By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — Beautification, education and meditation made up the mission of the Biblical garden project committee at Congregation Agudat Achim when the synagogue celebrated its 120th anniversary in 2012. But it was clearly going to take some work to fulfill it.
“There was nothing but a field of weeds here before,” committee member Rise Routenberg said, gesturing to what is now a botanical palette of magentas, greens and golds. A long, narrow swath of garden near the building’s entrance at 2117 Union St. has since taken on a much greater significance for its admirers. The garden consists only of plants with connection to the Torah, the Jewish bible.
Josie Kivort, chair of the project, was inspired by a similar project headed by her mother in Boston about 70 years ago. She has led the search for plants that will represent the ones mentioned in the Torah, but which can thrive in very different conditions from the Mediterranean climate in which the Torah originated. Gardeners on the committee, who had a greater knowledge of plants than Kivort, contributed their expertise.
“The committee people are avid gardeners in their own homes,” Kivort said. In addition to finding greenery to match each Torah reference, the gardeners worked to create a pleasing texture and locate color that would bloom throughout the year.
Routenberg said each person felt personally invested in the project, which has now been in progress for more than two years.
“We came together and compromised beautifully for the good of it all,” she said. “I think the hardest thing was the temptation to put in species that actually are not biblical.”
They managed to avoid it, although the group had to get creative at times. For example, ornamental grasses take the place of wheat and barley, and Russian sage replaces a similar, but distinct relative that wouldn’t survive Niskayuna weather. Wormwood, juniper, grapes, roses, and various herbs are also among the bouquet.
One especially interesting specimen is an apple espalier, or an apple tree trained in the shape of a six-branch menorah. Kivort said many assume the apple tree refers to the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, but it doesn’t.
“There’s some controversy over whether or not that was an apple,” she said.
In fact, there’s controversy over many of the plants Kivort studied, just as there are many opinions on other biblical questions.
“There’s a lot of botanical controversy over what the bible meant by lily of the valley, rose of Sharon … they can’t quite decide,” she said. Kivort even referred to a guide from a 600-acre biblical garden near Tel Aviv that she has visited.
Ultimately, the committee agreed on species that they felt suited their mission. Several of the plants have been labeled with markers specifying the English and Hebrew names, as well as a reference to the Torah passage that mentions them. That part is a work in progress.
“Finding the Hebrew name for each item is challenging,” Kivort said. In time, she’ll create a pamphlet to help guide visitors through the botanical display.
Meanwhile, the Niskayuna oasis is already becoming a place for meditation. A stone bench in the center of the garden invites visitors to rest a moment, but the committee members themselves are often even more centered on their thoughts while they work.
“I love gardening. It’s very spiritual for me,” Routenberg said. “I could live out among the bugs and the weeds and be so happy.”