A Brief History of the Garden of Remembrance (Gan Zikaron) Memorial Park

Facing capacity constraints at its historic Alabama Avenue cemetery, the reluctance of members to travel to Southeast DC for funerals, and a desire to add a sustaining revenue source for the synagogue and its memorial parks, in 1994 the leadership of Washington Hebrew Congregation (WHC) surveyed its members’ cemetery plans and preferences. The survey confirmed the feelings of WHC Board members that a new cemetery should be developed.

A WHC Board committee was formed to explore the issue under the leadership of Steve Epstein. Additional needs assessments indicated strong support by the congregation (and the clergy and lay leaders of other DMV-area synagogues) for a new cemetery in Montgomery County, Maryland. WHC Senior Rabbi Joseph Weinberg, Executive Director Mark Greenstein, and the committee began working on plans, which culminated in 1996 with the placement of a deposit on a 152-acre site at the northwest corner of I-270 and Comus Road in Clarksburg, Maryland.

Two years later, after an extensive zoning special exception process shepherded through the Montgomery County Planning Board by land-use attorney Jody Kline, the Montgomery County Council approved the establishment of the memorial park in 1998, and the Planning Board added its approval in 1999.

Alongside the committee, a group consisting of Roger Lebbin, Phil Liebowitz, Sonny Small and others, assisted by Stantec Inc. (Civil Engineers) and Pleasants Construction designed – and then developed — the memorial park, and began planning for an eventual memorial center and chapel. It was decided early to add a gazebo in the WHC section of the cemetery, which was endowed by the Sadugor/Robins family, and to make Forest Glades of twenty burial plots available for purchase by families looking for private spaces within the Memorial Park. Both of those decisions proved to be wise – almost 50 families have purchased Forest Glades in GoR, and for almost 25 years the Sadugor Gazebo has been the site of numerous funerals and the annual Community High Holy Days Memorial Services.

The Garden of Remembrance Memorial Park, Inc. was established as a nonprofit 501(c)(3) charitable corporation in September 1999 by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). In 2021 GoR was reclassified as a “religious” 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization by the IRS. Articles of Incorporation and Bylaws, signed by David Berz, Steven Epstein, Howard Jatlow, Kenneth Marks, and Robert Nath, were approved by the WHC Board in September 1999, with Sheldon Grosberg designated as Executive Director and resident agent, and offices at the WHC Julia Bindeman Suburban Center in Potomac, Maryland.

The Memorial Park held a Groundbreaking Ceremony on May 24, 2000, a Dedication and a consecration of the land on September 10, 2000, and a Community Day at the site on November 12, 2000. The first burial service, a re-interment from another cemetery, took place on November 8, 2000, and the first on-site funeral and graveside service was held on January 7, 2001. WHC began an initial marketing campaign to its members in late August 1999 which resulted in the sale of over 1,000 burial plots in the WHC Sections, providing initial operating funds for the memorial park.

Additional synagogues have been approached to become Partner Congregations and reserve designated sections within the memorial park. Those efforts have been successful – as of 2024 GoR has thirty-one Partner Congregations representing all branches of modern Judaism — Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Renewal, and Independent synagogues. The rabbis and professional leadership of the Partner Congregations comprise the Garden of Remembrance Advisory Committee.

The first annual Community High Holy Days Memorial Service at the Garden of Remembrance took place on September 23, 2001, and Community Memorial Services have been held each year since. Currently two separate services are held on the same day, usually the Sunday between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Led by Partner Congregation clergy, these services now attract several hundred attendees each year. In 2020, responding to constraints that accompanied the Covid pandemic, the Garden of Remembrance began offering livestreamed funeral services for remote viewing.

Washington Hebrew Congregation supported the purchase of the land on which GoR is located, planning, staff salaries and development with a loan of almost $2 million, and has continued to provide support, lay leadership, and oversight of the memorial park. That crucial investment in the creation of the Garden of Remembrance, including principal and accrued interest, grew to over $4 million. In June 2024, in satisfaction of the loan, the unsold spaces in the Washington Hebrew sections of the memorial park were deeded to the congregation.

In September 2004, an Investment Committee chaired by Rabbi Matthew Simon was formed to set investment policies for the Endowed Perpetual Care Fund and the Goods & Services Trust Fund. SOL Capital served as the investment managers for the funds until 2021, when management was transferred to Goldman-Sachs. In 2023, the Garden of Remembrance became a funded agency of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. The Garden of Remembrance maintains a burial assistance fund so that it can provide dignified Jewish burials to those in financial need.

The development of Gan Zikaron has proceeded in phases. Phase I — land development — was completed in the spring of 2000. Phase II — burial section expansion, mausoleums, and landscape development – was completed in April 2005. Phase III, which included new roads, burial sections, and mausoleums/columbaria, occurred in 2006-2007. And Phase IV, which added storm water management and sediment control and new burial sections, was undertaken in 2017-19 with a loan from Eagle Bank. The final portion of Phase IV — two new mausoleums and columbaria — was completed in 2020. A grant in 2021 from the Montgomery County RainScapes program provided a rain garden and conservation landscaping.

Through the efforts of many, the Greenberg Memorial Center (which includes the Small Chapel, the Wasserman-Gill Family Wing, the Dreyfuss Memorial Hall, the Sagon Family Entrance Plaza, and the Groban Family Lobby) was completed and dedicated in November 2022. In May 2023, the Rabbi Joseph P. Weinberg Memorial Garden, located next to the Memorial Center, was dedicated. Planning and fundraising for a Family Welcome Center and permanent offices near the entrance to the memorial park began in March 2023.

The memorial park includes unusual and innovative features. Among these are 50 twenty-plot family Forest Glades, designated six to ten plot Legacy Gardens, and wooded areas for the burial of cremated remains in “back to nature” boulders. Gan Zikaron also has a certified Green Burial Garden (the first in Maryland) and protected Forest Conservation Preservation areas. In 2021, GoR was designated and certified as a Level I arboretum, and in 2024 it was certified as a Wildlife Habitat. The memorial park provides a free community Genizah for the burial of sacred ritual items and religious books in disrepair and holds annual Genizah drop-off days for the community.

A fifteen-member volunteer Board of Directors oversees the Garden of Remembrance. Robert Nath served as the President of GoR from 1999 to 2008. He was succeeded by Albert “Sonny” Small, Jr. (2009-2013). Since 2014, WHC Past President Hank Levine has been the President of the Memorial Park. Kenneth Marks has served as Chairman of the GoR Board since 2000, and Rabbi Matthew Simon and Don Kaplan have chaired the Advisory Committee since its inception. With the passing of Rabbi Simon, Rabbi Susan Shankman became co-chair of the Advisory Committee.

Sheldon Grosberg was the Founding Executive Director of the Memorial Park until his passing in 2019. Glenn S. Easton became the Executive Director in January 2020 (following several months during which President Hank Levine served as Interim Executive Director).

By June 2024, the Garden of Remembrance will have over 3,000 interments and will have pre-sold near 12,000 additional interment rights. Thanks to the efforts of WHC, Partner Congregations, its lay leadership and a dedicated staff, Gan Zikaron has become the principal non-profit cemetery serving the DMV Jewish community.