Irene Jacob — German refugee — led life of service, culture here

Irene Jacob — German refugee — led life of service, culture here

Irene Jacob
Irene Jacob

Walter Jacob is grateful for the 54 years of marriage with his wife Irene, who died last week after months of living with lung cancer.

He was also grateful they escaped the same fate that consumed 6 million other Jews.

Walter and Irene Jacob were refugees from Nazi Germany. Irene and her family escaped to London in 1938. Walter and his family followed a year later.

Last week, while eulogizing his wife during her funeral at Rodef Shalom, Jacob, the rabbi emeritus of the congregation, reflected on how fate had spared them, and would later bring them together as husband and wife.

Had they not fled Germany, he added, “we would have gone up in a wisp of smoke many, many years ago as so many others. For that we are grateful, so very grateful.” 

Irene Jacob, 84, a well-known gardener, author and the founding director of the Biblical Botanical Garden at Rodef Shalom Congregation, died peacefully Thursday, Dec. 6, at her home in Point Breeze. Walter was by her side.

Born Irene Loewenthal in Hamburg, Germany, Jacob and her family fled to London in 1938. Her father had gone ahead, ostensibly on business, but he called his wife four days before Rosh Hashana and instructed them to “come tomorrow,” Walter recounted.

They did.

While in England, Irene completed her boarding school at age 16. A lover of music, she played the violin, recorder and flute.

But it was her passion for Zionism that molded her destiny. She worked for the Jewish Agency — the shadow government of the future State of Israel — and with Friends of Hebrew University; part of her job was to show London to visitors, one of whom happened to be the famed scholar Martin Buber.

Six months after Israel declared her independence, Irene immigrated to the Jewish state, supporting herself as a social worker to the Arab community and as an X-ray technician.

It was around that time that she took a holiday in Italy and, by chance, ran into Walter — her cousin.

They spent time together on that trip touring the country.

“We decided on that basis, being together for a little over a week, to get married.”

After their wedding in 1958, Jacob accompanied her new husband to his first, and only, pulpit of his career, at Rodef Shalom in Pittsburgh.  

According to Walter, Jacob didn’t know what was expected of her in her new role. What’s more, she had only heard negative things about Pittsburgh, “that it was dirty and dusty,” Walter recalled. “Why come here?”

But it was here that Jacob built an incredible life.

After the birth of their handicapped daughter, Claire, the Jacobs established Horizon Home, a group home for handicapped children. It is known today as Mainstay Services for Handicapped Children.

She became a docent at the Carnegie Museum and Phipps Conservatory, actually developing the Phipps program.

She taught botany at Chatham University and wrote or co-wrote seven books on the subject, including Gardens of North America and Hawaii: a Traveler’s Guide (which became the definitive guide for gardens across the nation), Biblical Plants, The Healing Past, Plants of the Bible and their Uses, and Botanical Symbols in World Religions. She also wrote monographs and papers, which she presented around the world.

But perhaps her most lasting achievement came in the 1980s when, together with husband Walter, and architect Joel Kranich, she established the Biblical Botanical Garden, a well-known Shadyside attraction that has garnered much local and national media attention for more than 25 years.

“It became a wonderful part of the life of the congregation,” Walter said.  

She also co-founded, the Pittsburgh Recorder Society and Mother’s Day Out.

Rodef Shalom became a second home for Jacob.

“She felt very much at home in this synagogue, where she worshipped every Shabbat,” Walter said, “not because she was the rabbi’s wife, but because she was a Jew.”

And Rabbi Aaron Bisno, senior rabbi of Rodef Shalom, felt at home worshipping with Jacob.

“When I looked in the congregation and saw her, it warmed my heart,” he said.

Bisno remembered Jacob as a sensitive woman who entertained he and his wife Michelle in the Jacob’s garden of their Point Breeze home when the couple first arrived in Pittsburgh and always remembered his sons’ birthdays.

“True to her name Irene, which she pronounced in the British way — Irenee — to be with her was to feel you were in the presence of calm, it was internal wholeness.”

She was the mother of the late Claire Jacob, Kenny Jacob, Daniel, and Eslyn Jacob.

In addition to her husband Walter, Jacob is survived by her sister Eva Meisler, Jerusalem; brother Eli Loewenthal, Haifa; and nephews and nieces Max and Lisa Jacob, Burlingame, Calif.; Jenny and Drew Patterson, Mountain View, Calif.; Susan and Geoffrey Caine, Jerusalem; Ronnie and Limor Loewenthal, Modiin, Israel; Jonnie Freier, Tel Aviv; and Kate Stern, London; as well as many other relatives and friends in North America, Germany and Israel.

Burial was in West View Cemetery of Rodef Shalom Congregation.

Memorial contributions may be made to: the Rodef Shalom Biblical Botanical Garden Endowment Fund, c/o Rodef Shalom Congregation, 4905 Fifth Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15213.

(Lee Chottiner can be reached at

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