heartbroken."
She continued: "My grandfather had just lost my grandmother and was very depressed. He felt that if someone so young [like Noam] with so much future ahead of him had died, then what was the point of him continuing to live?" A few months later, Mayerson's grandfather also passed away.
"It was really hard to have another loss right after losing Noam," explained Mayerson. "I really wanted my family not to hurt so much." When her bat mitzva came around last year, Mayerson decided that she would use the happy occasion to "help [the family] get over their grief."
"It was the first time that we were all together as a family, finally for something good," she said, adding that the full idea to create and sell T-shirts was reached with assistance from the federation's professional staff.
"I'm interested in fashion and once I had come up with the slogan, we started to create the T-shirts," explained Mayerson, who went on to sell them not only to friends and relatives, but also to complete strangers via the Internet. "I got some donations from people I didn't even know. I really got a lot of support." The more people who bought the shirts and wore them, the more publicity Mayerson got for the project, and in less than eight months she had raised enough seed money for the playground.
"I am just really surprised that so many people here [in Israel] are interested in what I've done," exclaimed Mayerson, who was the subject of an article in Yediot Aharonot even before she arrived here. "I had no idea it would be such a big deal, but my aunt here [Noam's mother, Lynn] told me that nearly everyone in Israel knows or is related to someone who has died in a war and that they think about it more than we do in the US.
"I just really hope that what I've done will help my family forget some of their sadness and have a good reason instead to think about Noam," she finished. "A playground is a place to be happy."