By Casey Cantrell
Special to Eyes On Wise
It is an unusually warm December day at Stephen Wise Temple’s Pe’ah Garden, where a group of eager first graders are waiting to participate in their first harvest. Wise School Science Specialist Alexandra Coatney is showing the kids the proper way to harvest lettuce and kale—snap, don’t pull, the leaves. After the demonstration, she divides the students into teams of three or four and gives each one a bag.
Then they’re off, scurrying like rabbits between garden boxes blooming with lettuce and kale as well as broccoli, carrots, and an assortment of herbs—lavender, rosemary, mint, oregano, thyme, basil. In the back, a vertical garden of succulents made with recycled two-liter soda bottles hangs from the fence, while horticulture-themed murals adorn the garden’s borders.
But at the moment, the students are focused on their task.
“Harvesting is fun!” shouts one of the students; another shows off the dirt on her hands. A few overzealous students pull out the entire plant along with the leaves, but Coatney patiently instructs them on how to replace the lettuce and kale.
It’s easy to miss the Pe’ah Garden. Located on the far side of the parking structure and tucked in between storage sheds, the garden has quietly served as an educational and spiritual resource for students and adults alike for decades.
Here, students from Wise School receive a multifaceted education: They learn the science behind the lifecycle of plants (plus the animals that sneak into the garden for a late-night snack). They receive history lessons on the early Native Americans and colonists by planting period-appropriate crops. They discover more about their Jewish heritage by learning the traditions and holidays of planting and harvesting, as well as Israel’s deep agricultural history. (Did you know the drip irrigation system was invented in Israel?)
But most importantly, the students have an opportunity to perform mitzvot by donating produce that will feed hungry families—all while having fun.
At the end of the mad scramble, Coatney inventories the results—about five pounds of lettuce and kale, to go along with five pounds of broccoli that was picked earlier, all of which will be donated to LA Family Housing.
“They love it,” says Coatney. “Some kids come up to me and tell me it’s the best part of their day.”
Wise’s “Best-Kept Secret”
Just like the plot of land itself, the Pe’ah Garden’s history is equally humble. In 1995, staff member Diane Kabat—an avid gardener—wanted to create a communal garden where members could come together, work the soil, and “do a mitzvah” by donating the produce they grew. She teamed with Rabbi Leah Kroll, and together they circled the campus, looking for the ideal spot to plant the first seeds. Finally, they settled on the maintenance area beside the parking structure. They took inspiration from Leviticus 19, which calls on the Israelites to set aside crops from “the corner of [their] field … for the poor and the stranger.” (Pe’ah literally translates to “corner.”)
However, it turned out that selecting the spot was the easy part. Kabat lists a litany of problems the garden initially faced: The soil was too sandy; there was an inadequate sprinkler system without timers, so everything had to be watered by hand; drainage was poor; gophers and deer would eat the plants.
But despite the many obstacles and setbacks, Kabat and her fellow volunteers (including children of Wise’s Saturday morning attendees) returned to the garden every week for over a year, nurturing the soil and tending the plants. Slowly but surely, they transformed the barren plot of land into a thriving ecosystem.
“We were really proud of [the garden],” says Diane. “It may have been imagined by only a few, but it took the support of the community to make it thrive.”
“A Way of Choosing Life”
That sense of community would be tested the following year.
During the spring and summer of 1996, the Wise family experienced a series of unspeakable losses, as one young life after another was cut short. The community lost David Pianko, 19, in early May. Only two months later, Avi Gesundheit and Michael Lewis—both of whom had just graduated from Milken Community High School—were taken. Days later, the Wise community faced another tragedy when Eugene and Etta Silverman and their daughters Candace, 22, and Jamie, 15, were lost when TWA Flight 800 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, claiming the lives of all 230 passengers.
With the community still reeling from the losses, the garden’s volunteers felt the need “to turn something so horrendous into something positive,” explains Kabat. Together, they decided to dedicate the garden to the memory of these five young lives.
“On Yom Kippur, the portion of the Torah we read has the words, ‘Behold, I set before you this day life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life,’ ” says Rabbi Herscher. “We all agreed that dedicating the garden to these young people was a way of choosing life.”
“It’s a living memorial,” says Rabbi Herscher, who officiated the dedication. “This wonderful garden, 23 years later, is still being tended by kids in our school. They’re doing something good, and they’re nurturing life in other people.”
A Growing Purpose
The Pe’ah Garden has gone through its fair share of changes since the first seeds were sown more than two decades ago. Raised garden beds replaced the traditional garden rows. A proper irrigation system and a deer fence were added. Under the guidance of Wise School Art Specialist Jan Navah, students have contributed a bounty of artwork to the garden, including murals and dazzling stepping stones.
The secret to the garden’s success is its ability to thrive through change and collaboration, says Kabat.
“It takes a few people sitting around and having a conversation,” she says. “The garden evolved through constant conversation.”
And evolved it has. Initially tended by adult volunteers, the garden has since morphed into an educational tool that has served multiple generations of students. From September to May, students plant winter produce while receiving a hands-on education. In the summer, Camp Wise kids and students from the Wise Readers to Leaders program take over planting summer crops, tilling the soil, preparing the garden for the upcoming school year.
“It’s a beautiful place for many reasons. It is a place of memory and it’s a place of mitzvah—our children grow vegetables that we share with those in need. Now, it will become a more inviting place for our community due to improvements and changes
we are continuing to make.”
— Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback
“The garden represents to me the life cycle. Even in those seasons where nothing’s growing, we know it will grow again,” adds Rabbi Herscher. “That represents a certain hope to me. We’ve had 23 years of kids experiencing that cycle.”
For now, the group of first graders are celebrating a successful first harvest. Back in the classroom, Coatney hands out samples of what they’ve picked. One student says the lettuce tastes like dirt, while another asks if Coatney has lemon juice for a dressing.
“I love kale,” exclaims a student. “It tastes like candy!”
Questionable food critiques aside, it is clear the impact the garden has on the students. “The kids are excited about it,” says Coatney. “They’re really into it, and they see the point. It’s so wonderful that it’s on their minds.”