For Myra Rosenthal, the most difficult aspect of being an Unsung Hero may be that she’s the only one named in the honor.
“That’s the awkward part of accepting the award,” said Rosenthal, 66, a retired school psychologist and adjunct professor at Washington University. “I said, ‘I didn’t do this. It is the four of us who did it.’ ”
But no matter who gets the credit, what she and her husband, Alan Raymond, and friends Linda Kram and Lesley Levin have managed to do is impressive. They are co-founders of Garden of Eden, which grows food for the Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry. Last season, its harvest brought in 100 to 150 pounds of produce for the pantry. Rosenthal said she doesn’t have an exact figure because they haven’t weighed the food in the past.
That will change this year, however, thanks to a partnership with local community gardening nonprofit Gateway Greening. The organization is providing garden essentials and equipment.
The connection with Gateway Greening has been helpful, but it’s not the only one that helped Rosenthal’s group to get off the ground. The garden is located at the Jewish Community Center, which has allowed a plot of its land to be used for the 3-year-old effort, which is based on a similar initiative in Chicago. The garden also linked up with Covenant Place, several of whose residents help to work the plot.
Rosenthal recalls explaining to residents that the food would be going to the pantry to help the poor.
“One of them said, ‘We’re poor, too,’ ” Rosenthal said. “That gave us a thought.”
They divided the garden so that one section would help the pantry and the other would provide food for residents. It has worked out very well. Better yet, Rosenthal said, the project is producing more than just vegetables for Covenant.
“We learned the garden gave them a sense of purpose, a sense of activity, a sense of being outside of these buildings,” she said. “They have really enjoyed it.”
Not that there hasn’t been a learning curve. Rosenthal admits she and the organizers originally went about it in a “backward way.”
“We went to a garden store and thought, ‘We’ll grow these herbs, and the tomatoes look cute,’ ” the stepmother of three chuckled. “After gardening for awhile, I thought, ‘We should have asked the food pantry what they wanted.’ ”
That’s exactly what they did the second year.
Now the group grows lettuce, radishes and carrots. In the coming days, they’ll start tomato plants, beans and sweet potatoes.
“We also have some chard, some collards, some bok choi,” she said.
Some of the crops are even influenced by Jewish tradition.
“We have one bed reserved to plant wheat and barley,” Rosenthal said. “Eventually, we hope to grow all seven species that are mentioned in the Bible.”
That would include figs and dates, not the sort of items one would expect on a Missouri farm.
“Most of these crops are not temperate crops,” she said. “They are not suited for the climate. The wheat and barley are in the ground, but the rest we have to plant in pots we can bring inside in the winter and then bring back out in the spring.”
The result may even include challah-making classes in the spring using wheat from the harvest.
“The barley? I don’t know what we’ll do with it yet, but I’ll figure that out when we get there,” she laughed.
Challah-making sessions may not be the only educational component. Rosenthal is thinking about teaching people to garden.
Plans might also involve flowers, grapes and even bat houses to encourage native pollinators. There are ideas to grow horseradish for Passover or gourds to decorate sukkahs during the holidays.
Meanwhile, the group hopes to do more to partner with congregations, teen and social justice groups.
“In doing the garden, we realized that there is a community opportunity here to do a mitzvah service,” she said. “People could come, work in the garden and do a mitzvah.”
They may also be able to pay back participating synagogues in a more unusual way.
“We want to involve congregations and have worship services in the garden,” said Rosenthal, a congregant at United Hebrew Congregation. “We think that eventually, it is going to be pretty enough to do that.”
Garden of Eden isn’t Rosenthal’s only activity in the community. She also helps the Jewish Book Festival Committee’s brochure circulation efforts and volunteers with Washington University’s Lifelong Learning Institute.
Levin, Rosenthal’s friend and the garden’s co-founder, said Rosenthal always helps keep the project on-track.
“She has unbounded energy,” Levin said. “She is passionate about her projects, and she is an absolutely amazing communicator.”
Rosenthal agrees, saying she views it as an opportunity.
“I have energy. I have, thank the Lord, good health,” the native St. Louisan said. “I like solving problems and organizing things. I like making plans and executing them.”
Residence: Unincorporated St. Louis County
Quote: “In doing the garden, we realized that there is a community opportunity here to do a mitzvah service.”