It’s been nearly 40 years since I took an ethics class at Temple Emanu-El in New York City. That’s where I first heard about Jewish mitzvah gardens. The word mitzvah is loosely translated as a good deed, but it’s much more than that. Caring for those who are less fortunate than ourselves is very important in Judaism. One way to fulfill this obligation is to generously share the bounty of your garden with community resources like food banks or shelters. 

Historically, Jewish gardens contain plants of the Seven Species listed in the Book of Deuteronomy: wheat, barley, figs, grapevines, pomegranates, olives and date palms. The Seven Species have nourished and sustained Jewish people for centuries. Other important plants include horseradish, mustard, dill and coriander. These fruits, grains and herbs hold special meaning to people of the Jewish faith. Sometimes plants are used in observance of specific religious traditions. For example, apples dipped in honey are used to celebrate Rosh Hashanah and bitter herbs are an essential part of the Passover celebration. The Hebrew language has four words for garden and the ancient scriptures make numerous references to gardens and gardening. The work of gardening puts us in harmony with the earth and the fruits of our labor are blessings. Character is also revealed through the efforts of diligent gardeners. 

There are numerous mitzvah gardens located throughout the country, usually near a synagogue. In our search for a local garden, Rachel and I uncovered a historic gem hiding in plain sight. The first Jewish congregation in Kansas, B’nai Jeshurun, was founded in 1859 on the corner of Sixth and Osage streets right here in Leavenworth. I have passed by those 20-foot tall Greco-Roman columns thousands of times without giving them a second thought. This beautiful limestone structure is something we can all be proud of. I have read that the congregation established an orchard and garden on the grounds of the Mount Zion cemetery. If anyone knows for sure, please let us know. We’re looking forward to further exploration.          

The first Jewish immigrants began arriving in Kansas after the territory was established in 1854. Most brought with them their customs from Eastern Europe, most notably their cuisine. Jewish food has become an integral part of American cuisine. Popular dishes include bagels, blintzes, beef brisket, corned beef, pastrami and, most famously, chicken soup. Rachel and I are particularly fond of latkes which are fried potato pancakes served with applesauce or sour cream.      

Jewish cuisine isn’t necessarily kosher. Kosher doesn’t mean that the food has been blessed by a rabbi. It simply means that it meets the standards of Jewish dietary laws. As far as gardening is concerned, fresh fruits, vegetables and grains in their natural, unprocessed state are generally considered kosher. Simply put, kosher means fit to eat.        

Here’s another gem that Rachel and I recently uncovered. The Bloomingdale brothers of New York department store fame began as merchants in Leavenworth in 1859. The store “like no other store in the world” got its start on Delaware between Main (now Esplanade) and 2nd Street.  

Jewish agricultural practices teach us all how to live an ethical life, whether you’re Jewish or not. 

Rachel and Ivan Minnis are avid gardeners. They live in Leavenworth. For more information, visit The Minnis Rose Garden on Facebook. Contact them at rnlyes@hotmail.com