Gathering Nov. 12 to dedicate the new Memorial Garden in Colma. (Photo/Patrick Walls Photography)
Gathering Nov. 12 to dedicate the new Memorial Garden in Colma. (Photo/Patrick Walls Photography)

Memory Garden in Colma is first Jewish place in U.S. to mourn pregnancy loss

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It could have been raining, but instead the sun chose to shine on the 100 or so people gathered on Nov. 13 at Eternal Home Cemetery in Colma. They were there for the dedication of a new Jewish space for those who have experienced the grief of a miscarriage, stillbirth or death of a newborn. The Memory Garden is the first specifically Jewish memorial place for prenatal and neonatal loss in the country, its founders said. In creating the garden, they wanted to provide an external, physical location for the internal expression of grief and mourning.

“For the Jewish community, that’s very important to us, to have a physical place to go,” said Debbie Findling, senior philanthropic adviser to the Lisa and Douglas Goldman Fund, who founded the garden project along with Abby Porth, director of the Lisa Stone Pritzker Family Foundation.

The dedication was the culmination of a long journey that began with a conversation between Findling and Porth more than a decade ago. Both women had experienced pregnancy loss and wanted to turn to Judaism and Jewish ritual for support in their grief, but felt a lack.

“There wasn’t really a way to kind of move through the experience from a Jewish perspective,” Findling said.

Much of Jewish practice involves marking time and repeating ritual, as it does with the many traditions around mourning. But Judaism doesn’t prescribe specific rites for miscarriage or stillbirth. According to Maimonides: “We do not [perform ritual mourning rites] for stillborn infants.”

The Memory Garden (Photo/Patrick Walls Photography)
The Memory Garden (Photo/Patrick Walls Photography)

So finding Jewish solutions was hard for Findling. “For example, I didn’t know what to do on the anniversary, the yahrzeit, of my stillbirth,” she said.

Porth and Findling began a conversation that expanded to include the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center and Sinai Memorial Chapel Jewish funeral home, which agreed to provide land at the cemetery it owns for the Memory Garden. 

“It has been a long time in the making,” said Sam Salkin, executive director of Sinai Memorial.

Salkin said it had taken so much time to create the garden because of fundraising and the legal steps involved in setting up the space, which included undergrounding important PG&E infrastructure and dealing with a BART right-of-way.

The process also required a lot of listening to the community, and dialogues with those who had experienced grief related to prenatal loss or infertility issues. The result is a design by MPA Design, an S.F.-based landscape architecture firm that also worked on the John F. Kennedy memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, San Francisco’s Doyle Drive Redesign Plan and the St. Regis Hotel in San Francisco.

It features an open space with native California plants, with redwood trees and a large, flat circular pool, “round like a womb,” Findling said.

“The outer edge of the circle are the months of the year, both in English and in Hebrew,” she said, and in the water are stones that can be moved and repositioned by visitors, a nod to the placing of stones on grave  markers and to the marking of sacred days on the Jewish calendar.

(From left) Abby Porth, Debbie Findling and Cantor Marsha Attie at the dedication of the Memory Garden. (Photo/Patrick Walls Photography)
(From left) Abby Porth, Debbie Findling and Cantor Marsha Attie at the dedication of the Memory Garden. (Photo/Patrick Walls Photography)

But it’s meant to be open to interpretation, Findling added. She hopes families, rabbis and those who are grieving will find a canvas on which to make their own rituals.

“It’s for them to create the meaning,” she said. “We have created the space.”

Salkin said that although the garden is adjacent to the cemetery, it offers “intimacy and seclusion” — which will be even more true once the new seedlings have grown a bit.

The Memory Garden’s opening Sunday was attended by clergy from across Jewish denominations. Cantor Marsha Attie of Congregation Emanu-El (Reform) in San Francisco and Rabbi Yitzchok Feldman of Emek Beracha (Orthodox) in Palo Alto both participated in the dedication, along with Findling, Porth, Salkin and Jennifer Kaufman, an artist and Sinai Memorial staff member.

While it was created in a Jewish space, the garden is open to all. It’s open to the public from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday through Friday and closed on Jewish holidays. Reservations are required for private gatherings by contacting Eternal Home or Sinai Memorial. 

Findling said that for her, the garden has proven to be a place where she can create meaning and connection with Judaism in relation to the loss she experienced many years ago but still carries with her.

“It’s where I go now on the anniversary of my stillbirth,” Findling said. “I go to the Memory Garden.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.