Biblical roots remain firm at Rodef Shalom Garden

| Thursday, June 27, 2013, 8:55 p.m.

If ever there were a place to explore authentic ancient horticulture, it is at the Biblical Botanical Garden at Rodef Shalom Congregation in Oakland.

It is the largest of only a few gardens in North America that exhibit biblical vegetation.

Entering its 27th season, the Rodef Shalom Biblical Botanical Garden is flourishing and ready for summer visitors.

Dr. Walter Jacob, rabbi emeritus and senior scholar, and his wife, Irene Jacob, who died in December, had the idea to replace the old Sunday-school play area with a third-acre patch blooming with biblical history. But before drafting plans for the garden, the couple visited more than 1,000 gardens across North America in preparation for their book, “Gardens of North America and Hawaii: A Traveler's Guide.”

The Jacobs always shared a love for nature and gardens, but they founded the garden principally, Jacob says, “in an effort to make the Bible more real.”

“The people of the Bible were farmers, people who worked the land,” he says. “And when visitors come here, they can begin to really see that.”

The garden, engineered by Pittsburgh architect Joel Kranich to look like the Holy Land, identifies more than 100 sub-tropical and temperate plants with their names, Hebrew names and an accompanying Bible verse. In addition to plant life, it sports a small desert and a waterfall meant to symbolize the Jordan River that spills westward into a lily-pond meant to represent the Dead Sea.

Every year, the garden emphasizes a different aspect of venerable vegetation and hosts an annual lecturer on the subject, as well. To maintain the garden, plan themes and provide tours is a serious undertaking.

“When you have a garden, you don't own it,” says hostess Marcia Netzer. “It owns you.”

The operation is run entirely by volunteers, including seven docents and about 50 hosts and hostesses. While they accept donations, entry into the garden is free. And because a lot of the plants are tropical, they must be transported to Rodef Shalom's greenhouse at West View Cemetery for proper care in the off-season.

The theme this summer is “Botanical Symbols in World Religions,” inspired by the title of one of Irene Jacob's many publications. One of the garden's distinguishing characteristics is its interfaith approach to education, which grants members of any religious community a rewarding experience. You'll find symbols from many beliefs dispersed throughout, such as the Jewish menorah, the pomegranate in Christianity, and the Buddha on a Lotus.

“People relate to symbols,” says Marian Finegold, who serves as a docent at both Rodef Shalom's garden and at Phipps Conservatory. “When you have a dove and an olive branch, the world recognizes that as a symbol of peace. But not all of them are that straightforward. It is widely known that the laurel was a popular Greek and Roman symbol of victory, but in the Bible, the laurel signified something bad.”

A trip through the garden reconciles the ways in which we understand symbols in the secular world with their intended biblical meanings. “It's all interpretive,” Finegold says. “It's how (Irene) saw it.”

The garden now displays a portrait of Irene Jacob in a glass case at the beginning of the tour, and selections of her publications are available for sale.

“We all loved her dearly, and we miss her,” Finegold says.

“If Irene was here, we would walk through the garden and she would probably see weeds that I don't see,” says Jacob, laughing. “Irene would love to see that the garden is still thriving.”

Emma Deihle is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7834 or

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