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A Garden Grows in Michigan

by Debra Darvick

When did you last experience crossing the Sea of Reeds? Or sit in a tent open on all sides while you considered Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality? What about entering the Garden of Eden, complete with lilies and a snake curled seductively around an apple tree? That, and more, is exactly what you can do at the Louis & Fay Woll Memorial Bible Garden on the campus of Congregation Beth Ahm in West Bloomfield, Michigan.

Created by Doug and Margo Woll in memory of Doug’s mother and father, the garden is a loving tribute to two wonderful parents, a tranquil site for contemplation and education. “I wanted to honor my parents in a way that made a connection to Judaism and the Jewish people, to nature, the synagogue, and to Israel as well,” Doug Woll said. “The concept of a biblical garden met all the requirements.”

Woll selected Michigan landscape architect Gary Roberts to turn his idea into reality. From the outset, Roberts, who was married at Beth Ahm, wanted to create something beyond a garden of plants that happen to be mentioned in the Bible. “I wanted people to be a part of a Jewish experience,” he said. “I wanted to draw on my own Jewish education and create a garden that would be educational and promote discussion.”

Roberts and the Wolls designed the garden around five themes, creating a journey from a lushly planted garden of Eden, with its burbling stream, to Abraham and Sarah’s tent, set upon bare earth and flanked with ornamental yuccas and winter-hearty palms. From there, a visitor walks through the garden’s second water feature, the Parting of the Sea of Reeds. A waterfall on one side descends to a pool planted with papyrus reeds on the other. Roberts took advantage of the rise in the property when creating the garden’s fourth theme, Mount Sinai. The final element, a wall of stone evoking Jerusalem’s Western Wall, subtly delineates the garden’s northern boundary.

“Doug, Margo and I did a lot of research on the plants,” Roberts said. “We spoke with the rabbi and tried to approximate the plants mentioned in the Bible, since there is no botanical nomenclature in the Torah. The apple tree substitutes for what might have been, in reality, a fig tree. We were also challenged to choose specimens that could survive Michigan winters; for instance, we chose Alaskan cedar, not cedar of Lebanon. The burning bush is a variety that thrives in our climate.”

Hand-formed tile plaques throughout the garden elevate these living stories from wonderful to wondrous. Designed by Arizona artist Gail Roberts, who is Gary Roberts’ sister, each one is a permanent wash of color between bloom times. Gail Roberts studied with a Jewish educator before beginning the project. “She helped me process the designs and find the passages to use as inspiration,” she said.

“There was a spiritual aspect to this job that I haven’t experienced with my other commissions,” she added. “Everything went along magically. Not to be hokey, but it felt guided. When I learned that the Wolls wanted the plaques in two months, I thought, ‘No way!’ But everything came together perfectly. Nothing cracked in the kilns, nothing needed reglazing. It all just worked.”

Gary Roberts also felt spiritual connections to the work throughout the process. “It was a labor of love for everyone who worked on it, from the masons to my gardening crew,” he said. “We were from many faiths and cultures – Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Hispanic – but all of us are rooted in the stories of the Hebrew Bible. We all felt it – we knew that we were working on something very special.”

When it came to creating a wall evocative of the Kotel, Roberts worked from a photograph of the Wall, scaling it to proportion, leaving space between the natural stones for plants to grow. “It was very important for me to use real stones and leave crevices for plants. I wanted to make it feel as if you had arrived in Jerusalem.” Roberts’ dedication to verisimilitude has struck a deep chord with visitors. Soon after the garden opened, small scraps of paper began appearing, tucked into the crevices in the rock, just like in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Steven Rubenstein said that the garden has brought a great deal to the synagogue, “beautifying the space and becoming a great source of pride for our congregation. We are a congregation that is very attached to Israel. The representation of the Western Wall is a particularly wonderful example of this, since the stones were shaped to match. As for the notes placed in the crevices, it never occurred to any of us that that might occur. There is only one Western Wall and one Jerusalem, but it is touching how inspired people are. We look forward to it becoming a resource that the entire community, Jews and non-Jews, will take advantage of.”

Looking over this living testament to his parents, Doug Woll said, “I feel very proud and very satisfied. My parents would have been thrilled."

Can’t get out to Michigan? Enjoy a virtual visit at wollbiblegarden.org.

Debra Darvick’s most recent essay appears in Good Housekeeping magazine. She is the author ofthe children’s picture book I Love Jewish Faces; email her at debradarvick.com.

 
 
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