Days after 11 Jews were murdered inside the Tree of Life building, Melissa Lysaght and Nicole Flannery utilized the windows lining Squirrel Hill’s Starbucks on Shady and Forbes avenues to publicly display solidarity with the city’s Jewish community. Never imagining that such actions would generate a global response, or that a simple show of support would serve as a historical reclamation, the two relatives and friends merely set out to do something which “felt right,” said Lysaght, the store’s manager.
The morning of the Oct. 27 attack, Lysaght arrived at work, muted her phone and spoke with staff.
Nearly three hours later, upon hearing the sounds of sirens, Lysaght peered out of the store’s oversized transparent windows and observed vehicles racing north on Shady Avenue. She then noticed an ambulance darting across Forbes Avenue.
“One of the customers had come in and said, ‘Something must have happened on the corner of Shady and Wilkins,’” she recalled.
Patrons, who turned to their phones for updates, realized a mass shooting had occurred inside the Tree of Life building and an active shooter remained.
Lysaght reached out to her district manager.
“We were trying to decide if we should go on lockdown,” said Lysaght. “I wanted to know, do we lock the doors? We have lots of windows.”
The district manager told her, “Whatever you feel is safest.”
After consulting with her employees, Lysaght decided to lock the door on Shady, but to keep a nearby door on Forbes ajar.
“I felt like keeping the door open was the right thing to do, because people kept coming in and just talking,” she said.
When news reports confirmed that multiple people had been killed, a “shock” settled over the store, located a half-mile south of Tree of Life.
Employees and customers began worrying about “who we might not see come through our doors again,” said Lysaght.
There were “lots of hugs, lots of crying,” she said. “It was an emotional day.”
Between 4 and 5 p.m. that afternoon, the store manager sent a text message to Flannery.
“I had finished up work, and wanted to know if she was interested in painting the windows of the store,” she said, noting it’s “a busy street” with a lot of foot traffic, some of which would be from “people who were going up there to pay honor” at the synagogue.
Flannery, who had served as an art teacher in the Pittsburgh Public Schools for 10 years, embraced the opportunity.
“The only guidance I was given was to include the words ‘kindness, love and hope,’” said Flannery. “At first I was like this is going to be kind of tough. I knew it was going to be important to her, the store and the community and I need to do this in a respectful way and I need to do it right.”
In seeking advice, Flannery prayed.
“I don’t even know where to start, but I have these three words to go from,” she recalled.
Flannery turned to Google and discovered iconic images of the Star of David, a tree of life and a dove.
The artist then decided to “put a heart around each symbol because it felt like that love needed to be there, and it was almost like a hug of a heart around each one.”
Finally, she wanted to incorporate Hebrew and reached out to friends on Facebook. A former student suggested Squirrel Hill resident Danny Shaw as someone able to help. Shaw, who rejected praise for his assistance, lent expertise on spellings and letterings.
Flannery arrived at the Squirrel Hill store on Sunday, Nov. 6 at 5 a.m. and began applying acrylic to the panes. Once the Star of David was placed within the heart and the word “love” was painted both in English and Hebrew, the image began making sense to passersby.
People were “just knocking on the window or giving me a thumbs up, and I’ll never forget this one man who kind of stopped, and I think he was shocked by it at first,” said Flannery. “He was just walking by, going wherever he was going, and he just turned to see, because here I am painting. He stops and he looks, and he put his hand on his heart” and reached toward the window. The man “started crying, and he had to walk away,” said Flannery. “I think at that moment I realized this is God working through me for whatever reason, and I just feel so blessed and so honored to be able to do that.”
After Flannery completed the three windows, she took a picture of the work and posted it on Facebook.
About 10,000 people reacted. Comments came in from California, Florida, Montreal, South Africa and Israel.
Squirrel Hill resident David Knoll juxtaposed the image with photos from Kristallnacht, the Nov. 9, 1938, German pogrom in which thousands of Jewish-owned businesses, homes and schools were vandalized and scores of Jews were murdered in a single night. In his Facebook post, Knoll wrote of his father’s childhood experiences in Cologne, Germany.
The irony between Starbucks’ windows and the shattered storefronts of old is too much to ignore, explained Squirrel Hill resident Ivan Frank.
What happened at Tree of Life is “surreal. There are a lot of people who have not grasped it,” said Frank, a frequent patron of the store. The windows are “also the same thing.” At Tree of Life, “we had an incident just like a neo-Nazi would carry out, and here we got a reverse with the windows. It wasn’t a Jew who did it, it was a non-Jew who did it.”
To Frank’s point, neither Flannery nor Lysaght are Jewish, and prior to posting the images online, neither one realized the Kristallnacht connection.
“I talk to my kids about it. There are people from all over the world sharing this and that’s so amazing and positive,” said Lysaght.
Among those who have reached out to Flannery are people interested in using the images.
Flannery said she would be happy to have it available for use, with the proceeds benefiting families of the victims, but “needs some guidance on what to do.”
“I would really love to be able to reach out to our Jewish community and have it done locally,” she said.
Lysaght, who throughout the experience has received support from corporate supervisors, including a phone call from Starbucks president and CEO Kevin Johnson, said she has no plans of removing the paintings anytime soon.
“As far as I’m concerned,” she said, “they can stay there.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.