Chaim Urbach was still in the hospital when Ellen Ritt Johnson’s etrog seeds finally popped saplings from the dirt.
Urbach is the senior rabbi at Yeshuat Tsion, a Messianic Jewish congregation that meets in the basement of a church in Greenwood Village. He was in a serious car accident last October that resulted in a stroke. It wasn’t until January — a day or so after Ritt Johnson’s seeds showed life — that his flock heard he would pull through.
“It was kind of a spiritual moment,” Ritt Johnson recalled.
The saplings she fostered came from a single etrog, a ceremonial citron fruit used during the Sukkot holiday. Ritt Johnson said the synagogue paid almost $100 for the item when they celebrated, just days before Urbach’s accident.
When she heard the price, she thought to herself: “Wow! That’s crazy! Can’t we just grow one?”
So she asked for the fruit once the annual rites were complete and googled how to propagate them. Easily enough, she stuck the seeds in water overnight, drawing out tiny roots, and then planted them in soil. She waited a month to finally see some promise. Sure enough, they came through.
Twelve saplings survived. Once they strengthened, Ritt Johnson began to hand them out to her fellow congregants. Together, they named each after a tribe of Israel, which each in turn were named for the sons of Jacob: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph and Benjamin.
Reuben went home with Joy Urbach, who is married to Chaim. It’s in her charge now.
Joy said she’s never named a plant before, though she does speak to it sometimes.
“He didn’t look like a Reuben or anything,” she said, but she appreciated that the names joined each of the plants and her with friends from synagogue.
First, she said, it was kind of a “cute” thing they were doing. But, “especially now,” she said: “It’s a nice way to connect.”
Ritt Johnson agreed. As the congregation has fractured into social isolation, meeting only via video chat, she appreciates that these plants bind them together. They’ll be holding virtual Seder this week for Passover.
Now, all they need to do is wait for fruit.
“In four to seven years, we can have our own etrog,” Ritt Johnson said. “It is an act of faith. We’re hoping it’s sooner rather than later.”