PITTSBURGH — Days after 11 Jews were murdered inside the Tree of Life building, Melissa Lysaght and Nicole Flannery used the windows lining Squirrel Hill’s Starbucks on Shady and Forbes avenues to publicly display solidarity with the city’s Jewish community.
Never imagining that such actions would generate a global response, or that a simple show of support would serve as a historical reclamation, the two relatives and friends merely set out to do something which “felt right,” said Lysaght, the store’s manager.
The morning of the Oct. 27 attack, Lysaght arrived at work, muted her phone and spoke with staff. Nearly three hours later, upon hearing the sounds of sirens, Lysaght peered out of the store’s oversized transparent windows and observed vehicles racing north on Shady Avenue. She then noticed an ambulance darting across Forbes Avenue.
When news reports confirmed that multiple people had been, killed a “shock” settled over the store, located a half-mile south of Tree of Life. Employees and customers began worrying about “who we might not see come through our doors again,” Lysaght said.
There were “lots of hugs, lots of crying,” she said. “It was an emotional day.”
Between 4 and 5 p.m. that afternoon, the store manager sent a text message to Flannery.
“I had finished up work, and wanted to know if she was interested in painting the windows of the store,” she said, noting it’s “a busy street” with a lot of foot traffic, some of which would be from “people who were going up there to pay honor” at the synagogue.
Flannery, who had served as an art teacher in the Pittsburgh Public Schools for 10 years, embraced the opportunity.
“The only guidance I was given was to include the words ‘peace, love and hope,’” said Flannery. “At first I was like this is going to be kind of tough. I knew it was going to be important to her, the store and the community and I need to do this in a respectful way and I need to do it right.”
In seeking advice, Flannery prayed.
“I don’t even know where to start, but I have these three words to go from,” she recalled.
Flannery turned to Google and discovered iconic images of the Star of David, a tree of life and a dove. The artist then decided to “put a heart around each symbol because it felt like that love needed to be there, and it was almost like a hug of a heart around each one.”
Finally, she wanted to incorporate Hebrew and reached out to friends on Facebook. A former student suggested Squirrel Hill resident Danny Shaw as someone able to help. Shaw lent expertise on spellings and letterings.
Flannery arrived at the Squirrel Hill store on Nov. 6 and began applying acrylic to the panes. Once the Star of David was placed within the heart and the word “love” was painted both in English and Hebrew, the image began making sense to passersby.
After Flannery completed the three windows, she took a picture of the work and posted it on Facebook. About 10,000 people reacted. Comments came in from California, Florida, Montreal, South Africa and Israel.
Squirrel Hill resident David Knoll juxtaposed the image with photos from Kristallnacht, the Nov. 9, 1938, German pogrom in which thousands of Jewish-owned businesses, homes and schools were vandalized and scores of Jews were murdered in a single night. In his Facebook post, Knoll wrote of his father’s childhood experiences in Cologne, Germany.
The irony between Starbucks’ windows and the shattered storefronts of old is too much to ignore, explained Squirrel Hill resident Ivan Frank explained.
What happened at Tree of Life is “surreal. There a lot of people who have not grasped it,” said Frank, a frequent store patron. The windows are “also the same thing.” At Tree of Life, “we had an incident just like a neo-Nazi would carry out, and here we got a reverse with the windows. It wasn’t a Jew who did it, it was a non-Jew who did it.”
Lysaght, who throughout the experience has received support from corporate supervisors, including a phone call from Starbucks president and CEO Kevin Johnson, said she has no plans of removing the paintings anytime soon.
Adam Reinherz is a staff writer with the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, an affiliated publication of the Jewish Exponent.