Cantor Steven Stoehr felt the same sort of helplessness on Oct. 27, 2018, that so many felt hearing the news that 11 people were killed in the Tree of Life Synagogue. But his feelings were different – he’s a Pittsburgh native with close ties to the synagogue.
Those ties helped produce a new Rosh Chodesh-themed Torah cover that will go to Tree of Life whenever it might reopen. Until then, it is touring around the country to various synagogues, including Adath Jeshurun in Minnetonka on Nov. 23. The cover was donated by the Cantors Assembly, of which Rabbi Hazzan Jeffery Myers of Tree of Live is a member.
“When the event happened, I, like anyone with a heart, was imagining what I could do to help, bond and connect,” said Stoehr, who is the cantor at Congregation Beth Shalom in Northbrook, Ill., but whose parents were married at Tree of Life and his grandfather had a seat with his name on it in the sanctuary.
“They were being bombarded with graciousness but didn’t have room. They had to rent and pay for storage units for these gifts that couldn’t enter the synagogue,” Stoehr said. “A member said he’d like to buy a Torah, but Jeffrey said they didn’t need it. But maybe a cover that could have an image that could express some of what we’re all feeling.”
Once he had gotten the OK to start the process of commissioning the cover, he reached out to Jeanette Kuvin Oren, an artist who created seven Torah covers in 2007 for Tree of Life that are inspired by the stained glass windows in the sanctuary there. Because of her knowledge of the synagogue from her previous work for them, the normally long process of coming up with a design happened very quickly.
“It was very easy,” said Kuvin Oren. “He knew what he wanted. All of my work is commissioned and it’s a give-and-take between the client and the artist. But he knew more than most what he wanted. It was a very meaningful project.”
Adath Jeshurun Hazzan Joanna Dulkin said it’s fitting the Cantors Assembly commissioned this piece of art because they – the Cantors and Hazzans – are artists.
“We have a unique niche in the Jewish community. We occupy the space where we’re artists-in-residence, clergy, and teachers,” said Dulkin. “Making art in the time of chaos is a radical act. It can lead to some really meaningful bridge-building and conversation.”
Kuvin Oren said the use of black fabric is unusual for a Torah cover, but that it works with the stained glass windows in the synagogue. The black is Ultrasuede, which she cut with a knife in the style of papercutting. The color fabrics are hand-dyed silk that she dyed herself. The cover was then quilted.
The prayer for Rosh Chodesh, the celebration of the new Hebrew month, is the central theme of the cover. Each Shabbat on which this prayer is recited is called “Mevarchim HaChodesh.” In a non-leap year, it is recited 11 times representative of the 11 lives lost on Oct. 27, 2018. The 11 stars in black and gold have special meaning to Pittsburgh as they are the colors of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
There is a tradition that in each generation there are 36 saintly people – Lamed Vovniks – alive in the world who do unparalleled good in their lifetimes. The 25 silver stars, added to the 11 black and gold stars, represent the Lamed Vovniks of Pittsburgh on the day of the Tree of life tragedy, honoring the first responders, hospital personnel and others on that Shabbat morning.
Also present is the shape of the Rosh Chodesh new moon, an image of new beginnings.
The circles, of many colors, represent a ‘River’ of comfort flowing down from all over the world to reach this community. This ‘river’ then nourishes the tree of life which grows from the word Goodness (L’Tovah). The local resonance is that Pittsburgh is known for being at the convergence of the Allegheny, Ohio and Monongahela Rivers, and has many bridges that traverse the rivers to bring communities together.
The prominent line of text asks that “Goodness Fill our Hearts,” a prayer for the world. The first word, Chayim, was the Hebrew name of one of the victims, Cecil Rosenthal, who regularly carried the Torah in the congregation. The Second word L’Tovah is the essence of this prayer: Each person is obligated, by the Creator to share their goodness within with all others with whom they come in contact throughout their lives.
“It wasn’t Rosh Chodesh (when the shooting happened) but the narrative I sent asked for those meanings,” said Stoehr “The last line of the prayer is ‘God please fill our hearts this month with only goodness.’ After the horrible expression of hatred, what would counter but goodness?”
The inscription sewn inside the back of the Torah cover reads:
Though we may live beyond
“The Neighborhood” our hearts
are with yinz in the East.
חברים כל ישראל
In memory of your cherished Tree of Life, Dor Chadash and New Light family members, now stars whose guiding light shall never dwindle.
And in honor of, and gratitude for, our colleague and friend
Hazzan/Rabbi Jeffrey S. Myers
From your worldwide
Cantors Assembly Family
Kislev 5779 – כסלו תשע”ט
Dulkin said she will be sharing the d’var Torah spot with Rabbi Harold Kravitz. She wasn’t sure what they were going to say yet but said the Torah portion – Chayei Sarah – offers rich potential for adding to the discussion of violence that led to the creation of the Torah cover.
“The Parsha begins with the death of Sarah, and it’s about Isaac moving on after the death of his mother,” Dulkin said. “One may draw an interesting parallel to Isaac’s proximity to violence after almost being sacrificed. He lived with most of his life as a victim of trauma. Some really rich potential for grounding it in the Torah portion and how do we move on after such horrific carnage.
“Jeff (Myers) put out a beautiful message about how we’re living now. We never move on completely but this is how we’re living our life. We’re about life and love and strengthening each other. He’s been such an incredible leader though this.”