The Great Neck Synagogue community is restoring a memorial garden in honor of Rabbi Dale Polakoff's late wife.  Credit: Linda Rosier

At Great Neck Synagogue on Old Mill Road, a neglected garden is receiving new life.

Created more than 20 years ago to honor Rabbi Dale Polakoff’s first wife, Gail, it had become run down in recent years. But Polakoff’s second wife, Ellen, has spearheaded an effort to restore the garden, starting with the addition of several dozen native plants thanks to a grant from ReWild Long Island.

This wasn’t simply a landscaping initiative, however. It was a bittersweet labor of love, as Gail and Ellen Polakoff were also best friends.

“I never had a friend like that before,” Ellen Polakoff, 69, said.

Gail Polakoff in 1995.

Gail Polakoff in 1995. Credit: Dale Polakoff

For more than a decade, Ellen and Gail Polakoff were inseparable. They and their families shared Shabbat dinners and holidays together, and often went on vacations together.

But in 1999, Gail Polakoff died at age 42 following a 10-month battle with gallbladder cancer.

The congregation brainstormed ways to honor the beloved mother of five, a creative artist and gardener who touched so many of their lives, Ellen Polakoff said. They decided to create a meandering garden at the entrance to the synagogue that its members and neighbors could enjoy indefinitely.

They gathered, planned and donated funds to hire a landscape architect, purchase plants, trees, lampposts, a gazebo and benches, and pay for their installation in 2001 throughout the 3,000-square-foot front yard. Over the years, however, the space, named “Gail’s Garden,” fell into disrepair.

“The garden was overgrown with invasives and ivy all over the place, and dead plants and branches that needed to be removed,” Ellen Polakoff said.

It was no longer a fitting honor for her friend, whom she said she met in the early 1980s when she worked as a secretary at a Manhattan school where Dale Polakoff was a teacher.

The two women hit it off when, Ellen Polakoff recalled, Dale Polakoff invited her to his home for dinner. Eventually, the couple introduced their new friend to the man who would become her first husband.

LOVE AND GARDENS

“Gail’s love of gardening came from my mother and my father,” Ellen Polakoff said. “Every Thanksgiving, we all would go to my parents’ home in Westport, Connecticut. They had a cut flower garden and perennials, and she got into it by watching my mom and father.”

After Gail Polakoff died, her husband and her friend kept in touch. “We continued to talk all the time,” Ellen Polakoff said, and after she and her own husband divorced in 2000, mutual friends “started to ask us why Dale and I don’t go out. So we gave in, and since we already were so comfortable with each other, it turned into a romance.”

Rabbi Dale Polakoff and his wife, Ellen.

Rabbi Dale Polakoff and his wife, Ellen. Credit: Linda Rosier

Since she’d been friends with the couple for so long, Ellen Polakoff said, “I knew everything about them and about Gail’s lifestyle [as a rebbetzin, the wife of a rabbi] and having to go to events and the stress of it all. God has a very funny sense of humor.”

The two married in January 2002, and Ellen Polakoff said she and her four children left their New Jersey home and moved to Great Neck, creating a blended family of 11.

Gail Polakoff has remained a loving presence in their home. “We have a little plaque hanging in the house that says, ‘I’m in the garden,’ ” Dale Polakoff, 67, said. “That brought us all comfort because we realized she wasn’t here anymore, but she was ‘in the garden,’ and the garden is a beautiful place.”

A NONPROFIT’s MISSION

But the years passed, the children grew, and Gail’s Garden became overrun with weeds.

Earlier this year, Ellen Polakoff said she opened an email from ReWild Long Island, a nonprofit based in Port Washington that encourages sustainable landscaping practices and the use of native plants, announcing the availability of grants to establish native gardens.

The timing was perfect. Ellen Polakoff had been talking with Marilyn Freedman, a member of the congregation who was instrumental in planning the original garden, about “how it’s become a mess and needs to be taken care of.”

Walking through the garden, Freedman said it became apparent that it hadn’t been properly tended. “I was devastated,” she said. “From the outside, it looked OK, but when you looked deeper, it was clear” it needed a lot of work.

Volunteers and members of ReWild Long Island working on the...

Volunteers and members of ReWild Long Island working on the garden last month. Credit: Linda Rosier

So, Ellen Polakoff applied for a grant from ReWild — and won.

