Rodef Shalom’s Biblical Garden sure to blossom with new director
Helena Nichols is ready to hit the sod running, with expertise in textual evidence and a background in agriculture.
After “30-some years of weed pulling,” Rabbi Walter Jacob is passing the trowel to the “next generation.”
True to form, Jacob, Rodef Shalom’s humble rabbi emeritus — and now director emeritus of its Biblical Botanical Garden — does not want to talk about his own accomplishments in cultivating one of the most renowned biblical gardens in the United States.
Rather, he wants the story to be about Helena Nichols, who has served as the garden’s associate director for more than three years, and who was recently named the garden’s new director.
Jacob, 89, said the timing was right for him to step away from the garden, which he established with his late wife, Irene, in 1987, and which he has devotedly tended since then.
“First, the new generation needs some new ideas and a new approach,” Jacob said. “Second, you should give it up before you can no longer bend over.”
Jacob had been the primary caretaker of the garden since Irene passed away in 2012.
“In the early years, of course, it was the two of us, Irene and I, and who did what depended on when you got up in the morning,” he said. “It’s the sort of thing that needs daily looking after.”
Features of the garden, which is reminiscent of ancient Israel, include a waterfall, a desert, and a representation of the River Jordan, which meanders from a simulated Lake Galilee to an ersatz Dead Sea. More than 100 plants thrive in the garden, labeled with appropriate biblical verses and displayed among replicas of ancient farming tools.
Jacob is confidently entrusting the garden to Nichols, he said, because she has the “interest and the knowledge” to manage it well.
Although Jacob now holds the title of the Biblical Botanical Garden’s director emeritus, he is ready to take a back seat to his successor.
“Helena will have her own vision, and as far as I am concerned, I will tell you exactly the same thing that I told Rabbi [Aaron] Bisno when he succeeded me [as senior rabbi at Rodef Shalom],” said Jacob. “Rabbi Bisno said, ‘What do you want to continue to do?’ And I said, ‘Nothing.’”
Nichols has a long connection to the Biblical Garden.
“When my mother was pregnant, she would actually walk through this garden,” Nichols said. “She worked at Carnegie Mellon at the SEI (Software Engineering Institute) down the street, so during her lunch break, she would walk over. And my preschool was the [nearby] Cyert Center for Early Education, so I actually walked through this as a preschooler as well.”
Nichols has an undergraduate degree in English literature from Chatham University — which she said gave her a strong foundation in “textual evidence skills” — and a master’s in food studies, with a focus on agriculture.
“This was really one of the few jobs that actually combines my passion for research and horticulture,” she said. “It was kind of amazing, and it opened up right as I was graduating with my master’s degree from Chatham.”
Nichols is committed to maintaining many of the garden’s longstanding traditions.
“We are always going to be free and open to the public, we will always be an open space of peace and meditation for anyone and everyone who wishes to come,” she said. “That’s something that’s never going to change. We will always have our primary exhibit, plants of the Bible, and we will always have a yearly special exhibit.”
Nichols is also planning to expand the reach of the garden, which will include the introduction of a story time program for preschoolers that incorporates a nature or plant-based art project, and the integration of more “hands-on learning of plants and horticulture with children of all ages,” she said.
Although the garden is only open annually from June 1 through Sept. 15, managing the garden is a full-time, year-round job.
During the winter, Nichols spends her time visiting and tending the garden’s plants, which are kept in greenhouses at West View Cemetery. Winter is also the time when the majority of the planning is done for upcoming special exhibits, like this season’s special exhibit on oils of the late biblical period.
The number of visitors to the garden has been increasing in recent years, with more than 2,100 people walking its paths in 2018.
It takes about 70 hours of labor each week to maintain the garden, so volunteers play an important role. Currently, there are about 20 volunteers, but Nichols is hoping to grow that crew. She has started “an open volunteer two-hour period Friday mornings, from 10 to noon, for anyone who wants to come in and weed the garden, or deadhead for us, all the fun things that keep our garden beautiful.”
While many of the plants in the garden are those that grew in ancient Israel, some have earned their place for other reasons.
“Those are Goliaths,” said Jacob, pointing to a tomato plant in the garden. “It’s a plant with a biblical name.” pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at