Rabbi Me’irah Iliinsky rarely parts with her paintings.
“They’re like my babies, you know,” she said.
The artist and community rabbi at Rhoda Goldman Plaza in San Francisco has been painting spiritually inspired works for years. And when the tragic mass shooting in Pittsburgh happened last October, it was to art that she turned again, with a colorful piece titled “The Tree of Life Is Weeping.”
But the painting isn’t with Iliinsky anymore. In an emotional ceremony on March 8 attended by some of the survivors of the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue — along with victims’ family members, police and people from the three congregations that worshipped there — the artist handed it over to the Jewish Family and Community Services in Pittsburgh, where it will now be displayed.
“It was incredible,” Iliinsky said. “I received the satisfaction of a lifetime, to have it have deep meaning for people.”
Iliinsky is no stranger to death; she is a member of Kavod V’Nichum, a national organization that trains and assists chevra kadisha groups and others in the Jewish community who provide support in the area of Jewish funeral rituals and bereavement.
When she heard news of the Pittsburgh tragedy, in which 11 people were killed in a mass shooting, like many others she was deeply shaken.
“I was overcome,” she said. “I had to do something with all the feelings I was having.”
An image came to her, and she began to work. The 18-by-24-inch painting, which she worked on for nine days, has pomegranates and flowers to represent the men and women who died in the attack, as well as a Lion of Judah embracing a tree with downcast limbs. On the floor are leaves with the names of the dead, while the names of the wounded cling to the tree.
The original painting will hang at JFCS Pittsburgh, but Iliinsky also framed prints of the artwork for each of the three congregations who used the Tree of Life/Or L’Simcha building, as well as one for the local police. She is also offering prints to the families, while a larger one is going to the New Community Chevra Kadisha of Greater Pittsburgh. The printing, framing and Iliinsky’s travel were sponsored by Kavod V’Nichum.
Previously the painting was on display with other works by Iliinsky at the San Francisco assisted-living facility the Sequoias, and a print currently is hanging in the lobby of Rhoda Goldman Plaza, where Iliinsky has been the community rabbi since 2016.
Iliinsky is overjoyed that her painting has found such a meaningful home. The trip to Pittsburgh, where she was received with graciousness and love, was in many ways a culmination for her as an artist and a rabbi — and as a human being.
“If I do nothing else in my life, I’ll feel that I did this, and that’s enough,” she said.