Shedding New Light on Jewish Traditions

Debbie Karl Story

Or Hadash Life Cycle Garden Dedication: May 17, 2009

Debbie Karl


As you can see if you look around the garden and read some of the bricks, many of the inscriptions are in memory of Melanie Gansler, who was a major inspiration in its creation. I want to say a few words about Mel, and about three of the inscriptions that are especially meaningful to me, two of which don’t even mention Melanie by name. The first is the tile that was contributed by our Interfaith Couples group, of which Scott and Melanie were founding members. The tile reads: For Melanie, who found our beautiful spiritual home, and whose beautiful spirit will always be remembered here.


As some of you have heard before, when New Life Presbyterian Church put this building on the market, Melanie was the one who first spotted the For Sale sign, and suggested that the congregation investigate the possibility of purchasing it. The building, of course, turned out to be a wonderful fit for Or Hadash, and has been a beautiful spiritual home for all of us. And now, with this beautiful garden inspired by Melanie, that is truer than ever. 


The words on this tile have a second meaning for me personally, because Melanie is also the one who “found” Or Hadash for me. Melanie had worked with my husband Charlie and they had remained friends (as anyone who ever knew Melanie always seemed to do). When I first moved to Philadelphia in 1988 and we were looking for someone to perform our wedding, Melanie told Charlie about Linda Holtzman, the Reconstructionist rabbi who had recently married her and Scott. I hadn’t even met Mel at that point, and had never heard of Reconstructionism before, but Rabbi Linda turned out to be perfect for us.


A few years later, Mel and Scott invited us to join the Or Hadash Interfaith Couples group, although we were not yet members of the synagogue. We felt so comfortable with Rabbi Vivian, Reconstructionism, and the Or Hadash community that our decision to join soon after that was an easy one, and it’s been a very positive experience for us and our daughter Hannah ever since. So thanks, Mel.


The second inscription I want to mention is a quote from the Torah that I selected in honor of Melanie. I first heard this quote as a chant by Rabbi Shefa Gold, whose music I learned to appreciate from Rabbi Steven. It’s a line from Genesis, and I was told that it is one of the most analyzed phrases in Jewish Mysticism. The words are, “A river goes forth from Eden to water the Garden.” When I heard it, I thought of the Life Cycle Garden right away, knowing that there would be flowing water here, and that it would be its own little Eden of peace and beauty.


But the quote also spoke to me on another level. It struck me that the river that nourished the Garden of Eden was a very appropriate symbol for Melanie herself. She was a source of love and friendship, support and advice for so many of us, and, miraculously, she seemed capable of “flowing” in every direction at once without ever running out of time or energy. Those of us who knew her were very fortunate to be “watered” by Mel – she formed a special and enriching connection to everyone she touched, and even managed to connect us to each other, which is true of a number of us here today.


The third inscription I want to mention isn’t one that I selected myself, although I would have if I had thought of it! Five years ago, shortly before Mel died, I saw the musical Wicked on Broadway. One particular song from the show, called “For Good,” reminded me of Melanie right away, and I always thought of her when I listened to it. Then, last fall, I was sitting in the Garden for our annual Yom Kippur healing service. I had read through most of the bricks on my previous visits, but suddenly, right in front of me, I noticed a brick that I hadn’t seen before. The words inscribed were “Because I knew you, I have been changed for good.” Sure enough, that is the refrain from the Wicked song that I associated with Mel. Although it didn’t mention her, I was certain that whoever had ordered that brick had done so with Melanie in mind. And that seemed especially appropriate as I sat there at the healing service, which had begun at Or Hadash in response to Melanie’s illness and as a result of her involvement and inspiration.


After the service, I asked Rhoda if she remembered whose brick it was, and she knew immediately that Mel’s friend and roommate from college, Nancy, had ordered it. Considering that the two characters in Wicked who sing the song were also school roommates, the connection was even more powerful for Nancy, and it was completely fitting that the inscription had been her idea. The double meaning of the words of the song perfectly captures the effect that Melanie had on so many of us. By knowing her, we were changed “for good,” both permanently and for the better. 


Melanie’s presence continues to be felt among all of us who knew and were touched by her. Her beautiful spirit, in the form of her warmth, enthusiasm, consideration, determination, and energy, shone through in everything she did, and continues to do so in our many fond memories of her. And that is especially true today as we gather together to dedicate our beautiful garden. So once again, thanks, Mel.


Excerpts from “For Good”:


I've heard it said
That people come into our lives for a reason
Bringing something we must learn
And we are led
To those who help us most to grow
If we let them
And we help them in return
Well, I don't know if I believe that's true
But I know I'm who I am today
Because I knew you...


It well may be
That we will never meet again
In this lifetime
So let me say before we part
So much of me
Is made of what I learned from you
You'll be with me
Like a handprint on my heart
And now whatever way our stories end
I know you have re-written mine
By being my friend...


Stephen Schwartz