Art provides comfort a year after Tree of Life shooting
A painting being passed around Pittsburgh’s Jewish community is providing comfort to victims’ families and those involved with their burials a year after the Tree of Life shooting.
The painter, Rabbi Me’irah Iliinsky of San Francisco, said she painted “The Tree of Life Is Weeping” shortly after learning about the shooting last year that left 11 dead from three congregations in the most violent anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history. Iliinsky dedicated it to the Jewish Family and Community Services center in Squirrel Hill during a ceremony in March.
The artwork has since been passed around to provide comfort to members of a chevra kadisha.
Chevra kadisha, which means “holy society,” is a group of Jewish men and women responsible for burying the deceased. The New Community Chevra Kadisha of Greater Pittsburgh responded to last year’s shooting.
During the month of October, the painting was housed in Alan Iszauk’s Monroeville home. Iszauk has served as a chevra kadisha member for 40 years and was one of the members involved in last year’s burial proceedings.
“(The painting is) incredibly inspiring. It’s a dramatic piece of art,” he said.
Iszauk said his emotions were raw while fulfilling the Jewish holy obligation, or mitzvah — which involved burying the dead, who in some cases, were his friends and acquaintances.
“I was fearful,” Iszauk said. “Would I be able to do what I had to do to take care of these incredibly violent acts?”
The experience consumed him, and he sought grief counseling in the months after.
“At times, I would just start weeping. … It was an incredibly moving, difficult time period,” he said.
A little more than a year later, Iszauk is feeling like himself again. He said that is partly due to Iliinsky’s painting, which is now being housed at a fellow chevra kadisha member’s home in the Mt. Lebanon area. The painting will stay there through November.
Iszauk said the idea behind passing the painting around is to allow other chevra kadisha members to experience community and solace around the event that left them, and countless others, reeling.
Iliinsky said knowing the artwork is helping people through their grief is deeply satisfying.
“I consider it amongst the best things I’ve done in my life. That it brings comfort to people, I’m entirely grateful and humbled,” she said.
Iliinsky serves as a rabbi at an assisted living center in San Francisco and is a member of Kavod V’Nichum, an organization that provides training, support and advocacy to chevra kadisha groups across the country. It was her connection to the national organization that connected her to the New Community Chevra Kadisha of Greater Pittsburgh.
She also framed copies of the painting for the victims’ families and survivors.
Iszauk said Iliinsky’s giving of the painting underscores the closeness of his chevra kadisha and the Jewish community in general.
“It’s an amazing community,” Iszauk said of the two chevra kadishas he belongs to, adding that members got together often in the last year to help each other through the traumatic experience.
Iszauk first became a member of White Oak’s Gemilas Chesed Synagogue chevra kadisha 40 years ago, before joining the New Community Chevra Kadisha of Greater Pittsburgh about 10 years ago. He does not know how many members belong to the groups today, but said a burial ritual usually involves up to five members. Within that group, there is usually a leader, or a rosh, which means “head.”
Since time is of the essence in traditional Jewish burials, the first task involves guarding the body as it waits to be prepared by the chevra kadisha members, Iliinsky said. When the group receives the body, it is washed for cleanliness, Illinsky said.
Men take care of men, and women take care of women.
“They wash their hair, trim nails and pour a continuous stream of water over the body. They often say, ‘you are pure, you are pure, you are pure,’ and all kinds of blessings,” Iliinsky said.
The body is dressed in special, white garments, the rabbi said.
“Then they place the body in a plain pine box and put the lid on. The chevra kadisha [members] are the last people to see the person. And I can tell you, after I’ve done this, they always look beautiful and serene,” Iliinsky said.
Iszauk agreed it is a holy, reverent process. And while nothing can erase the circumstances that left him feeling angry, deeply saddened and sleepless for months, he tries not to focus on the negative.
“I don’t believe it’s possible to un-see those images,” he said. “It’s just a question where one is putting their focus. I certainly try not to focus on the death and destruction, but of the wonderful lives that were lost.”
Dillon Carr is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Dillon at 412-871-2325, [email protected] or via Twitter .