The Israel Garden

The Israel Garden at GJC

Our Israel Garden specializes in plants mentioned in the Bible, the Talmud, and other Jewish sources, along with other plants that grow in Israel.

Below are some answers to frequently asked questions about the garden. To find out more about the Israel Garden or to volunteer to work in the garden, please contact Ben Rotenberg at


Where is the Israel Garden? The Israel Garden is tucked behind the building on the hill above Lincoln Drive. Looking up at the synagogue from Lincoln Drive at the imposing representation of the Ten Commandments high up on the wall, the Israel Garden starts just below and winds around to the right on three terraces of the hill. You can get to the garden by walking around the building from the playground or by walking through the building. Signs for the garden will lead you to the back door near the stairwell between the Hebrew School wing and the sanctuary. Depending on the weather, you may want to walk out and sit on the bench for a few minutes before going on to services or the Little Shop or wherever else you may be going. Sitting and reflecting and enjoying the plants are some of the uses for which the Israel Garden was intended.

What is the Israel Garden for? The garden is for people to sit in, walk in, and enjoy. It is also for those who want to actually see the plants they have read about in the Bible and the Talmud. Seeing the growing plants can help us connect with the historical land of Israel and the stories about the land. The garden can add an earth-connected dimension to our observance of mitzvot. Getting to know the plants growing in the garden may enrich our study. One of our gardeners, reading in Psalms about the wicked, who are “like chaff that wind blows away,” realized from her experience gathering wheat in the Israel Garden that the chaff does not separate from the grain without human intervention. The image in the Psalm became for her not vaguely agricultural but specifically, and richly, about harvest.

In the Bible, the first thing Noah did after surviving the flood was to plant a vineyard. When we started the Israel Garden, one of the first things we did was to build the grape arbor and plant the grape vines. Our Hebrew School students have harvested and made juice from these grapes, and we have used the juice for kiddush on Rosh Hashanah. We now have all seven species (shivat haminim) of plants the Bible mentions to illustrate the fertility of the land of Israel: figs, dates, grapes, pomegranate, wheat, barley, and olives. We also have the four species used for sukkot: date palm, myrtle, willow, and etrog.

Using something from plants we have grown to do mitzvot, such as celebrating kiddush from grape juice from the grapes we grew, or celebrating havdalah by smelling the rosemary we grew, makes it more special – one way to beautify the mitzvot.

How can Israeli plants grow in our climate? Aren’t the winters too cold here? 

Many of our plants are hardy enough to survive the winter. For example, the grape and clematis vines, and the cherry, almond, and willow trees lose their leaves in the fall, go dormant, and come back to active growth in the spring. Some plants need some extra help. The fig bushes were planted in the shelter of a wall where they get protection from the wind. In the fall, a burlap shelter is wrapped around them and filled with leaves. Our pomegranate, date palm, and olive trees, as well as the myrtle bushes, grow in large pots that spend the warm months in the garden and the cold months in a member’s greenhouse.

What are some of the experiences our Hebrew School students have had in the garden? 

  • Making grape juice for Rosh Hashanah for our congregational kiddush.
  • Harvesting sorghum to decorate the succah.
  • Making an omer journal: planting in the garden and then observing the growth of the plants throughout the counting of the omer.
  • Presenting the first fruits of the garden on Shavuot as part of a consecration ceremony.
  • Sitting together with their families under the grape arbor when Honi the circlemaker made a surprise visit! Honi described how he makes grape juice for the holidays.
  • Playing a scavenger hunt with their families on Sukkot, trying to find all the seven species of the land of Israel and the four species of sukkot.

Does the Israel Garden have programs for other people besides the Hebrew School students? Yes.

  • Newly married couples have gone out to the garden to break their fast together after the wedding and before the reception.
  • Thirty people attended an “Erev Shel Shoshanim,” a night of song and storytelling in the garden, one August evening.
  • For Rosh Hodesh Sivan, a Rosh Hodesh group walked through the wheat and barley fields and harvested some wheat and barley as part of their Rosh Hodesh ritual.
  • There are tours of the garden on the first night of Shavuot, when it is the custom to stay up all night studying Torah (tikkun leil Shavuot). Between study sessions, or during them if you find yourself dozing off, you can visit the garden. It is one of the best times to visit – the garden is in its spring glory, the weather is likely to be warm, and you might catch a glimpse of Ruth walking through the barley field nearby to go visit Boaz.

How did the Israel Garden get started? About ten years ago, a few congregants envisioned a garden with plants from Israel that would let people connect with the land of Israel and the stories in the Bible. The garden continues to grow.

Who are the gardeners of the Israel Garden? Volunteers of all ages plant new plants, deal with the weeds, harvest the crops, protect the plants for the winter, and dream of new plants and projects to try out. Hebrew School students are an important part of the garden crew, and Jay Furman, age ninety plus, is one of our mainstays, keeping the garden green and the gardeners inspired.