Samantha Resnick had only one item on her bat mitzva wish list. Unlike most girls her age, who cross their fingers for anything in a powder-blue Tiffany's box, Resnick set her sights on something a bit bigger than a ribbon fit around: $100,000 worth of donations to build a brand-new playground in Israel. About a year-and-a-half before Resnick's bat mitzva, her father, Josh, sat his precocious, curly-haired daughter down for a talk. "I said 'You've always had everything you've needed and you've also had everything you've ever wanted. Do you really want people to buy gifts for you or do you want to do something special for kids in Israel?'" Without a moment's pause, Resnick agreed to the idea. "I was really proud of her," said Josh.
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Over 500 friends and relatives received an unusual invitation for Resnick's bat mitzva last September: Included in the envelope was a small card requesting that donations be made to the Jewish National Fund (JNF) in lieu of gifts. Every family invited to the event contributed to assemble one of the largest bar or bat mitzva donations the JNF has ever received.
On Monday, in Israel for the first time, Resnick and her parents formally opened the playground that is attached to Sapir Park in the Arava Valley. The playground is designed to accommodate children who have special needs alongside those who do not.
Resnick, whose mother, Debbie, is a language and hearing therapist in the Pittsburgh public school system, explained why it was important to her to include special-needs children in the project.
"I feel so upset when you see all these kids playing and a mentally challenged kid is left out," she said. "You see them thinking 'I wish I could go and play, too.'"
Though content to be a 14-year-old philanthropist for the moment, Resnick has plans to expand the park.
"I want it to be huge," she said, adding that she hopes to emulate a park near her own home in Fox Chapel near Pittsburgh. She described her dream park with the matter-of-fact certainty of being a kid who knows exactly what a kid would want. "There's a slide of course, because everyone loves slides... and there are tire swings because I wanted to bring some stuff from America."
Resnick's parents are both deeply involved in the JNF; her father is president of his region in Pittsburgh and her mother is an active member of the Sapphire Society, the ladies' division of the JNF.
They said the idea of a bat mitzva was being lost in contemporary American society, and they did not want their only child to miss out on learning actual values at this critical point in her life.
"She said 'You know what, I don't need the gifts,' which just told us how much she understood the b'nei mitzva," said Josh, noting that many b'nei mitzvot have become increasingly materialistic. "It's always disturbed me that these children of families of wealth and of higher networks have people attending their affairs trying to figure out what to buy them... I think it was meaningful to a lot of the attendees that Samantha would choose to go down this path."
"It was important for our family to know what a bat mitzva really was," echoed Debbie.
Thinking about her playground, Resnick could not help but gush about the beneficiaries of her generosity: "I really love kids. I like to take good care of them."