Oakmont shop hopes to turn squares into comfort for Tree of Life families
A young girl’s hope of comforting families impacted by the mass shooting at a synagogue in Squirrel Hill last year turned a small yarn shop in Oakmont into a global destination.
Yarns by Design at 622 Allegheny River Blvd. launched the Tree of Life Afghan Project shortly after the Oct. 27 attack that left 11 dead and six others wounded.
More than 1,000 knitted or crocheted squares were sent in from Germany, Canada, all across the United States and other parts of the world by late December.
The shop will host sewing sessions from 6 to 8 p.m. Jan. 25 and 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Jan. 26 with the hopes of volunteers knitting and crocheting an estimated 40 to 50 blankets of various sizes to be distributed in February. Space is limited. Call 412-794-8332 to register.
The shop also has blanket kits available for people to take home and seam. They’re due back by Feb. 1.
“It’s been completely overwhelming,” store manager Natalie Belmont said of the support. “We want every family who lost somebody to have one. The baby who was having a bris to have one. The law enforcement officers who were injured and the other gentleman who was injured. Whatever is left, the synagogue can do whatever they want to do.”
The building where the incident took place houses three congregations — Tree of Life, Dor Hadash and New Light. The attack took place during Sabbath morning services.
Belmont said a customer who is a member of one of the three congregations is helping facilitate the donation next month.
The idea of making blankets for the synagogue sprouted from 9-year-old Eliana Wellman when her mother, Vanessa Picard of Fox Chapel, and her husband tried to comprehend what authorities have called the most deadly attack on the Jewish community in U.S. history.
Picard’s an instructor at Yarns by Design. She said Eliana inadvertently saw news reports of the tragedy.
“She saw the live coverage of it, and it was obviously really upsetting to her,” Picard said. “One of the things that worked (to calm her down) was a little lovey blanket that she’s had since she was a baby. She likes to be wrapped up in it.
“I just asked her what she needed and she said she just wished that everyone could have something like her blanket to help them feel better. She said, ‘Every one has to be hurting just as much as I am, especially if they knew these people.’”
That conversation inspired Picard to knit a yellow square for an afghan with a tree pattern made by Nicky Epstein of New York City.
She posted it on her personal Facebook page hoping a few friends would help make a blanket. That effort began to snowball and went viral when the project was announced on the shop’s social media page.
Within a few days, there were about 20,000 views and it was shared hundreds of times.
Belmont also posted the information to Ravelry, a social media page geared toward knitters and fiber-work enthusiasts.
She said she received hundreds of emails from Japan, Ireland, England, Australia and other places wanting to help. Oakmont residents and people from surrounding communities have stopped by the shop to check out the blankets and squares.
“We both got pretty terrified (of) what we’ve gotten ourselves into,” Picard said. “Neither one of us expected this kind of reach, but we started this and have to see it through. I honestly think we’re still processing it.”
Many of the donated squares are plain or have a tree pattern or Star of David. Some have white doves, peace signs and menorahs. Completed blankets were sent in from Salt Lake City and New York.
Letters of support frequently accompanied the squares. Some came from families of Holocaust survivors. One contributor from Colorado knew the family of slain brothers Cecil and David Rosenthal, and specified her square be part of a blanket given to that family.
Belmont said the store has “met capacity” when it comes to squares and needs to focus on completing the blankets.
Picard hopes the squares and blankets will not only help synagogue families heal, but also help those who contributed because of knitting’s therapeutic nature.
“You start with a pile of yarn and end up having made something,” she said. “You’ve created something out of nothing, and that act of making is really therapeutic. I think people around the world wanted to heal themselves in addition to wanting to let people immediately affected know they were being thought of.”
Michael DiVittorio is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Michael at 412-871-2367, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @MikeJdiVittorio.
Michael DiVittorio is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Michael at 412-871-2367, email@example.com or via Twitter .