Like so many people after last year's mass the shooting at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, 14-year-old Morgan Yauch felt like she wanted to do something. The Pittsburgh teen even knew a police officer, Anthony Burke, who was injured when responding to the shooting. But she wondered how a middle school student could do anything to help after such a tragedy.
Then she heard the synagogue was looking for artwork for a public installation. Yauch started sketching.
“You see violence happening all over the world — you don’t think it would ever happen where you live,” the Keystone Oaks Middle School student told TODAY Parents. “I wanted to do something so it would be more of a positive.”
Blue tarps have hidden the synagogue’s façade ever since the shooting killed 11 people on Oct. 27, 2018. The three congregations that worship in the building wanted to make the space look more welcoming and hopeful as they started the rebuilding process.
“Our neighbors and our city, so many people, were so wonderful to us in the immediate aftermath and since then,” Laurie Zittrain Eisenberg, a Tree of Life board member, told TODAY Parents. “They’re just so supportive and full of love and compassion on our behalf. ...
“We realized our corner had become such an eyesore. That ugly tarp on the fence in front of the empty building was just dismal and it did not reflect who we are and it did not reflect the spirit and love and joy of the 11 victims.”
So the Tree of Life, New Light and Dor Hadash congregations created the project, which they called #HeartsTogether, asking for artwork from students under 18 to display. They received 224 submission from 11 states as well as New Zealand. The most artwork came from students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where 17 died in a mass shooting in February 2018: they submitted 108 pieces. Many Pittsburgh students also contributed drawings because of the close connection they felt to their community. The congregations displayed more than 100 images printed on large white banners outside the building.
“We are certainly not trying to pretend that something did not happen. We are remembering the victims,” Zittrain Eisenberg said. “We wanted to reflect back to the community the love and the strength and the optimism we received that was so important to us and setting us toward the path of recovery.”
Since displaying the art, Zittrain Eisenberg said she has heard from survivors who had been avoiding the synagogue. Some said seeing the pictures feels soothing as they continue grappling with the tragedy.
“People seem really grateful,” she said. “We didn’t realize how impactful and meaningful it would be to have so many other people, so many other strangers, around the city, the country, the world reaching out to us and sending us beautiful things and communicating ... that they grieved with us, they were outraged on our behalf.”
Maria Schroeder, 14, who attends Pittsburgh’s Taylor Allderdice High School, passes the corner by Tree of Life often. When she heard about the Hearts Together project, she wanted to contribute.
“It makes me feel like I am making a change and using my voice,” Schroeder told TODAY Parents. “It made me feel good that I could support people.”
She noted that the whole city felt hurt by the shooting, but the community’s unifying response has been inspiring.
“Pittsburgh is different,” Schroeder said. “We’re strong. We can overcome hate and evil and anything that comes our way.”
Seeing his daughter’s artwork on display in such a heartfelt tribute made her dad, Ted Schroeder, feel emotional.
“The whole project is moving,” he told TODAY Parents. “Maria has always been a caring person and this was a way for her to channel her feelings.”
All the art can be viewed here.