“One of the main criteria in selecting who receives the grant is that we want a space that would be publicly accessed and enjoyed by the community, not just a garden in someone’s private yard,” said Samantha Jo, ReWild Long Island’s garden project manager. “We want it to be a place where everyone can come together, plant together and tend to it together in order to bring awareness of sustainable gardening practices and native plants throughout the community.”

And that’s precisely what happened last month, when about 20 friends and members of the synagogue, including students from the adjacent North Shore Hebrew Academy, answered Ellen Polakoff’s call for volunteers and, after two short rain delays, gathered to install the first phase of the garden’s makeover.

4-SEASON BEAUTY

Guided by Jo and Agatha Martello of the Westbury-based organic landscaping company More Than Gardens, children and teenagers worked beside young adults, parents and retirees to clear weeds, dig holes and install roughly 80 native plants, trees and shrubs in a 300-square-foot plot of the garden.

The plants were specially selected to provide four seasons of interest. A spring-blooming Eastern redbud tree sits at the center of the bed, surrounded by a dozen Virginia bluebells. Along with six bleeding hearts, 10 moss phlox, two woodland stonecrops and four common bearberry plants, they will provide early-season food and habitat for pollinators, birds and other wildlife.

Left, Ellen Polakoff and other volunteers with Samantha Jo, far...

Left, Ellen Polakoff and other volunteers with Samantha Jo, far right. Credit: Linda Rosier

In summer, two oakleaf hydrangeas, nine tall Joe Pye weed plants and 10 yarrows will bloom, complemented by drifts of 15 little bluestem grasses that wind their way through the bed, providing a splash of color for much of the year.

In autumn, the ribbon-like petals of two American witch hazel shrubs will command traffic-stopping attention, and the orange-red berries of three winterberry holly shrubs will continue to feed non-migratory birds through winter.

Jo said the grant award included the plants, valued at $1,000, plus site visits, signage, design and irrigation services.

FOR THE BIRDS — AND FOR GAIL

“We are doing this for the birds, for the pollinators,” Martello, who worked closely with ReWild Long Island on the garden’s design, told the volunteers as they prepared to plant. “This is a special garden. It’s gardening for the future. It’s really meaningful.”

Ellen Polakoff agreed. “There was a beautiful idea years ago to plant this garden to honor Gail, and now we’re able to bring back its beauty — Gail’s beauty,” she said. “Doing this is bringing me close to her again.”

From left, Viviane Breitbart and Pam Toledano hug after finishing...

From left, Viviane Breitbart and Pam Toledano hug after finishing their work. Credit: Linda Rosier

And the garden unites the community, too. “People walk through here and just chill and relax on the Sabbath, with kids running through. It’s very much alive,” Dale Polakoff said.

If his first wife could see the garden, he said, “I think she would be amazed, grateful and, more than anything else, happy. I don’t think there’s anything that Gail would have enjoyed more than seeing people involved in planting and renewing and rejuvenating the garden, and making sure the next generation benefits.

“The children who are here planting, every time they walk by, are going to say, ‘I did that!’ And the garden will still be here when they are older,” he said.

ONGOING CARE

But that will take ongoing work, a fact that is not lost on Ellen Polakoff. “I reminded the volunteers that this will turn into a committee because there’s upkeep that will be necessary and, also, I want to move on to renovating the other areas of the garden.”

In a recent letter to the congregation, she explained the benefits of the garden’s native plants: “Once established, they need no fertilizer or extra watering. They provide a welcome environment for butterflies and other pollinators. They act as natural pest control and reduce the need for pesticides. They provide quality food for caterpillars as well as shelter for birds and other wildlife. They are sustainable and thrive in the natural conditions of our soil and weather.”

Volunteers pose for a group picture in the garden at...

Volunteers pose for a group picture in the garden at Great Neck Synagogue. Credit: Linda Rosier

And the response has been heartwarming, she said during a break from planting last month. “I’m happy there are people that want to be involved in this, people of all different ages. They see me outside cleaning it out and they’re very excited about it, and that makes me very happy.”

Speaking through tears, Ellen Polakoff said, “Gail would be happy, too . . . I wish she was still here.”

Dale Polakoff thinks she may be: “I believe she’s watching down because the rain stopped.”

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