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Rabbi grows sense of community, reconciliation in Clearwater garden

Rosemary in the garden at Congregation Beth Shalom in Clearwater in April 2013. The garden contains plants referenced throughout the Bible.
Published Apr. 9, 2013

CLEARWATER — In just one-eighth of an acre on the south side of Congregation Beth Shalom in Clearwater, the foliage and trees of the Bible spring to life, linking modern Jews to those of ancient times.

Olive and pomegranate trees dot the synagogue garden, along with rose bushes, aloe plants, almond trees, apple trees and date palms.

More than 100 plants and trees are mentioned in the Bible, most of which were found in ancient Israel. About a dozen varieties of those plants now grow in this modern garden, an idea conceived by Rabbi David Weizman, who along with his wife, Rabbi Danielle Upbin, has served Beth Shalom since 2002.

This is not the first time the rabbi, 54, has focused on the flora of the ancient world. As a rabbinical student studying in Israel in the late 1990s, he studied the plants of the area and then found references to them throughout the Bible. His project was to take fellow students on a nature walk to discuss his findings.

Here in the Clearwater garden, some of Weizman's choices have flourished and others, like the fig trees and stalks of wheat, never took hold.

"I wanted to show the kids how to harvest the wheat and grind it up at the same time of the wheat harvest in Israel," Weizman said, "but the birds got all but a couple of stalks."

In the center of the land, located behind the synagogue on Belcher Road, are six triangular planting beds framed in wood — an arrangement that replicates the six-pointed Star of David. Three of the triangles are planted with herbs, and edible plants are slated for the other three where bushes failed to grow.

Some plants and trees appear healthy, though, even in sandy Florida soil. Three large date palms spread their fronds to the sun. Palm trees appear frequently in the Bible. The prophet Deborah, in the Song of Deborah, is seated beneath one of them in about 1200 B.C., dispensing advice freely to the tribe of Ephraim.

A large pomegranate tree displays its woody, red-shelled flowers. Eventually, only the shells will remain, filled with tasty seeds reminiscent of those found in ancient Israel, described in Deuteronomy as a "land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs and pomegranates."

Two small apple trees harken to the Song of Songs: "Like an apple tree among trees of the forest / So is my beloved among the youths."

The four tall, leafy olive trees look green and healthy, although the trees, said Weizman, bloom infrequently. Of the many references to the olive tree in the Torah, the five books of Moses, the best known may be the image of Noah sending out a dove from the ark to see if the flood waters have receded.

Eventually, the evidence was clear: "The dove came back to him towards evening and there in its bill was a plucked off olive leaf."

As with other gardens, this one, too, requires lots of care. At times that care is hard to come by.

"I was active watering and weeding for a while," said Weizman, who started the garden in 2003 in memory of a deceased member of the congregation, "but it is hard to get more congregants involved in caring for a garden."

Some have come on board. Dan and Mettayya Farrell of Clearwater have been instrumental in starting the garden and keeping it going. Several years ago one of the couple's four daughters, Aylah, decided to make the garden a project for her bat mitzvah, an occasion that marks a Jewish girl's coming of age and assuming the responsibilities of the Jewish faith.

Aylah and her mom drove across the state in search of trees.

"We found the olive trees cultivated by a farmer in Citra (near Ocala)," said Mettayya Farrell. "We bought seven date palms in North Tampa and ordered male and female walnut trees to cross-pollinate."

The Farrells also got involved in planting, weeding and watering.

Other congregants are participating as well. Two teens have come up with Eagle Scout projects related to the garden. Clearwater resident Sam Prieto, along with fellow members of his Boy Scout troop, put in a wooden walkway leading from the synagogue sidewalk right to the garden. Another young Scout, Ahlohn Wolf of Palm Harbor, has plans to install a drip irrigation system.

Weizman has several other ideas for the garden, including using the land to cultivate a sense of community.

"I'd like to put in a vegetable garden," he said. "It won't be biblical, but it will enable congregants to participate in communal gardening."

A tall, four-sided wooden pole stands at the front of the garden. In English, Hebrew, Arabic and Spanish are the words "May Peace Prevail on Earth." That pole aptly suggests Weizman's most recent goal for the garden as a vehicle for reconciliation.

Two young boys in the congregation's religious school haven't been getting along, and Weizman has a plan for them. The boys will spend some time in the garden doing practical work together that will connect them to nature, to the Bible and to Israel. That shared experience, the rabbi hopes, may help the classmates reconcile.

"The purpose of the garden itself," Weizman said, "is to bring people closer to their history and to the land of Israel through all that grows there."

Elaine Markowitz can be reached at bmarkow2@tampabay.rr.com.

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