By Kathryn Altman
At a glance, the Rodef Shalom Congregation seems to be just one of the many beautiful religious buildings interspersed along Fifth Avenue. Yet hidden within its grounds lies an attraction that makes the synagogue unique among its kind: a Biblical Botanical Garden. Built in the 1980s by Rabbi Walter Jacob and his wife, Irene, the garden brings biblical history to life through a colorful arrangement of flora, pools of running water, and plaques inscribed with bible verses. With unique attractions and educational programming every summer, the garden is not only a vital part of Jewish life in the city, but a center for interfaith collaboration and unity in Pittsburgh.
Irene Jacob originally constructed the garden in a layout reminiscent of ancient Israel, including a waterfall, a pool representative of Lake Galilee, and a stream labeled “the River Jordan” connecting the two, interspersed with desert flora. She selected many of the plants mentioned in the Old Testament, and labeled them with related verses of scripture. However, most of these biblical plants are dull shades of green and brown, as they are indigenous to the desert. To add some color to the display, Irene decided to add plants with biblical names, such as “Jacob’s Ladder,” “Moses-In-A-Basket” and “Goliath Tomato.”
With the detail and thought process put into the selection of plants, the garden is able to make its related scripture come to life in a way that is both meaningful and educational for the local Jewish community. Volunteers from the congregation serve as docents and hosts to visitors, and even the synagogue’s youth utilize the garden for various religious programming. Every year, the garden hosts educational programming related to different annual themes, such as “Drugs and Pharmaceuticals in the Early Biblical World” and “Beer from Ancient Israel to Our Time,” which bring together both the local Jewish congregation and the larger community of Pittsburgh to learn with one another.
This strong sense of community is one of the garden’s most remarkable features. A variety of secular and religious groups tour the garden each year, totaling over 2,000 visitors annually from around the world. The garden flourishes as a public, non-discriminate space; in the words of Irene Walter herself, “There are no politics allowed in the garden.”
Referred to by Rabbi Jacob Walter as “a grass-roots effort at interfaith understanding,” the garden thrives as a place for cross-cultural collaboration. One example of such collaboration was the garden’s 2001 theme, “Botanical Symbols in World Religions.” This program drew in people of all different faiths, including Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Confucianism, Jainism, and Shintoism to discuss the meanings and significances of various flora throughout different religions. The 2015 theme of “Concept of Paradise” provided a similar opportunity for Jews, Christians, and Muslims to congregate at the garden and learn together.
Rodef Shalom’s Biblical Botanical Garden is a breathtakingly beautiful oasis tucked away in the busy city of Pittsburgh. Its architecture, plants, and flowing water provide a space for meditation and quiet reflection. Yet where the garden truly shines is its position in facilitating interfaith dialogue, where tourists and residents of all faiths can come together and collaborate in a way that fosters growth and community.
Unknown. “See the Land of the Bible, the Holy Land.” Rodef Shalom Biblical Botanical Garden. https://www.rodefshalombiblicalgarden.org/
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Jacob, Irene. “Building the Biblical Botanical Garden.” Pursuing Peace across the Alleghenies, by Walter Jacob, Rodef Shalom Press, 2005.
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Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, 2 Aug. 2019.
Tobachnick, Toby. “Rodef Shalom’s Biblical Botanical Garden Is Testament to Jacob’s Love for Plants, Each Other.” Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, 29 June 2015.
How to Cite
MLA: Altman, Kathryn. “Rodef Shalom Biblical Botanical Garden.” ReligYinz: Mapping Religious Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh, 23 Sept. 2021, religyinz.pitt.edu/rodef-shalom-biblical-botanical-garden/
APA: Altman, K. 2021, September 23. Rodef shalom biblical botanical garden. ReligYinz: Mapping Religious Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh. https://religyinz.pitt.edu/rodef-shalom-biblical-garden/
Chicago: Altman, Kathryn. “Rodef Shalom Biblical Botanical Garden.” ReligYinz: Mapping Religious Pittsburgh. University of Pittsburgh, September 23, 2021. https://religyinz.pitt.edu/rodef-shalom-biblical-garden/