By Skip Kozakewicz, Reflector Editor
The Congregation Or Atid Gan Chesed Kindness Garden is thriving and fulfilling its vision thanks to an incredible number of dedicated volunteers and generous donors who have gladly stepped forward.
In its first year of planting and initiating special projects with its Religious School, Or Atid has collaborated on events with other synagogues, local Jewish agencies and organizations, including Congregation Or Ami, the Weinstein JCC Food Pantry, Beth Sholom Senior Living, Friendship Circle of Virginia and several others.
To get things off and running, volunteers from Eagle Scout Troop 706 designed and built U-shaped garden boxes, and Girl Scout 709 G assembled many of the standing garden box planters.
As the Or Atid website notes, in part:
“Our Gan Chesed Kindness Garden is built to provide a welcoming, safe outdoor space for educational, holiday, and social programs for all ages including a Jewish-themed garden that offers hands-on learning opportunities.”
It is comprised of (a) a Jewish-themed garden that offers hands-on learning opportunities for all ages, (b) a safe outdoor space for educational, holiday, and social programs (c) an accessible, sensory-based outdoor play area for the inclusion of all children, including those who may be on the autism spectrum, or may have a sensory-processing disorder, or other learning needs, (d) accessible garden beds to grow produce, promoting the practice of Tzedakah by donating most of the garden’s harvest to the Food Pantry at the Weinstein JCC, and e) a Memorial Rock Garden to honor Holocaust Survivors, victims, and their families, and to provide Holocaust educational opportunities.
Longtime Congregation Or Atid member and volunteer, Sue Geller, a member of the steering committee, credits former Religious School Coordinator Alison Litvin with the Overall vision and inspiration for the large project.
“Alison gave us the vision and with the help of a number of congregants and many other community volunteers from the both the Jewish and non-Jewish community, we were able to create the Garden.”
She also credits a number of organizations, businesses and individuals who have provided much-needed funds and donations, including the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond that has provided two grants totaling $19,500.
Other special grants have been received from Richmond Jewish Foundation and AM Yisrael Chai.
She noted, “Early on, we had tons of meetings and divided up responsibilities among the volunteers to get things moving.”
Sue added, ‘There has been so much hard work by volunteers from Or Atid and so many other organizations and businesses who have given their time in so many ways. All have spent many hours on the site, and it’s hard to imagine how much has been accomplished.”
“The Garden has provided a safe place for volunteers to freely give their time, many of them who I did not know,” she emphasized.
One of them is Charlotte Johnson, a Or Atid member who is a master gardener. “She has been a great help in planning and working in the Garden and during the winter got our plants and vegetables started indoors at her house.”
“We have recognized our volunteers and donors on our website and without them, we could not have gotten this far.”
The project began with a local landscaper, Lee Nunnally, who leveled the area behind the Synagogue with his heavy equipment. “This expense was necessary, and important to prepare the site.”
The first planting event undertaken was the Daffodil Project last fall. Or Atid Religious School students, assisted by their teachers and many congregants, planted 250 daffodil bulbs. This was part of the newly created living Holocaust Memorial Garden on the site and in support of children suffering humanitarian crises in the world today.
Sue Geller noted, “We were pleased that Lee Nunnally, his wife and family and others on his staff, volunteered and assisted.
To date, the Kindness Garden has donated approximately 100 pounds of fruits, vegetables and herbs to the JCC Elmer Toth Food Pantry since the spring this year.
“This has been wonderful that the Food Pantry has been able to donate these items to the community along with their other items,” Sue added.
She also is pleased to have Beth Sholom residents involved with the Kindness Garden. Sue works with Samantha Goodman at Beth Sholom who asks residents if they can help package the herbs grown in the garden.
Sue brings the freshly cut basil, thyme and oregano to Beth Sholom and along with Samantha, she helps the residents package them. The packs are then dropped off at the JCC Food Pantry.
“The residents have been adorable in helping us package these herbs in small plastic bags.”
The Or Atid Religious School also had a joint Israeli Independence Day program with Congregation Or Ami students. “This was a great program with students from both congregations.”
The finishing touches will soon be installed in the Garden. The Garden will soon be made available to the greater Richmond community. Children of all abilities and their families will be invited to schedule time to visit the garden and enjoy interacting with the sensory wall, accessible play equipment, and vegetable garden.
One of the first events was a very successful one held by Friendship Circle of Virginia on Sunday, Sept. 11, with some photos with the article.
“We have come a long way with this original back lot thanks to so many volunteers, businesses and organizations. This has brought people together from different sections of the community, which has been wonderful.”
Chief Impact Officer at the JCFR Sara Rosenbaum said, “We are pleased to support the Or Atid Gan Chesed Kindness Garden initiative. Inspired by Jewish practices and teachings, Gan Chesed offers new learning opportunities for all ages in the spirit of inclusion. We are delighted to be a part of the funding to see the programs happening at the Garden with a variety of community and synagogue partners.”
As many observers are seeing, this unique project has captured the hearts of numerous individuals who want to “help build a bridge for peace, kindness, and understanding within the community.”
To see more on the Garden, visit ww.oratid.org.
See more photos featuring Or Atid volunteers, families, kids and friends from FCVA special event and related special projects for the Gan Chesed Kindness Garden.