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Ohr Shalom meditation garden officially opens on Earth Day
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Ohr Shalom meditation garden officially opens on Earth Day

Teen’s Eagle Scout project lays ‘right path’ for synagogue

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Even if the kindergartners’ focus was somewhat misplaced, their enthusiasm was still appropriate. “We found a worm!” called out a small boy wearing a LEGO cap. A few of his classmates gathered around and marveled at the creature wriggling in the dirt, and all the while 17-year-old Gabe Schiffer looked on and smiled. 

He had reason to be pleased. He had just performed the ceremonial ribbon cutting to mark the official opening of the meditation garden at Congregation Ohr Shalom: The Summit Jewish Community Center. Creating the meditation garden was Gabe’s Eagle Scout project and a gift to the congregation. The event took place, aptly, on Earth Day, April 22.

The teen, from Summit and a junior at Newark Academy in Livingston, finished the project last spring and could finally enjoy the moment, along with his congregation’s religious school and a dozen or so adults, including his mother, Amy Schiffer.

“I’m definitely glad I’m done,” he acknowledged. “I feel like I pulled something off really hard, but it’s something that’s very satisfying to have done. The fact that it’s still here and I can point and say, ‘I did this’ — it’s very nice.”

The 314-foot space includes a graveled area with trees, shrubbery, some lattice work, four benches, and three wind chimes. Adjacent is a garden area where the children can do some planting.

“The Boy Scouts have an outdoor code, and one of the pieces of the outdoor code is to choose the right path,” said Rabbi Avi Friedman, just before Gabe cut the ribbon. “That sounds a lot like a Jewish message because the word for path in Hebrew is ‘halacha,’ and that’s the Jewish law. So, we’re supposed to choose the right path, also. It all comes together right here in this brand-new meditation garden.” 

Said Mimi Zukoff, who chairs the synagogue’s Greenfaith committee and planned the ceremony, “We love the new garden. It provides a quiet place for contemplation, as well as a place for our congregants, adults, and children alike, to experience nature.” Greenfaith is an interfaith environmental stewardship organization that offers an environmental certification program for houses of worship, among other things.

Gabe estimates that the project took three years of planning, fund-raising to cover $900 cost, and a three-day weekend of execution with plenty of volunteers from the synagogue and Boy Scout Troop 67 in Summit, where Gabe has been a member since he was 11. Over the course of that weekend, Gabe and his team stripped the grass, put down a tarp to prevent weeds from taking over, added the gravel, planted a tree and the shrubbery, created the lattice, and built the benches. 

Ohr Shalom had already piloted one of Greenfaith’s first interfaith efforts, the Summit Area Greenfaith Circle, but this project was a welcome addition for the congregation. Its Greenfaith committee had originally envisioned a similar garden as part of their effort to become certified by Greenfaith. Though their grant application was rejected, Zukoff said they found other ways to fulfill the requirements and became certified in November of 2016. (Gabe used the original grant application as a starting point for his project.)

Only 4 percent of Boy Scouts nationwide achieve Eagle Scout status. To attain the rank, a scout must complete a service project, earn certain merit badges, and demonstrate leadership in other situations. The service project must be created and led by the scout, and it cannot be part of an existing program, like a previously established annual blood drive. Also, it should not benefit the Boy Scouts or be a fund-raising project, and it must involve peers outside of the Boy Scouts.

Gabe gained a few other life skills along the way as he was carrying out his project. To undertake such a venture, he said, “it’s a necessity to communicate with so many people, and really coordinate to move things forward.” He added that the ability “to execute and come up with an idea and be able to rally people around you” is critical. And of course, he said, “Preparation and planning certainly helped smooth the operation.”

After the ceremony, after the worm had wiggled away and the children returned to their classrooms, Jim Paul, who came for the ceremony with his wife and granddaughter, took a seat on one of the garden’s benches and closed his eyes, enjoying the sunshine. He told NJJN that he plans to spend lots of time there, especially on Shabbat. “There are times during services, especially when it’s warm out, I’m just going to get up and walk out and sit here,” he said. “For me, this is God. This is life.”

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