With rain pelting down and umbrellas hoisted up, a group of students and congregational representatives met outside the Tree of Life building on June 17 for an opportunity to share gifts and sentiments. The five rising ninth-graders, who will attend Baldwin High School in the fall, traveled 35 minutes alongside family and faculty to present a colorful banner representing a collective endeavor.
For weeks, prior to graduating from J.E. Harrison Middle School in Whitehall, the students spent lunch and free periods cutting, painting and arranging paper and ceramic butterflies along an 8-by-8-foot manufactured tree. After working with nearly 142 individual butterflies, 11 butterflies were separated from the bunch and positioned above.
Those isolated butterflies are intended to look “like they’re flying away from the tree,” said Ava Bell, a participating student. The 11 floating butterflies “represent the 11 people who died here.”
The Baldwin-based installation was inspired by the Butterfly Project, a decades-old endeavor of the Holocaust Museum Houston to signify the murder of 1.5 million children. Since 1996, students nationwide have created butterflies in memory of the young people who perished due to Nazi atrocities.
Because of the Holocaust Center of Greater Pittsburgh and Classrooms Without Borders, “we knew about the Butterfly Project,” said Daniel Shaner, an English teacher at Harrison.
In connecting the murder of children with the killing of 11 Jews inside the Tree of Life building, the Baldwin-based students mined hateful acts for artistic purpose and intellectual exploration. Now they had the chance to meet representatives from Dor Hadash, New Light and Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha congregations and discuss the significance of Oct. 27.
Among the congregants who spoke with the young adults was Debi Salvin, Dr. Richard Gottfried’s twin sister. In addressing the small group of nearly 25 people, the New Light congregant said, “I’m Debi Salvin. My brother was one of the 11. The outpouring of love and support means a lot.”
Rosa Lynn Pinkus, of Dor Hadash, echoed praise for the students and their work, and said, “I feel like we’re all in this together, like we all have each other’s backs.”
Although the tree is unable to be easily transported due to its size, the students presented a banner depicting a replica of their creation. Hal Grinberg, Dor Hadash Religious School principal, thanked the students and pointed out other items displayed near the building’s windows that were similarly gifted by students and communities from around the world.
“I feel that [coming] here and just looking at all those different things in the windows, it’s just incredible how many people had taken their time to create things and donate them here,” said Bell, who was visiting Squirrel Hill for the first time.
Aidan Segal, a University of Pittsburgh student and Tree of Life congregant, agreed, noting it was his first time back at the building since Oct. 27. PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.