BENNINGTON -- It took many years to make a reality, but about 30 people seemed deeply appreciative of the new meditation garden in the section of Park Lawn Cemetery that belongs to Congregation Beth El at a recent dedication ceremony.
Set on a hillside with views of treelines all around and Mount Anthony to the west, the garden is set at the bottom of a stone pathway, and includes large, flat blocks to sit on, with a reservoir for stones carved into one of them. It’s a Jewish tradition to mark a visit to a grave by placing a small stone upon it.
Rabbi Jarah Greenfield said during the May 31 ceremony that Jews maintain a responsibility to visit graves, a promise that endures from generation to generation.
"What happened in the creation of this space is the transformation of a responsibility or an obligation to visit a cemetery, to maintain a cemetery to actually something much deeper, which is the opportunity to deeply connect, profoundly connect with the spirit of our loved ones and to profoundly experience God’s presence in this space, God’s presence between the space of the living and the dead," she said.
After a respectful service and burial, Jewish tradition has the concept of accompanying the soul after the interment of the body.
"Judiasm teaches that there’s actually a very long and detailed and nuanced process of the journey of the soul," Greenfield said.
The meditation garden enables members of the congregation to be able to sit and dwell in a sacred space where the physical remains of loved ones are buried. This provides "is an opportunity to also pray, to connect with silence and to focus our own intentions, to resolve lifelong conflicts that we had with our loved ones, to continue conversations with them and to accompany our loved ones through the years for as long as we continue to physically exist on earth, until we then become part of the soil and the generations after us, God willing, do the same."
The meditation garden project was led by many years by Lora Block, chairwoman of the Cemetery Committee, assisted by members Stella Ehrich, Peter Rubin, Suzy Yucht and Phyllis Kaplan.
"We are very proud of creating something so beautiful and unique to Bennington and for the Jewish community in the region," Block said. "It’s so wonderful to have everybody here to share this with us. I’m really thrilled at the way this has been realized finally."
"I started thinking about this way back in 1988 and 1990 when my parents died and they’re buried over there. And that’s really what started this, coming up here and I was overwhelmed by how beautiful this site by itself is," Block said. "But many of you, I’m sure, have seen other Jewish cemeteries around the world, around the country, and I think we really have the most beautiful one in the world. I think there’s no doubt about it."
Block detailed how the project concept grew, from the idea of having stones readily available on site, to constructing a walk way, to having a place "to sit and be comfortable and be able to meditate or pray or just be able to absorb the spiritual beauty and memories and just the environment."
Phyllis Kaplan came up with the layout. Stella Ehrich described how the idea for the meditation garden to be set two steps down into the earth came about. This was done so it could be level on the sloping hillside.
"It just made so much sense because you know when you come here you’re really thinking of the people who are below as much as the beauty that is above," Ehrich said. "No one has a more beautiful view than this and it’s just the most perfect place for meditation."
Planning started in earnest two years ago, including fundraising. Around 40 families both locally and those from elsewhere with ties to the community donated.
"It’s been a community effort of everybody helping to make this possible. And I do want to thank the fabulous craftsmen, the stone masons from Ed’s Masonry in Arlington," Block said. "They worked this out in a way that was even more beautiful than I pictured it."
Suzy Yucht said she first visited the completed site on a cold, rainy fall day. "I was really pretty much amazed, like the sense that this has been here much longer," she said, "like it just transcended time in some way."
Congregation President Lance Wang said the effort embodied the idea of Mordecai Kaplan, a rabbi and co-founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, that rather than lose their identities, Jews in America should "as individuals incorporate the many ideas and brilliances and philosophies of the Americans and make it our own Judaism, that’s reflective of our experience."
Just so, each person on the cemetery committee "has taken their own sense of Judaism, their own sense of the divine, and their own sense of the things they’ve learned and this in a lot of ways is a representation of that," Wang said. "This is the capstone of all their work, all they’ve put together and I think it’s brilliant. It’s representative of us, and this is your Judaism, this is your moment of Torah, each one of you. And it comes together just beautifully."
Wang said the cemetery itself is an enduring contribution of the Jewish first families of Bennington.
"The beauty of it is they set a philosophy, they set a mindset for the Jewish community in Bennington that we care for our own, and I think this is wonderful," he said. "Our gift as well is here and whatever happens with the congregation, I hope the third and the fourth families take from what you’ve done here and are able to incorporate into their own Judaism, their own sense of Torah, their own mitzvah that this becomes theirs as well. What you’ve done here in many ways is going to be far more enduring than a building of brick and stone."
Mark E. Rondeau can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @banner_religion.