Since Oct. 27, survivors and families of the victims of the anti-Semitic attack at the Tree of Life synagogue building have been showered with loving words, actions and items of comfort from people all over the world.
And those gestures have helped the survivors and families to heal.
“I get to a point where I think I can’t see a way to be more appreciative, but there is a bottomless cup of kindness that keeps filling itself and overflowing,” remarked Dan Leger at an event last week during which Rabbi Me’irah Iliinsky of San Francisco presented him and others with prints of her commemorative painting “The Tree of Life Is Weeping.”
Leger, a nurse and UPMC chaplain, was shot during the attack and suffered serious injuries. He is on the road to recovery, and recently started back to work at UPMC part time.
Iliinksy uses art to enrich her rabbinate, and is the author of the illustrated book “Mapping the Journey: The Mourner & The Soul.” Prior to the massacre, she was already tapped to speak in Pittsburgh at the New Community Chevra Kadisha’s annual dinner on March 10. After creating a masterful painting in commemoration of the devastation here, Iliinksy decided to share her work with the community that inspired it.
At an event held on March 8 at Jewish Family and Community Services, Iliinksy donated her original gouache painting to JFCS, and presented framed prints to representatives of Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha, New Light and Dor Hadash congregations, the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police, the victims’ families, the survivors and the injured police officers.
Iliinsky described the inspiration for the painting, which depicts a crying yet sturdy Tree of Life, flanked by a gazelle and the Lion of Judah.
“When I heard the events of October 27, far away in San Francisco, like millions of people around the world, I was shocked, horrified, grieving, frightened, unbelieving,” Iliinksy said. “The dissonance between cold-blooded murder and the symbolism of the Tree of Life was something I couldn’t put together in my mind.”
The Tree of Life, she continued, “is a symbol of harmony, or diversity of life — all kinds of life — thriving together in peace. I was obsessed, and my heart ached.”
On Oct. 30, Iliinksy had a vision “of the Tree of Life covering its eyes and weeping,” which inspired her to begin to draw.
When she picked up a pencil the next day, the first thing she sketched was the tree covering its eyes with its branches, and she noticed that those branches formed a heart.
The tree is filled with eight pomegranates, one for each of the men murdered, and three flowers, one for each of the women killed, “because what they did in their lives remains on the Tree of Life.”
The Lion of Judah, which is traditionally an image of strength, is depicted hugging the tree and weeping. Leaves that have fallen off the tree contain the names of the deceased, and leaves hanging near the base of the tree are inscribed with the names of people who were injured.
Andrea Wedner, who is recovering from serious wounds suffered from being shot during the attack, was moved by the painting.
“It has so much meaning,” Wedner said. “We’ll never forget what happened, but this can maybe take away from it a little bit. There is such beauty in it, and that’s what we have to look for, the beauty.”
Wedner continues to be inspired by the outpouring of communal support, and has chosen to be optimistic about the future.
“There is a lot of good that has come out of this, so much good and positivity,” said Wedner, whose 97-year-old mother, Rose Mallinger was murdered in the attack. “You have to move on. You can’t change things, you just have to hope for a better world, and I see so much love now in the world. I see people differently now. You just have to be kind to people. And the community has been so wonderful, there has been so much support.
“When you almost die, you have a new outlook on life,” Wedner continued. “You have to live. It’s made me stronger. I have to go on for my mother. She was a strong woman and she would want me to go on and be strong.”
Sharyn Stein, whose husband Dan was murdered on Oct. 27, also expressed gratitude for the love that has been showered on the victims’ families since the attack, the many acts of kindness, and the items of beauty donated.
“The community has been overwhelming as far as their support,” Stein said. “Today’s touched me to the core. The rabbi’s print was right on — everything we feel is what she put in the painting. It’s just lovely.”
Stein’s daughter, Leigh, agreed.
“When the rabbi was explaining the meaning behind everything, it was very emotional to me,” she said. “It hit home. It struck a chord.”
For Iliinksy, being able to share her work with the Pittsburgh Jewish community was “probably the highest point of my life right now — to be able to bring some comfort in a place that is so attacked. It means a lot more than having it sitting in my living room, having the home that it was meant for.”
JFCS representatives were pleased to hang the original painting in a prominent space in the JFCS foyer.
“We have been in close contact with all the family members and the wounded,” said Stefanie Small, director of counseling services and senior services at JFCS. “We are very honored to have the painting here because to us, it represents the people we’ve been working for and the community we’ve been working for — and will continue to do so — to help along with the healing.”
The rabbi’s visit to Pittsburgh was sponsored by Kavod V’Nichum, a North American organization that provides assistance, training and resources about Jewish death and bereavement practice for Chevra Kadisha groups, and the New Community Chevra Kadisha. pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.