Working at AIDS Grove, Jews plant trees, remember

Jody Reiss stood in a clearing at the AIDS Memorial Grove where the ashes of an unnamed friend lay scattered, and sang "El Mole Rachamim," the prayer of remembrance.

Two young men tiptoed with their bicycles around the large circle of people listening to her, some with heads bowed, in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park last Sunday.

A white butterfly fluttered to a flower. The scent from a burning cigarette wafted by.

In a clear voice the Jewish Family and Children's Service AIDS Project coordinator sang the prayer solo in English — "Let their souls shine out/Like the brightness of the firmament/and may their memory be blessed" — then in Hebrew.

She also sang the prayer for healing, "Mi Shebeirach," pausing between choruses to allow people to utter the names of those they wanted to remember.

"Michael," murmured someone; "My son, Peter, shalom," whispered another.

The healing circle concluded, and AZA Morris Adler chapter president Charles Doppelt and San Francisco photographer Bernard Marque lifted a 5-foot Monterey pine into a hole on the slope above the clearing. They planted the tree to acknowledge all the names, spoken or otherwise.

"We're teenagers," said Doppelt, who drove up from San Jose with about 15 members of his group. "We can give a hand with lifting trees and stuff like that, and we like to get out. It's a nice day in San Francisco."

The weather service said it was 86 degrees at Mission Dolores. It felt only slightly cooler under the 15-acre grove's coast redwoods.

Doppelt and Marque were among 100 or so members of the Jewish community who volunteered to plant artemesia, escallonia, red barberry and ornamental grasses around the white flagstoned Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund seating area.

It was the grove's first Sunday workday since 1991. Normally, workdays are held on Saturdays. JFCS requested a Sunday to accommodate the Jewish community.

Participants included B'nai B'rith Youth Organization, Congregation Sha'ar Zahav and JFCS Aids Project volunteers, plus staff and board members.

Marque got up at 6:45 a.m. to help Dee Dee Sberlo of Congregation Beth Sholom's Chicken Soupers slice bagels and section oranges. Another San Francisco congregation, Sherith Israel, also provided lunch.

Getting hands dirty were Marque's wife Carol, a UCFS Medical Center administrative assistant who "lost a lot of friends to AIDS," and daughters 7-year-old Jane and 11-year-old Lydia.

"I gave drinks around," said Lydia, a fifth-grader at Brandeis Hillel Day School, "and I put dirt on a thing and they carried it out."

"You shoveled mulch," explained her father.

Phyllis Gomez snipped a small lower branch off the newly planted pine. Tears filled her eyes as she remembered her son Michael's death on a Sunday six years ago.

"You never quite get over your loss," she said in a faint voice, almost a whisper, but added, "It was helpful to hear the Jewish prayer."

She and husband Hank, who live in the Ingleside district of San Francisco and have four surviving children, seldom miss a workday at the grove.

"It's really been very helpful and healing to come here and be a part of the larger community and see how others deal with their loss," she said.