Despite the late-to-the-season chill in the air on Jan. 11, the students and faculty of the Hebrew Academy of Nassau County gathered together outside on the frozen fields of their Plainview campus to honor a special Jericho woman.
Rabbi Kalman Fogel, principal of the Hebrew Academy, noted that the gathering was to dedicate a new playground in the name of a recently-departed Jericho resident who was a very active and much-loved member of their community.
“The playground is being dedicated in memory of ‘Mema’ Cheryl Wexelman of Jericho, a grandmother of this school,” Fogel said. “Her children have graduated from here, and her family dedicated this playground in her memory because she just loved the kids and loved our school, and she was always here. She passed away very suddenly, and relationship with us was as such that her family reached out to me, and we felt it was only appropriate to name the playground after this wonderful woman.”
Pami Tuerack, a Jericho resident and Wexelman’s daughter, said that her mother passed away in March of 2015 at the age of 66 while on a trip to visit her ailing grandfather, who was just shy of his 101st birthday. Tragically, he passed right before her plane landed, and in a cruel twist of fate, Wexelman herself suddenly passed later the very same day after having to cope with the harrowing loss.
Tuerack said that her mother—nicknamed “Mema” as a play on “grandma”—was a regular fixture at the Hebrew Academy.
“I was working, and my other was the one that would drive my kids to school every day. She was the one that met the teachers and she was at every single event the school had. There was one single program here that she was not involved in,” she said. “She was dedicated to her grandchildren. She loved their love and their warmth. She was a very giving person who was very comfortable with children and always went out of her way to help anyone who needed it.”
Fogel noted that, in addition to playing tribute to Wexelman, the ceremony that day also served to teach his students appreciation for the things in their lives that some people might take for granted.
“The way that we dedicate a playground here is different than most. We try and teach our children gratitude—our theme this year is ‘Gratitude is an Attitude’—so the children have been writing gratitude journals about how much they appreciate their five senses, and how their new playground will reflect their appreciate of them,” he said. “The student council selected writings from all our grades, kindergarten through sixth, and those students are going to present them during this dedication today.”
The Hebrew Academy’s fifth graders won out in the Gratitude contest, and while their classmates retreated back indoors, they were allowed first crack at the exciting new playground after the ceremonial ribbon cutting performed by Wexelman’s grandchildren, Ari and Skylar.
The playground, measuring 120 feet by 60 feet and colored in swaths of yellow, orange, and blue, was chosen by the student council and was designed to be more physically intensive than the typical playground, Fogel said.
“This set-up is designed around climbing and using the various muscle groups, whether it’s legs, the core or the arms,” he said. “The planning process involved the student council. Children from different grades, along with families, parents, doctors and physical therapists, who all worked together to create this playground. We all miss and love Mema very much, and we’re happy to have this reminder of her here.”
And while Tuerack noted that the emotional wounds from the terrible day that she—and an entire heartbroken community—lost her mother are still raw, the fact that the Hebrew Academy is dedicating their new playground in her memory is aiding a great deal with the healing process of her family.
“It’s an amazing feeling because the truth is that she was so dedicated to this school,” she said. “I think that she would be very happy, having this playground dedicated to her.”