Obituary: Irene Jacob / Founder of Rodef Shalom Biblical Botanical Garden, botanist and educator

April 20, 1928 - Dec. 6, 2012

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Irene Jacob loved to take visitors through the Rodef Shalom Biblical Botanical Garden in Oakland because she believed it was a place where people could better understand the Bible.

"It was a place of meditation," said her husband, Rabbi Walter Jacob. "People could come, it didn't matter what religion they had, and spend some quiet time with themselves and God."

Mrs. Jacob founded the garden with her husband in 1987 and worked tirelessly to create a new theme for it each year and to make sure it always looked its best. Horticulture was her passion, and she enjoyed sharing her knowledge of plants with anyone who was interested.

Mrs. Jacob, whose first name was pronounced "Irenee," died Thursday of lung cancer. She was 84 and lived in Point Breeze.

Born in Germany in 1928, she fled the Nazis with her family in 1938. She lived in London for 10 years and then Israel for another decade, where she worked as a radiologist. On vacation in Italy in 1958, she met Rabbi Jacob, who was then an assistant rabbi at Rodef Shalom Congregation.

The two were married and moved to Pittsburgh that year. Rabbi Jacob became the congregation's rabbi in 1967 and served through 1996.

The Jacobs' first child, Claire, was born with severe disabilities and died in the 1970s at the age of 16. In 1969, the couple founded Horizon Homes, a home-like setting for children with special needs. The organization, now called Mainstay Life Services after merging with Idlewood Center, serves 275 individuals.

The couple also had two sons, Kenneth, who died in 1999, and Daniel, who died in 2007.

Mrs. Jacob's close friend, Gissa Weingartner of Highland Park, called the biblical botanical garden one of Mrs. Jacob's proudest accomplishments.

"It's an oasis on Fifth Avenue," Mrs. Weingartner said. "I think it was also an oasis for her, too."

Mrs. Jacob worked every day in both the biblical garden and her garden at home.

She and her husband wrote "Gardens of North America and Hawaii: A Traveler's Guide." The 1988 book, which described 1,400 gardens, was for years the leading guidebook for American gardens. They wrote other books together, and Mrs. Jacob authored several works on the biblical garden and botany.

They observed plants growing all around the world in their native habitat.

"We had a good life together," Rabbi Jacob said. "We traveled a lot, but with a purpose. She had a love of plants and great love of Judaism, too."

Mrs. Jacob also was inspired to create the docent program at Phipps Conservatory in the late 1970s, training volunteers to guide visitors through the conservatory. Nancy Knauss was in the very first docent class.

"She had such a wealth of knowledge," said Ms. Knauss, who went on to work at Phipps and is now an educator with the Penn State Cooperative Extension. "She taught us volumes of information about all the different plants so we could then go and give tours to people. It was great fun. She was such an inspiration."

Mrs. Weingartner counted Mrs. Jacob as her closest friend.

"I feel like we were sisters," she said. "She was extremely caring, not a mean bone in her body, a very true friend and she didn't gossip."

In addition to her husband, Mrs. Jacob is survived by two siblings, Eli Loewenthal and Eva Meisler, both of Israel.

A funeral will be held at 2:30 p.m. today at Rodef Shalom, 4905 Fifth Ave., Oakland.


Doug Oster: or 412-779-5861.


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