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Friday, February 23, 2024
Feb. 23, 2024

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Student murals cover up hate on wall of Seattle synagogue


This past spring, Rabbi Daniel Weiner confronted hateful graffiti on his Capitol Hill synagogue, Temple De Hirsch Sinai — again.

Just like the last time, in 2017, vandals spray-painted on a remaining wall of the synagogue’s original building, dating back to 1899. And once more, Weiner considered how to turn something ugly into a sign of hope and beauty.

His answer could be seen Dec. 1, when students from The Bush School and Seattle Academy gathered at the site, paintbrushes in hand. Invited there by the rabbi, each school designed a mural for the wall, meant to complement a mural Northwest School students painted in 2017.

Two young professional artists affiliated with the Wing Luke Museum will create a fourth mural and a frame that integrates all the artwork together.

Once part of the old temple’s sanctuary, the historic wall now borders space used for outdoor events. Already on that Friday, the taupe brick structure transformed into a dramatic arboreal panorama, with new murals riffing off the forest theme of their 2017 predecessor.

The synagogue wall isn’t the only hatefully vandalized space that will experience such a revitalization. The same two Wing Luke artists helping beautify the site are working on a mural for a Chinatown International District alley adjacent to the museum, where in September a man smashed nine windows and allegedly voiced anti-Chinese sentiments.

Temple De Hirsch Sinai’s two vandalism attacks — the first calling the Holocaust “fake news”; the second expressing an anti-Israel message — happened before the war between Israel and Hamas. But Weiner said the tense environment created by the ongoing conflict makes the coming together of young artists, Jews and non-Jews, especially meaningful.

He noted a sharp uptick in antisemitism and a feeling by many Jews of “being disconnected, isolated and abandoned.”

Some student artists expressed similar sentiments.

“It gives us comfort to know that people care about us, and maybe all these things we’re super scared of, maybe they won’t happen,” said Adina Newman, a Seattle Academy junior and leader of the school’s Jewish student union.

Her sister, Eliana Newman, also working on the mural project, said she feels particularly aware of the rise in antisemitism because of family history: The girls’ grandparents and great-grandparents fled the Holocaust.

Two other students noted their own synagogues, like Temple De Hirsch Sinai, were targeted in recent weeks.

“It made me feel really unsafe,” said Naomi Wintraub, a Bush School eighth-grader whose North Seattle temple was one of at least seven local Jewish institutions to receive suspicious packages since the war began.

Hannah Will, another Bush School eighth-grader, said she wanted to cry when her Mercer Island synagogue was defaced with anti-Israel graffiti. “People are calling us these names and drawing swastikas … It really just hurts,” she added.

But like other students at the temple Dec. 1, sustained on a cold, rainy day by doughnuts and the encouragement of teachers and school administrators, Will expressed enthusiasm for “the idea that so much love and beauty can cover up all the hate.”

The new murals are joyful, and somewhat lighter in tone than the 2017 artwork, which shows barbed wire coiled beneath trees — symbolizing darkness giving way to life and growth.

“We wanted this to be a very uplifting piece,” said Marilyn Smith, a Bush School art teacher. That school’s mural, designed by both teachers and students, has clouds shaped like hearts, along with vibrant colors, including a mound of bright pink foliage.

Her students improvised when they arrived Friday because their space to paint was larger than expected, adding new elements like flowers. The on-the-spot creativity made the project even more special, Smith said.

Seattle Academy’s students also added last-minute elements to their mural, designed by senior Claudia Landau. It, too, radiates with color but uses a more subdued palette. Landau, already an accomplished artist who as a sophomore was commissioned to paint another mural at a Capitol Hill tapas bar, said she wanted this piece to fit the character of the wall so it seemed like a natural part of the structure and the temple’s history.

At first, she said, “I felt I didn’t deserve to do something this meaningful. To put art on a temple felt kind of blasphemous.”

But supportive teachers, aware of many school drawers filled with her art projects, talked her through it. As always, she thought carefully about the symbols she wanted to portray.

“The first thing that spoke to me was a tree of life … as a symbol of rebirth, drawing all the stuff that’s happening in the world that’s terrible,” she said.

And not just any tree — a pomegranate one, because the fruit symbolizes fertility. On the trunk is the Hebrew word for truth.

Landau also showed the tree’s sprawling roots. She said they’re a representation of the sometimes-difficult process of growth, that “despite however rocky things are,” a tree manages to find nutrients and life.