When horticulturist Rachel Kudrick’s spiritual buds require watering, the Morningside resident turns to Temple Sinai. But it didn’t start out that way.
Born in Streator, Illinois, to a family of Catholics and Southern Baptists, Kudrick, 51, moved to Pennsylvania nearly four decades ago at 13. From the first week in Clarion County, Kudrick participated in the nearby church’s choir and youth group.
“I felt very at home with the people, but never connected to the service,” she said.
As Kudrick grew up, her religious interests expanded: “Judaism always drew me. I always read about it and learned about it, and I got to the point where I felt like I knew as much as I could learn on my own.”
About 10 years ago, Kudrick was directed to Rabbi Jamie Gibson of Temple Sinai. “I went to him and I said, ‘You know, I don’t want to convert. I just want to learn more.’”
Gibson invited Kudrick to a Friday evening service, where she discovered that the communal Shabbat prayers contrasted with other religious encounters.
“When I went to church in Clarion County, I knew all the people and I felt very comfortable with them — well, aside from being gay, but they didn’t know that — but I never felt connected to what was happening,” she said. “Whereas at Temple Sinai I just felt connected to whatever was in the room. Even though I didn’t understand the Hebrew at all, something just spoke to my heart. I came home crying and I was like, ‘I think I want to convert.’”
So that’s what she did. “It was just a spiritual thing that I don’t really understand. To this day I just felt like I’d come home, and it stayed that way.”
Kudrick has a more tangible grasp on her passion for gardening. A graduate of Bidwell Training Center’s horticulture program, Kudrick worked at Bidwell with orchids and hydroponically grown tomatoes, and eventually taught classes on the mathematics of greenhouse management.
Her sharp mind and green thumb are a boon to those interested in the field, explained Drew Barkley, Temple Sinai’s executive director, which is why he asked her to teach a related course at the Squirrel Hill synagogue.
Meeting Wednesday mornings and evenings, “Planning to Canning: Gardening on the Cheap with Rachel Kudrick” is a chance for Temple Sinai members and non-members to orient themselves to gardening basics. Each class functions independently so students can pick and choose the areas they relish.
As a teacher, Kudrick tries to understand the reasoning behind a student’s interest in gardening.
“Think about the biggest best thing you want, and then cut it into pieces,” she said. “Approach it a piece at a time. If you approach it all at once, you’re going to get overwhelmed and you’re going to feel like you failed, and you’re not going to continue.”
In that vein, Kudrick asked students during last week’s opening session why they wanted to garden.
“If your goal is to grow 25 bushels of tomatoes and what you did was sit outside and smoke a cigarette, you didn’t really succeed,” she said. “You still did succeed with smoking a cigarette, but if you know what you actually want out of it then you’ll know to focus on getting it.”
This is especially true of gardening with children, Kudrick said.
“Let’s say you really want to spend time with your kids outside. Well, if your kids are really little then you’re probably not going to end up with a lot of side dishes because kids tend to pull the wrong plants.”
If your goal is simply to spend time with the kids, however, “then even if at the end of the season all you have is this big pile of dirt, you were still successful.”
Understanding and inclusion are key to Kudrick’s work, explained Barkley: “Rachel embodies so much of what Temple Sinai is about. It’s why she was nominated to be volunteer of the year.”
Kudrick received that honor in 2019 after taking the lead on Temple Sinai’s vegetable garden. When congregants wished to establish a crop station near the historic Forbes Avenue building, Kudrick designed the plans. By season’s end, Temple Sinai had donated 200 pounds of freshly grown produce to the Squirrel Hill Community Food Pantry.
Because of what she does for the congregation, serving as Kudrick’s rabbi is an honor, said Gibson: “I am proud of the way she has offered her talents and passion for the earth to the synagogue and the city at large. She is a living example to be courageous in one’s self and to be a proud Jewish woman. She leads with her heart, and we are all the richer for it.”
Kudrick gets her love of gardening from her late father, Lloyd, who worked in a factory all his life but was passionate about horticulture. After Lloyd’s death in 2001, Kudrick’s mother, Imogene, required help with the property. The large lot, almost an acre, had apple trees, peach trees and pear trees, along with perennial flowers and a vegetable garden.
“The trees needed care so I started working at it,” Kudrick said. At the same time, she began “ripping up” her landlord’s yard in Pittsburgh. “It was a way of dealing with my grief.”
It’d been years since Kudrick was so committed to the land, but gardening was a part of her childhood, and though she didn’t realize it at the time, her family was financially insecure, she said. With the home garden, “we could eat vegetables in the summer and then my parents could can them and we could eat them throughout the winter,” she said. “I tell you now that I grew up poor and at the same time I can tell you that I ate like a gourmet because we had asparagus with almost every meal in the summer. We had morel mushrooms year round, because we went and foraged them and strung them and dried them.”
Kudrick understands there are factors restricting others from growing their own produce, but she’s determined to help. For starters, although her class costs $20 a session, it’s free for those who can’t afford it.
“I put a box in the back of the room, and I say, ‘If you’re gonna pay, it’s back there.’ And then I don’t keep track. I figure if you’re a millionaire and you feel the need to steal a gardening class, I’d rather you have the cover to do that than someone else who feels ashamed that they really can’t afford them.”
In recent years, Kudrick has worked with individuals and organizations similarly concerned with providing fresh produce to the financially insecure. Doing so not only reinforces the values she holds dear, she explained, but calls to mind the messages shared within the folk music her parents played for her decades ago.
As Pete Seeger once sang: “Inch by inch, row by row. Gonna make this garden grow.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.