A knitted blue Star of David with a white heart at its center was draped on the hand of the Roberto Clemente sculpture at PNC Park. Another was attached to the wheelchair of Camille, a homeless woman sitting at the corner of Penn Avenue and Sixth Street, balancing on her lap a cardboard sign asking for “blessings.”
More stars hang from trees and signs at synagogues and churches around the city, on lampposts and in the shop windows of businesses in Squirrel Hill, throughout Mt. Lebanon and Shadyside and Lawrenceville, and on the Christmas tree at the City-County Building.
The project goes by the handle “Jewish Hearts for Pittsburgh,” and was launched by Hinda Mandell, a professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, and Ellen Dominus Broude, an executive at Viacom and a resident of Westchester County, N.Y.
Three days after the Tree of Life attack, Broude was scrolling through Facebook when she came across a post by Mandell depicting knitted Jewish stars with hearts at their centers that were placed at a Jewish cemetery that had been desecrated. In her post, Mandell suggested that it might be meaningful to place these types of stars around Pittsburgh.
Broude, who has participated in other craft projects advancing social justice issues, replied to Mandell’s post that she could help make that happen, as she was planning a trip to Pittsburgh on Nov. 17 to visit her daughter, a senior at Carnegie Mellon University.
The two women, who had never met, spoke by phone and cemented the deal, launching a new Facebook group to get the project started.
“We thought we’d get 200 members,” Broude said. “We’re probably close to 1,100 right now. And I thought we’d get a couple hundred stars. It turns out we hung over 2,000 [Saturday, Nov. 17]. It didn’t occur to me that people were going to be making 11, one for every person. Suddenly, people started posting pictures of their 11 stars. Other people did eight, for every night of Hanukah. Someone did 18, someone did double chai. Then, it spread.”
People from all over the world began sending stars to a post office box designated for the project, with each crafter adding his or her own personal touch to the creations. While some stars were knitted or crocheted, others were created from recycled material, Popsicle sticks, polymer clay or fabric. Some were simple drawings that were laminated.
Broude received stars from London and Hawaii, from a Columbine survivor and from residents of Parkland, Fla. A group of Catholic students from Little Rock, Ark., sent 75 stars.
“The panoply of religions, and atheists, and just humans were represented,” Broude said. “People who are black, white, brown. Democrats and Republicans, for sure. And politics never came up once. Not even anything about gun control. It was really just an outpouring of support for humanity and the notion that an assault against one is an assault against all, and there is no room in this world for hate. There are so many more good people than evil, who don’t all agree on the same ideals, but they agree that good is good, and evil is not.”
Jamie Lebovitz of Mt. Lebanon and Andrea Riberi of Upper St. Clair “quickly emerged as on-the-ground leaders, which was so incredible,” Broude added. “I was starting to get worried that we weren’t going to have enough people to hang these things. And Jamie and Andrea stepped forward and said, ‘Do not worry about that; we will take care of that and make sure that will happen.’ And boy did they deliver.”
Lebovitz and Riberi got involved once they saw the project on Facebook.
“This project was beautiful,” Lebovitz said. “Here are people that are from out of town, coming together on this. They needed people here in Pittsburgh to help them navigate locally.”
Lebovitz pulled together a list of locations that would be meaningful places to display the stars, including locations outside of Squirrel Hill.
“We needed to show love to all of Pittsburgh,” Lebovitz stressed.
As the stars were being hung, volunteers took photos of them from close range, and some from farther back, to post on social media so that the crafters who sent them in could see where they were being displayed, Lebovitz said.
While she was happy to be a “conduit” for helping execute the project, it was also “therapeutic” on a personal level to be involved, Lebovitz said.
“I’m still in the midst of shock and going through moments of grief where I just start crying uncontrollably,” she said. “This was the greatest therapy for me, getting involved.”
Although most of the stars have been displayed, the Jewish Hearts for Pittsburgh project will continue. For the next phase, leaders have asked people to send small “stitchable” crafts embodying their ideas of “community,” which will be sewn together into quilts. Those quilts will then be displayed on a more permanent basis in memory of the Tree of Life victims, according to the project’s Facebook page.
Another project going forward may include showcasing some of the heartfelt notes that accompanied the stars, according to Broude.
“I felt very hopeful,” Broude said of coming to Pittsburgh to hang the stars. “To actually experience the embodiment of good over evil gave me great hope for our future.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.