In the days leading up to Purim – the holiday during which Jews rejoice, don costumes and perform skits, eat triangular cookies filled with jam, and thank Queen Esther for saving them from persecution – Michigan’s attorney general announced she had been targeted in a threat to kill Jewish members of state government.
Assaults, vandalism, and harassment targeting Jewish communities and individuals in the U.S. have risen to their highest levels ever since the chanting of “Jews will not replace us” at the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
More recently there were incendiary tweets from Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West, and here in New Jersey, a man was arrested in early February for throwing a Molotov cocktail at a synagogue. In the five years since a gunman shot and killed 11 Jews at the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, antisemitism has left many Jews living in fear.
Sandi Sykora, Star of David, 2019. Smalti, gold smalti, mixed media. (Photo by Skirball Museum)
Mosaic artist Susan Ribnick, who hails from Austin, Texas, decided to do something. “Tacitly listening to this ‘news cycle’ and doing nothing felt somehow complicit,” she writes in the booklet for the exhibition she organized, From Darkness to Light: Mosaics Inspired by Tragedy. “What happened there could happen anywhere to anyone in any house of worship, but this one hit close to home.”
From Darkness to Light has been touring the country and can be seen in the Gaelen Art Galleries at JCC MetroWest in West Orange through April 30. Thirty-eight 8-inch-by-8-inch mosaics were contributed by artists from around the world, addressing antisemitism and gun violence. There is also a larger dedication panel created by Ribnick.
The exhibition has been traveling since its original inception in 2022 at the Skirball Museum in Cincinnati; other venues have included a Catholic university and arts centers. Ribnick initially sought artists through the Austin Mosaic Guild, where she was co-president, but word traveled to mosaic artists throughout the world.
The Gaelen Art Galleries is an ideal exhibition venue because of the diverse community at JCC MetroWest, says Visual Arts Manager and Art Gallery Director Lisa Suss. The JCC’s fitness center and aquatics, lifelong learning and childhood education center, film, book groups, theater, and other programs are open to and attract people of all faiths and backgrounds – just as the artists in the exhibition represent many faiths.
“It emphasizes how the event affected so much of the community, not just Jewish people,” says Suss. “One of most impressive things about reaction to the shooting was how the people of Pittsburgh, from Catholic, Muslim and other religions, came together and supported the synagogue.”
Gaelen Art Galleries is a contemporary exhibition space enclosed in glass with black panels. “We are unusual in having a dedicated gallery. Many JCCs have only a wall to showcase exhibitions,” says Suss. She and a colleague offer tours of the exhibition, by appointment, to add further insight into the incident at Tree of Life, the mosaic technique and antisemitism.
On Sunday, March 19, there will be a special program with gallery tours, refreshments and a screening of “A Tree of Life: The Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting.” Directed by Trish Adlesic, the film is a “personal documentary portrait of the survivors, victims and family members, who share their firsthand accounts of the attack and its aftermath, when diverse Pittsburgh communities united against hatred,” according to the program blurb. It shows how people from other faiths, such as Muslims, banded together to demonstrate against attacks by hate groups. Tickets are required for the March 19 program.
High school students in Cincinnati, Fitting the Pieces Together. Glass mosaic. (Photo by Skirball Museum)
Additionally, a mosaic making workshop will take place April 16 -- $175 includes lunch and all supplies.
“Never forget.” These are the words often used about the 6 million Jews slaughtered by the Nazis. And yet Holocaust denial and distortion on social media remains a significant cause of concern, according to a 2022 UNESCO report.
In “Remember,” Carol Shelkin, of Havertown, Penn., reminds us to “Never Forget” and always remember the lives lost “and when we are able, celebrate every person whose life was taken too soon on this dark day… and hold in our hearts their memories and know these losses were not in vain. We can make this world better because of them. How? Teach our children to see others as human beings and never allow this to happen again.”
The tree of life is an archetype common to many religions, mythologies and folktales throughout the world. It represents the source of life, as well as the cycle of life and death. The tree of life was said to have grown alongside the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden.
Mosaic artist Shanee Woodbridge, also from Austin, Texas, chose the tree of life as her subject. “The Tree of Life is made of roots, bark, limbs and leaves,” she writes in her statement. “They all come from the same source. It may appear changed as light moves around it but it is still the Tree. All parts are equally needed for a healthy tree. Light determines how it is seen as are people. Love comes from all of the colors and parts of the Tree.”
Another artist was inspired by the Tree of Life congregation’s logo. The 36 artists range from professionals and teaching artists to passionate hobbyists and represent six countries.
Some of the mosaics include verses from the Bible or Hebrew letters and symbols; some incorporate the artwork or writing of children. Others were inspired by the blog posts of Tree of Life Rabbi Jeffrey Myers. “Everyone has a story,” says Ribnick. Many focused on hope, life, light and healing.
Shelley Jaffe, Skyline of Pittsburgh, 2021. Smalti gold, mixed media. (Photo by Skirball Museum)
Shelley Jaffe’s mosaic is a skyline of Pittsburgh, glittering with the city’s iconic bridges and buildings. Although a Michigan resident, she has visited Pittsburgh many times with her husband who grew up there. One of his grade-school friends was a victim of the Tree of Life shooting. “After the shooting, ‘Pittsburgh Strong’ and ‘Stronger than Hate’ were seen everywhere, on T-shirts, billboards and storefronts,” writes Jaffe.
One mosaic quotes the now-famous words of Mr. Rogers, who happens to be from the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh where Tree of Life is located: “Look for the helpers. You’ll always find people helping.”