On a cool fall morning, light streams into the many windows of Fort Washington’s Or Hadash synagogue, an exquisite shingle-style stone building designed in 1888 by famed Philadelphia architect Wilson Eyre, Jr.
Originally the country home of a Philadelphia stockbroker, the building had been used as a church for several years when Oreland resident Melanie Gansler fell in love with it in 1995.
At the time, Or Hadash held its services at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. But with a steadily increasing membership, the congregation wanted a home of its own. Gansler, an involved Or Hadash community member, spotted the FOR SALE sign and learned that the building was approved for religious purposes only.
She called the president of the board, the board went to see it, and within three weeks’ time, the building was theirs. On Sept. 17, 1995, the congregation held a chanukat habayit — dedication of a new home — to make it official.
Today, hanging on the building’s polished stone, reads a plaque dedicated to Gansler: “For Melanie, who found our beautiful spiritual home, and whose beautiful spirit will always be remembered here.”
It’s just one of several markers that pay tribute to the memory of Gansler, who died from cancer in 2004 at age 47, leaving a husband and two small children behind. In fact, the congregation’s Life Cycle Garden — a leafy outdoor oasis with benches and a waterfall — first broke ground 10 years ago as a space to honor Gansler.
“She was very active in the synagogue,” said her mother, Rhoda Gansler, who lives in North Wales. “She helped sponsor other families. She was part of the educational committee. She was very involved because she felt it was something very important to her, and Reconstructionism, she felt, was perfect.”
Melanie was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001. A year later, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. As she struggled for the next three and a half years, she found the synagogue community to be an important source of strength.
“The healing services that were started were really a great source of comfort to me and her and all our friends and members in general,” Rhoda Gansler said. “When she died in 2004, the thought about dedicating something to her was not unusual because she was so active and so much a part of the synagogue.”
So Rhoda Gansler and fellow congregant Beth Alper went to the congregation board and proposed a garden in Melanie’s memory. Many community members got involved, including Melanie’s husband, Scott Demarest; landscape architect Jim Rall; and horticultural expert Arlene Burns.
The space was initially conceived as a “healing garden,” but it has since evolved.
“We didn’t want her death to be a finality,” Rhoda Gansler said. “We changed it to a Life Cycle garden where people could commemorate happy events as well.”
The space is not funded by the synagogue; rather, its upkeep is paid for with the sale of engraved bricks. It started with about 200 bricks, many of which were inscribed with messages about Melanie: “MAY WE ALL KNOW THE WARMTH OF A TRUE FRIEND LIKE MELANIE,” “REMEMBERING MELANIE, ADORED CHILDHOOD PAL, EVER GIVING & TRUSTED” and “MAY YOU FIND THE STRENGTH EXHIBITED BY MELANIE.”
Now the garden has almost 400 bricks, with messages for and about many other people. The garden also has two benches, which were dedicated by Melanie’s daughter, Sarah, as part of her Bat Mitzvah project.
The self-sustaining space has, over the years, been put to good and frequent use, from Hebrew school classes and ser-vices to picnic lunches and quiet time for neighborhood residents.
“Anybody is welcome to come in and just sit and reflect and just enjoy its beauty,” Rhoda Gansler said.
The fact that the garden thrives and serves the community warms her heart.
“I feel Melanie’s spirit there, and I feel that it’s an affirmation of what she was, of her life,” she said, remembering how her social worker daughter made friends for life.
“Sometimes people live good lives and no one ever is aware of them, but in her case, everyone is aware of what a wonderful person she was. It just makes me feel that she’s still giving of herself. There wasn’t anybody she wasn’t a friend to at all times.
I’m very proud of what my daughter was. She was just a lovely, lovely person.”
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