The scene can be gloomy for those passing by the corner of Wilkins and Shady avenues: the Tree of Life synagogue building, uninhabitable, and surrounded by a chain link fence and dismal blue tarps. It is the site of the most violent anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history, and for now, its exterior is dreary.
The three congregations that were housed inside know that their home’s current façade does not represent the joy felt there prior to October 27, 2018, nor does it represent what it could hold in the future. Determined to transform the grounds from bleak to beautiful, Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha, New Light and Dor Hadash have launched #HeartsTogether: The Art of Rebuilding, a campaign to solicit original artwork from youth between the ages of 13 and 17 from all over the world. The congregations will use that art to replace the unsightly tarps with windscreens, creating a sidewalk gallery filled with images representing love, hope and peace.
After the massacre that left 11 dead and six wounded, the grounds of the Tree of Life synagogue building became a “a blight on the block,” said Laurie Zittrain Eisenberg, a board member of TOL*OLS, who has been involved with the #HeartsTogether project since its inception.
Speculating that it will be at least two years before the building is restored, the three congregations decided to improve the appearance of its exterior to express gratitude to the first responders as well as “the neighborhood that has been so loving and so wonderful to us,” Eisenberg said. “We want to say, ‘thank you’ to well-wishers by taking something unattractive and making it beautiful.”
The congregations are working on the project with the pro bono assistance of Troy Grossi at D&GG Advertising.
While each of the three congregations is currently housed elsewhere (TOL*OLS and Dor Hadash are using space in Rodef Shalom, and New Light is in Beth Shalom), they remain active, continuing to host religious services, life-cycle events and a range of other activities.
“An empty building with unseemly tarps is not reflecting the vitality and energy we have,” Eisenberg said, adding that by beautifying the building, the congregations are taking an active role in “not letting the perpetrator control our mission.”
Immediately following the massacre, items and cards containing messages of comfort began arriving on the scene, and a makeshift memorial was quickly erected on the grounds of the building.
“I had the feeling right after the event, when the makeshift memorial was growing, like there was positive momentum, that all these different communities were coming together,” Eisenberg said. “It seemed like such a shame to lose that.”
The new project will afford people a way to “continue to contribute” by submitting life-affirming works of art, she explained.
Images are to be uploaded online by May 31 at tolols.org/heartstogether, where specifications for submissions are detailed. Those works that are selected will be printed on the windscreens, surrounded by images of frames, to create a gallery-like look. Although not all images may be selected for the windscreens, all suitable works submitted will appear in an online gallery.
“We think about those lost and injured all the time, and the people we lost were joyous, loving people who were in a place they loved, doing something that brought them pleasure and meaning,” Eisenberg said. “It is a more fitting tribute to them to project something meaningful.”
Beautifying the property while it awaits reconstruction will help “bring back good memories,” said Stephen Cohen, co-president of New Light, which would have celebrated its one-year anniversary in the Tree of Life synagogue building the week following the massacre.
Many of his congregants have a sense of “homelessness” since their displacement after the attack, according to Cohen. The #HeartsTogether project will help them “to be able to say, this can be a beautiful place and until it reopens, it will be a beautiful place because the art, I suspect, will be beautiful, and that’s what makes it home.”
For now, Cohen noted, “You can’t be inside; all you can do is drive by and wish for October 26. The windscreens will be an affirmation of moving forward. We have to deal in the present and create an image of what we want the future to be.”
The project will also serve as an educational tool for the youth participating, said Ellen Surloff, immediate past president of Dor Hadash.
It is imperative, she said, to “encourage youth from around the world to look forward to things like hope, beauty and love. The next generation has to be taught to prevent ideas of exclusivity going forward.”
After being targeted during the “worst anti-Semitic attack in the history of the United States,” Surloff continued, the Tree of Life synagogue building “is a site of horror. But by putting out the messages of love, it’s really a great educational moment for that generation of students who participate from all over the world.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at