When Susan Ribnick learned of the massacre at the Tree of Life building on Oct. 27, 2018, she felt compelled to act.
The mosaic artist and president of Austin Mosaic Guild in Austin, Texas, said she was horrified watching images of the tragedy on CNN.
“You don’t have to be Jewish; you just have to be human. I was walking around in a state like, ‘What do you do with this feeling?’ You’re outraged. I’m Jewish. I could be in a synagogue where this happened,” she said.
In fact, Ribnick said that she had been in a Minneapolis synagogue a few weeks before the shooting, driving home the point that anyone, anywhere could have been part of the massacre.
Ribnick made use of the resources at hand. She called a meeting of the guild and suggested the members create small memorials, 8”x8” with a jewel tone theme. She envisioned a group of 10 artists working on the project “From Darkness to Light: An exhibition of mosaics inspired by the Tree of Life Tragedy.” That number jumped to 12 when artists in Denver and Philadelphia heard about the project. It soon increased to 18.
She eventually decided to include more than 40 pieces in the exhibition, which includes artists from Canada, Israel, Morocco, Scotland and Venezuela, in addition to the American artists.
“People would contact me through Facebook. I couldn’t say no,” she said. Those that reached out included Squirrel Hill artist Steve Sadvary, whose work “Coming Together in Peace” is included in the collection.
Ribnick recounted the circuitous journey of the project at an exhibit reception and gallery talk on Sept. 11 at the Jodee Harris Gallery Seton Hill Arts Center in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, where the mosaics will be on exhibit through Sept. 30.
Realizing she had no connection to the Tree of Life synagogue but sensing there was something special happening with the mosaics, Ribnick reached out to her rabbi, Neil Blumofe at Congregation Agudas Achim.
Blumofe agreed that there was something special afoot. He decided to show the pieces at Agudas Achim. He also reached out to Rabbi Jeffrey Myers at Tree of Life.
The Pittsburgh synagogue was deluged with not only requests for interviews and speakers and to join ceremonies and concerts but also with physical objects sent to the congregation.
Laurie Zittrain Eisenberg was designated an unofficial ambassador, connecting requests with members.
As luck would have it, Tree of Life member David Kalla was going to Galveston, Texas, at the same time “From Darkness to Light” would be hanging at the Austin synagogue. Eisenberg asked him to pay a visit and see the exhibit.
Ribnick said it was fate that Kalla stopped by the congregation.
“The rest is history,” she said. “If you put an idea in that guy’s mind, it’s going to happen. It’s amazing.”
During remarks to those in attendance, Kalla said that he was glad the exhibit was on a college campus. Its purpose, he posited, wasn’t simply to commemorate the victims of Oct. 27 but to promote a wider discussion on education of antisemitism.
“Art, like these mosaics, have a way of moving audiences,” he said. “I hope you see these pieces and read the artists’ words and feel inspired to talk to your neighbors and take action to end antisemitism.”
The exhibit was presented as part of the commemoration of the Seton Hill University National Catholic Center for Holocaust Education’s 35th anniversary.
Center Director James Paharik opened the exhibition by recalling the day the mosaics arrived at the university.
“I remember opening the large wooden crate. I was astounded by the vision of each of these little gems. Each is unique, each one is an inspiration for those of us who live in the area,” he said. “It gives us hope in the aftermath of the tragedy.”
Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh Director Lauren Bairnsfather noted the significance of “From Darkness to Light” opening on Sept. 11, recalling the terrorist attacks on that day.
“It’s fitting on this day to be here in Greensburg where there is so much effort behind interfaith cooperation and bridge building, much of it taking place at Seton Hill University,” she said.
The effects of Oct. 27, she said, continue to be felt, moving like ripples from Western Pennsylvania, crossing America and oceans.
“It’s a convergence of all these things happening on this day,” she said.
Seton Hill President Mary Finger said the university was honored to be part of the exhibit.
Ribnick concluded her remarks by saying that it’s disheartening events like the Tree of Life shooting continue to occur.
“Art can be a powerful catalyst and can promote discussion to reach out to not-like-minded-people. It’s very hard to affect change, but art is a powerful thing. If we get somebody’s attention, then we will have done a good job,” she said. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com