When Rachel Segal heard that a lot of young families in Dallas brought their kids to a fairytale-like indoor playground filled with tree forts and rope bridges at a massive evangelical church, she dreamed of her synagogue — Congregation Shearith Israel — having its own magical playground. In 2019, Rachel brought her vision to Shearith’s senior leadership, wanting to honor the legacy of her beloved late husband, David A. Segal, with a play area she imagined visiting with their family.
Rabbi Shira Wallach, who leads Shearith’s Family Center, was thrilled, especially when Segal told her, “I want you to build the playground of your dreams.”
A groundbreaking was held Sunday, in which Shearith Senior Rabbi Ari Sunshine thanked Segal for her generosity, which fully funded the David A. Segal z”l Family Simcha Play Center. Rabbi Shira Wallach recognized this historic moment for the Shearith community. “We can’t even begin to fathom the joyous moments that will be shared here, the meaningful memories that will be created here.”
Working closely with Segal and her associate Barry Borodkin, Wallach and the team imagined an eitz chayim, a tree of life, that when planted and tended, fills its garden with untold riches. “Our children are our tree of life,” Segal said, “we must bless them with the best of what we have.”
Wallach recruited a creative dream team to help her conceptualize the Segal Play Center, which will be an idyllic spot to nurture children and serve as a welcoming respite for families to gather and make long-lasting friendships. Joining Wallach are two Shearith members: Sarah Davis, a pediatric occupational therapist, and Staci Reznik, a community leader and organizer. Also on the team is Sarah Lipinsky, Shearith’s director of education, who has a degree in Applied Behavior Analysis and Child and Family Development and a passion for understanding the challenges faced by students with special needs. The four traveled to playgrounds all around Dallas.
“Our goal,” Wallach explains, “is to build thoughtful spaces that will engage and delight our kids’ bodies and souls, beckoning them to play with their Judaism.”
The community playground will be built to the west of Shearith’s north entrance by the Beck Family Sanctuary doors. It will feature a 30-plus foot tall climbing adventure, surrounded by play elements encouraging teamwork and friendship for all ages. Israeli artist Eli Kaplan-Wildmann will infuse one-of-a kind, brilliantly colored art panels filled with fanciful trees, flowers and Hebrew letters to bring the eitz chayim to life. Hidden among play elements will be teachings from Torah about nature and community.
The Segal Play Center will also include a picnic area, an outdoor classroom and a sacred space for prayer and learning, surrounded by an outdoor orchestra of musical instruments. All of these spaces will be shaded and lit so that learning, community gathering, prayer and play can take place year-round and throughout the day and evening.
Additionally, Wallach and team wanted a special playground just for the youngest frolickers. Children ages 2-5 will love the dedicated space filled with climbing and socialization play elements, including sand and water. This smaller area will replace the current playground which flanks the west side of the building.
“Both our play centers will invite children and families to gather, laugh and discover,” Wallach said. “Our outdoor classroom and prayer space will give everyone room to connect and be inspired.” Both play centers are ADA compliant, inviting children of all abilities to engage together.
Shearith Israel President Irving Prengler said, “For years, we have nurtured and grown our Family Center and School families, and these playgrounds will only deepen our ongoing commitment to celebrating each and every child and their grownups as they pursue sacred encounters in the context of our kehila kedosha, our holy community.”