Remembering Ilan with trees

Remembering Ilan with trees

Memorial to Teaneck man at SAR helps students learn about nature

The rooftop garden honoring Ilan Tokayer at SAR Academy.
The rooftop garden honoring Ilan Tokayer at SAR Academy.

It’s not simple to determine the right sort of memorial for a budding Renaissance man who died when he was 25.

The proper tribute would have to combine, somehow, a bit of all his passions, interests, and talents. It could not be static but alive and ever-changing and inspirational, almost a personification of the young man himself.

After pondering this challenge for a long while after the sudden death of their son Ilan in March 2011, Reva and Dr. Aaron Tokayer of Teaneck realized that the perfect solution was a garden.

But it shouldn’t be a professionally landscaped garden that people just walk through.

Gan Ilan, which was started last year, grows on the roof of SAR Academy in Riverdale, N.Y., the Jewish elementary school from which Ilan graduated in 1999.

“Gan Ilan” is Hebrew for “Ilan’s Garden,” but the meaning is even more significant because “ilan” is “tree” in Hebrew.

Digging, seeding, watering, weeding, and finally picking and sharing flowers, herbs, and vegetables under the guidance of the GrowTorah organization — which develops educational garden programs for Jewish schools and communal organizations — gives the children tending Gan Ilan a visceral appreciation of the Torah’s approach to land, ecology, agriculture, sustenance, health, community, and tikkun olam, bettering the world.

SAR students are instructed in the preparation of soil for planting a garden.
SAR students are instructed in the preparation of soil for planting a garden.

“We felt like we had lost such a presence, someone who contributed so much to this world, and the only project that felt meaningful and personal enough to honor his memory was to help others get passionate about the world beyond their four corners,” said Reva Tokayer, who is a guidance counselor at SAR.

With the support of SAR’s principal, Rabbi Binyamin Krauss, Ms. Tokayer arranged for Yosef Gillers of GrowTorah to establish Gan Ilan at the academy and to create the Gan Ilan gardening club at SAR high school, where one of Ilan Tokayer’s brothers, Yarone, is a faculty member.

The seed money for Gan Ilan came from a memorial fund, Neta Ilan (“neta” means “plant”), which the Tokayer family founded soon after the tragedy to accept contributions people wanted to make in memory of Ilan. The funds had been waiting for the right project.

“The idea of planting and opening up kids’ minds to Torah concepts through that was very interesting to me. Science and Torah are what Ilan was all about,” Ms. Tokayer said.

At the time of his death, Mr. Tokayer was a master’s student at the University of California at Davis in oenology — the science of wine and winemaking. After high school at Torah Academy of Bergen County in Teaneck, he had studied in Israel, served for a year in the Israel Defense Forces, attended Yeshiva University in New York, and worked in a New Zealand winery, among other pursuits.

His mother said he was an enthusiastic foodie and amateur chef who hoped to work in the Israeli wine industry after finishing his degree.

“I thought one day in his vineyard he’d have a popup restaurant with people from all walks of life sitting around the table listening to him talk about the food and the wine,” Ms. Tokayer said. “This is something that goes on all over the world, but not often in the Jewish world.”

The garden is yielding a bounty of flowers, herbs, and vegetables.
The garden is yielding a bounty of flowers, herbs, and vegetables.

She had been thinking of a way to advance this vision when she came across an article about Mark Hennessey and Jose Meirelles, chef and owner, respectively, of the Times Square kosher French brasserie Le Marais and co-authors of the 2016 “Le Marais Cookbook: A Rare Steakhouse — Well Done.”

“The article was about how these two non-Jewish men got into kosher cooking and why,” Ms. Tokayer said. “I knew this was the kind of story Ilan would be so interested in hearing.”

She got in touch with Mr. Hennessey. The result of their conversation was a cookbook demonstration at a garden party in support of Gan Ilan on May 23 at SAR.

“Learning how to cook kosher food, there were many dear recipes that I had to leave behind from graduate school,” Mr. Hennessey said. “When Reva told me Ilan’s story — dreaming about how to combine the kosher world with high-end food — I related almost immediately. I hope this garden can help future chefs graduating from SAR learn about fresh ingredients, and remember that kosher can always be high-class.”

As Mr. Hennessey brought out each course, he explained how the recipes were developed. The menu included an amuse-bouche, a sweet corn chowder herbed with rosemary from Gan Ilan; a charcuterie appetizer of duck pastrami and pickled potato salad; a main course of beef medallions with sweet pea puree and sunchokes; and for dessert a lemon-curd tart with blueberries and nondairy whipped cream.

Gary Landsman of Taste Wine in Manhattan, who was a friend of Mr. Tokayer, provided wine pairings.

The fundraiser helped drive home the point that Gan Ilan isn’t your typical schoolyard vegetable patch.

“People tend to think of a school garden in terms of preschoolers planting flowers on Tu b’Shvat, but educational gardens are part of a much bigger picture of education and life,” Ms. Tokayer said. Plans are afoot to connect the garden to the community and to organizations promoting food, health, and environmental issues among children, she added.

“There are a lot of levels of giving and experiencing,” she said. “Our goal is to ignite passion and offer other educational opportunities beyond the classroom for kids to discover those passions and excitement about the world, and connect better with the things they are learning.

“Gan llan is something with longevity that will grow in Ilan’s memory,” his mother said.

To donate to Gan Ilan, go to SAR’s homepage and search for Gan Ilan donate.

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