Rabbi Daria Jacobs-Velde is crouching low over a plot of ground outside Oseh Shalom in
Laurel, still brown except for tiny buds of lavender, which she picks to inhale their aroma.
This is the Reconstructionist synagogue’s biblical garden.
Although lavender isn’t biblical, once the garden is in bloom, it will be filled with the seven species that symbolize the prosperity of Israel — wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and honey.
The garden sits next to the synagogue’s entrance where every one of the 250 member families can see it. It is part of Oseh Shalom’s ethos to be mindful of the earth, says education director Renee Richards.
“The synagogue has always had a green print,” Richards says. “When we built the building, we tried to use as much natural light as we could, so that we’re not using electricity more than we need to. The congregation is always looking for ways to be more environmentally friendly.”
The garden has an educational component, she adds. When it’s time, her students will harvest the crops. They’ll make juice from the grapes and challah from the wheat and barley that the children will mill themselves.
If anything, the students will learn how much effort goes into making food, so they’ll come to appreciate it.
“We try to do as much as we can, and we’re trying to advance the curriculum on the ecological front,” Richards says.
If a biblical crop can’t survive the Maryland winter, the synagogue finds a substitute. Instead of olives, the garden hosts a jujube tree.
The garden isn’t very large. It holds a few trees and bushes and a trellis with a couple of benches underneath it.
Jacobs-Velde refers to it as their “outdoor office.”
On a hill, right next to Oseh Shalom’s entrance sign is the synagogue’s other garden — a rain garden. It’s another eco-friendly project.
The rain garden, which looks like a waterless pond, is filled with dirt and outlined by smooth, flat stones. It soaks in runoff, and filters out sediment and chemicals before the water reaches the Chesapeake Bay.
The garden uses low maintenance native species, says synagogue administrator Andrew Maayan as he examines the plants.
“It’s not just a garden, it’s a whole filtration system. There’s layers of stone and gravel and things just to dilute water,” he says.
The synagogue also uses the rain garden to teach Jewish values.
“I’ve taken my students out there and we talk about the value of do not destroy and of being in God’s image,” Richards says. “If God created the world, then it’s our responsibility to take care of it. How can we in his image take care of it?”
The students will take the litter that collects around the rain garden and throw it in a trash can. The synagogue also provides information to congregants so that they can make rain gardens at home. Jacobs-Velde wants her congregants to get off their cell phones, get out of their cars and enjoy the outdoors.
Sitting on a bench in the biblical garden, she notes the sound of the wind, the birds chirping, the buzzing of bumblebees.
“We’re just trying to create opportunities for people to come outside whenever possible,” she says.