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New Garden at CBTBI Aims to Foster Community, Connect Students to Power of Agriculture

A new butterfly garden called Gan Shalom (Peace Garden) was recently planted outside Congregation B’nai Tikvah Beth Israel (CBTBI). The project was spearheaded by second year Hebrew School teacher Dee Lutz, 33, who moved to Sewell in 2019. Arrayed with raised garden beds, and a patio with picnic benches, the garden will serve as an outdoor activity space for students to learn about nature as well as an investment in the growth of the synagogue community at large.

The garden was made possible due to donations and volunteer efforts from Home Depot, Quikrete Holdings Inc., Habitat for Humanity, Scotts, and the Gloucester County Certified Gardeners.

When the garden was unveiled, “Everyone was so excited,” said Lutz, a member of the Gloucester County Certified Gardeners. “All the kids came over and they wanted to recite the shehecheyanu blessing” (the blessing to express gratitude for a new experience).

Before the garden was built, there wasn’t much of an area for students to learn or explore outside other than a basketball hoop, said Lutz. Now, they’ve planted 500 tulip bulbs for students and congregants to harvest in the spring. She plans to use the space as an outdoor classroom, teaching students the importance of local pollinators, and how to grow fruits, vegetables, and herbs. There will also be caterpillar observation lessons.

The space will afford Lutz and other Hebrew School educators the opportunity to discuss the agricultural building blocks of Judaism. “We’ll talk about Tu B’Shvat, go for nature walks, and discuss how we can take care of the planet as a form of Tikkun Olam,” said Lutz, adding that she plans to start a monthly garden club as a gathering point for synagogue members.

Lutz co-owns a virtual plant shop called Lutz Botanicals with husband Joe Lutz. The Gloucester County Certified Gardeners, a group of trained horticulturalists, maintain several local garden sites, namely the historic gardens at Red Bank Battlefield Park, and the gardens at James G. Atkinson Memorial Park. For Gan Shalom, the group plans to donate a variety of native plants to provide food for butterflies, including milkweed, goldenrod, asters, and more.

There are roughly 50 students at the CBTBI Religious School, according to Lutz, which spans from kindergarten to seventh grade. Lutz teaches fourth grade students. She noted that since Covid, synagogue membership and student enrollment have declined. “I think it’s seen as something that’s not a priority right now. And with everything that’s going on, it really is a priority to come together and create a sense of community in person,” she said.

Because CBTBI is the only synagogue in a 20-mile radius, many of Lutz’s students are the only practicing Jewish people at their schools. As a result, it’s important to acknowledge those differences, she said. “To be the only kid celebrating Chanukah when everyone else is celebrating Christmas can be uncomfortable. So being proud and having a space to chat about that is important.” While it’s been challenging to discuss the war in Israel in detail, Lutz is teaching her students the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, illustrating what it would be like to be displaced, as many people in Israel have become.

Lutz is proud of Gan Shalom, and the change it’ll bring to CBTBI. “We’re a small and mighty synagogue, hoping to make more of an impact in our community and get other Jews in the area to come and join us.”

By Ezra Solway, Voice Staff

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