Hope. Peace. Love. Repair. These are just some of the themes incorporated into artwork now lining the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha building on Wilkins Avenue.
The artwork replaces the drab and industrial blue tarps that had hung on the chain-link fence in front of the synagogue since the Oct. 27 mass shooting at the building.
Students aged 18 and younger submitted artwork to the @HeartsTogether:The Art of Rebuilding campaign in response to the terrorist attack. The public art project is sponsored jointly by Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Congregation, Congregation Dor Hadash and New Light Congregation.
The synagogues received more than 200 images and chose 101 of those to be printed on fabric windscreens that now hang and create a sidewalk gallery.
Tree of Life board member Laurie Zittrain Eisenberg explained that the genesis of the project came from the outpouring of support the congregations received.
“In the aftermath of the attack, our neighbors, our city, people were so loving and so kind, they rushed to our side and supported us. We received so much art – sculptures and paintings and sketches, quilts and knittings – it was impressive how many people turned to art to express their feelings to us.”
Eisenberg said that once neighbors began commenting on the look of the tarps surrounding the building, members realized “that wasn’t who we are. The scene didn’t reflect who we were.”
The project’s goal was to project a positive message to the community and city. It was important to the congregations that themes in the art didn’t just reject anti-Semitism but also other forms of prejudice and discrimination including racism, homophobia and what Tree of Life Rabbi Jeffrey Myers labels, “the ‘h’ word.”
In April the congregations began receiving submissions from local, national and international high schools and young artists. Nearly half of the submissions came from students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which was also marred by gun violence last year.
Eisenberg said that the “youth of Parkland have shown us the way,” and that it was very meaningful to receive submissions from them.
Additional artwork was received from students at Columbine High School in Colorado, Newtown High School in Connecticut, Appel Farm Arts and Music Campus in Elmer, New Jersey, New Zealand and schools throughout Pittsburgh.
Cara Drook, a student at Mt. Lebanon High School, had her work selected to be used as part of the windscreens. According to her mother, Ellen, the 16-year-old was happy her painting was chosen but conflicted because of the sadness attached to the shooting.
Drook’s piece reflects both the grief of the day and hope for tomorrow. “It’s a tree, representing the Tree of Life, with a combination of 11 hearts, chai symbols and Stars of David hanging from it.” Those represent the victims of the tragedy, she explained.
The young artist was inspired by a painting she saw titled “The Tree of Life Is Weeping” and its focus on a tree as a subject. “I want people to find some joy in tragedy and transform negativity into something positive,” Drook said about her work.
Stephen Cohen, president at New Light Congregation, sees the selected artwork as a metaphor. “What you have here is an exterior. If you build something beautiful around the exterior, what is inside the heart lives and allows the congregation to heal and look for a day when this building will reopen as a site for prayer, for family, for community and love.”
The windscreens will remain until the fencing is removed from the front of the building, according to Eisenberg. Once the fence has come down and the artwork removed, Ellen Surloff, immediate past president of Dor Hadash said, “we will then begin the process of trying to figure out how to memorialize, and the artwork will become a part of that.” The start of that process, though, is still several years away.
Rabbi Myers pointed out that the message of the campaign is one of hope and love. “There is more good in the world than there is evil. In the end, good will always triumph.”
All 238 submissions received for the project can be viewed online at tolos.org/heartstogether. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.