By Amanda Woods
Seventh graders at St. Saviour Catholic Academy in Park Slope recently donated a “Tree of Life” to a nearby synagogue – in a heartwarming display of solidarity with the local Jewish community.
Organizer Sandra Rossier, who has three children at the Eighth Avenue school and one at the neighboring high school, came up with the idea following the October massacre at the Tree of Life Congregation in October that killed 11 congregants and wounded seven others.
“I thought to myself, let’s give these kids something to empower them, a weapon, sort of to fight the hate, to feel in charge, to be spiritual warriors, to go out there and to do something rather than just to watch and feel helpless,” Rossier said. “How about let’s inject the world with love, let’s love thy neighbor and do exactly what our faith is teaching us to do, to take down barriers, to take down walls between us and to realize that we really are one human race.”
So Rossier purchased an orange tree from a local nursery – and decided to get her 13-year-old son Julian’s seventh grade class involved. She, together with art teacher Avalyn Mathis, helped the middle schoolers to craft 11 origami doves to place on the tree – one for each life lost in the deadly attack. The decorated tree was a gift for the Congregation Beth Elohim synagogue on Garfield Place.
On March 21 – the second day of the Jewish holiday of Purim – the seventh graders, joined by Rossier, her husband Nicholas, 8-year-old daughter Natalia, Mathis and religion teacher Andrew Austin, lugged the decorated tree in a bright red wagon about six blocks over to the synagogue.
“I was very happy that we had finally managed to make it work,” Mathis shared. “This was a project that was in the making for a long time so it was really thrilling to have the kids out there.”
“Even though it was raining, they were really patient,” Austin added. “Not a single person complained. They had their umbrellas up and they also had these hand-held candles.”
Two students, Isabella Merchan and Clara Cronin, 12, volunteered to pull the wagon.
That experience was particularly faith-deepening for Merchan.
God Was Talking
“I felt like [God] was telling me that this was a good thing that I should do,” Merchan said. “He was telling me that I should volunteer to hold the train with Clara. I felt like I could just pray to Him from that. I felt like I could just talk to Him now. It made me feel like I had that option now.”
And for Cronin, just being present at the synagogue gave her a sense of gratitude.
“It made me feel very like I helped and it also made me feel grateful for what I have, for my faith, for this school, for my friends,” she said. “I also felt very kind of sad because of why we had to do it, but it was a very good experience.”
For their classmate Noa Yaron, also 12 – who is Jewish – the day of service was a meeting of her two worlds.
“I was excited to be able to show the people in my class how different two religions can be, but also how we can be helpful to one another,” she said. “It was really a nice experience to see how welcoming they were even though we came from a Christian school, a Catholic school, and it was a really nice experience for me to share with other people.”
That welcoming spirit was evident as soon as the group walked into the synagogue. They were led into a room where bags of sweet snacks – one for each student – were laid out on a table.
Then, both Rossier and Cantor Joshua Breitzer of the synagogue spoke during a heartfelt ceremony.
Breitzer shared a reading from Psalm 92 in the Torah that was fitting for the occasion: “The righteous shall flourish like the palm-tree; he shall grow like a cedar in Lebanon. Planted in the house of the Lord, they shall flourish in the courts of our God. They shall still bring forth fruit in old age; they shall be full of sap and richness; To declare that the Lord is upright, my Rock, in whom there is no unrighteousness.”
Surprise and Gratitude
Breitzer said he reacted with “surprise and amazing gratitude” when he learned of the tree donation.
“It was such a wonderful expression of love and kindness and community,” he shared.
For now, the tree is being kept indoors – but it will be moved to a courtyard garden under the care of the students at the synagogue’s “Yachad” afterschool programming.
“It was very thoughtful,” said Kate Meltzer, the synagogue’s Yachad Development Coordinator. “They’re down the street and they were able to give us a token of support and sympathy.”
“Now, maybe more than ever, we need our Catholic, Muslim and friends of all faiths to come together and support one another,” added Director of Membership and Engagement Sam Sterling. “The Torah instructs us 36 times to care for the stranger, far more than it commands us to observe any other law, and every time we look at this incredible Tree of Life, we will remember this most important mitzvah that St. Saviour has done for us. They are true mensches!”
Rossier, who also has a 5-year-old son, Luca, at the school and 14-year-old daughter, Eliana, at St. Saviour High School – said she hopes to organize several more interfaith outreach efforts through a project she’s calling the Little Red Wagon Initiative.
“We would definitely love to work with more Catholic schools in the diocese,” she said. “[We can] bring them together with people of other faiths that have been suffering lately…and have our children understand that we really are one human race together under one God.”