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Rodef Shalom’s Biblical garden in Oakland re-creates ideas of heaven

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Heidi Murrin | Trib Total Media
Rabbi Walter Jacob in the Rodef Shalom Biblical Botanicl Garden Thursday, July 9, 2015. The theme of this year's garden is 'Paradise on Fifth Avenue' on how people imagine heaven.
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Heidi Murrin | Trib Total Media
This pond at the Rodef Shalom Biblical Botanical Garden depicts Lake Tiberias Thursday, July 9, 2015. The theme of this year's garden is 'Paradise on Fifth Ave.'.
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Heidi Murrin | Trib Total Media
A sign in the Rodef Shalom Biblical Botanical Garden Thursday, July 9, 2015. The theme of this year's garden is 'Paradise on Fifth Ave.'. It depicts how people imagine heaven.
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Heidi Murrin | Trib Total Media
A sign for one of the plants in the Rodef Shalom Biblical Botanical Garden Thursday, July 9, 2015. This year's theme is 'Paradise on Fifth Ave.'. It depicts how people imagine heaven.
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Heidi Murrin | Trib Total Media
The Islamic View of Heaven depicted in the Rodef Shalom Biblical Botanical Garden Thursday, July 9, 2015. The design uses simple arrangements and desert-like plants.
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Heidi Murrin | Trib Total Media
A sign in the Rodef Shalom Biblical Botanical Garden Thursday, July 9, 2015. The garden depicts how people imagine heaven.
PTRLIVBIBLICAL6071115
Heidi Murrin | Trib Total Media
A Renaissance View of Heaven depicted in the Rodef Shalom Biblical Botanical Garden Thursday, July 9, 2015. The area has a grassy area, fruit trees, and roses.

There’s a “Paradise” in Oakland.

Along Fifth Avenue, the Rodef Shalom Temple’s Biblical Botanical Garden has opened for the summer — this year’s theme: “Paradise on Fifth Avenue.”

While most of the biblical vegetation that fills the garden every year — such as oleander, pomegranate, flax, millet, chickpea, grapevines and a small olive tree — doesn’t change with the themes, the garden’s team sets aside a specific area to depict a special focus. This year’s concentration is geared toward heaven.

Rabbi Walter Jacob retired from leading the synagogue in 1998 but is still in charge of the garden.

A tall sign near the garden’s entrance gives visitors background information about the three Abrahamic religions — Christianity, Judaism and Islam — and their views on the afterlife.

A few steps down a circular path, the two miniature “heaven” gardens, one showing a patch of grass surrounded by rose bushes (Christian) and the other showing a sandy desert with tiles (Muslim).

“What I tried to do is re-create these two (heaven ideas) in a garden,” says Jacob, 85, who did much of the gardening work for years. These days, a young gardener handles most of the labor.

What about the third garden, for the Jewish heaven?

There isn’t one, because the concept of an afterlife in Judaism is nebulous, Jacob says.

“If you ask your rabbi about the afterlife,” he jokes, “he’ll change the subject.”

Most of the plants in the Rodef Shalom Biblical Garden, which opened in 1987, are mentioned by name of implied in the Old Testament, or they grow in Israel. For instance, chamomile represents the “flower of the field” mentioned in the Book of Isaiah.

The country of Israel isn’t just an arid region with desert plants. It has several regions with different climates, including a mountainous area in the north with colder weather and the Jordan River Valley, Jacob points out.

The garden identifies more than 100 subtropical and temperate plants with their names, Hebrew names and an accompanying Bible verse. Cutting through the garden is a mock Jordan River, which has a low water flow, and a mock Lake Tiberias, filled with lily pads.

The recent excessive rain hasn’t harmed any of the garden’s plants, he says. They are resilient to moisture and need only to avoid frost, which is why the garden will close Sept. 15 when the movable plants will go into storage in a greenhouse until next summer.

Many rabbis and Christian ministers have contacted him about the garden, Jacob says, perhaps to get inspiration to create such a garden at their own houses of worship.

Jacob tells them: “The only thing you really need is a shovel. If you get someone to do the work, it’s fine.”

Kellie B. Gormly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at [email protected] or 412-320-7824.

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