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Pittsburgh synagogue shooting survivors still healing with tattoo therapy | Lifestyles

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A tattoo that reads “Still, I will rise” in cursive Hebrew is completed on Sharon Serbin’s left arm at the Jewish Community Center in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. Serbin was an elementary school teacher at Dor Hadash Religious School at Tree of Life synagogue in 2018. Eleven people were killed while attending worship services at the synagogue that year.




PITTSBURGH — If you happened to be wandering through the halls of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh’s Irene Kaufmann Building one recent Wednesday afternoon, you might have heard an unfamiliar sound emanating from one of its ballrooms and seen a few people wandering around who might not fit the typical mold of a JCC member.

The sound in question was the buzzing of tattoo needles, and the unfamiliar faces were tattoo artists. They were on hand in the Squirrel Hill JCC to help survivors of the 2018 mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue continue to heal from the trauma of that day through tattoo expression.

The folks getting tattoos included families of the victims’ first responders and former and current congregation members who were all deeply impacted by the tragedy.

Those survivors were taking part in what is known as “Healing Ink,” a type of body-art therapy that was originally designed to help Israeli terrorist attack victims turn their scars into tattoos. The JCC event was put on by Healing Ink’s parent company Artists 4 Israel in conjunction with the locally based 10.27 Healing Partnership, which was established following the Tree of Life shooting to provide aid to those most directly affected.

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“Everybody in trauma has a right to however they’re feeling,” said Maggie Feinstein, director of the 10.27 Healing Partnership. “The idea of offering as many different opportunities for engagement as possible, I’m all for it.”

Although tattoos are technically forbidden by Jewish law and frowned upon by some in the community, Feinstein has a background working in trauma and mental health recovery and appreciates how tattoos can help those who are suffering regain a sense of agency in unpredictable times.

Craig Dershowitz, Artists 4 Israel’s founder and CEO, echoed sentiments about how tattoos can make it easier for trauma victims to “reclaim their bodies” as they continue on their journeys toward something at least resembling normalcy.

“It’s the first thing people see when they see you,” Dershowitz said. “So, too, are scars. It becomes a question of, how do you want others to be seen? By putting that tattoo on you, you’re taking control of the narrative and how others see you.”

Two of the survivors getting inked up were siblings Amy and Eric Mallinger, whose grandmother Rose Mallinger was among the 11 victims on Oct. 27, 2018. Both of them received a rose tattoo to honor their grandmother’s memory. Amy, 29, got a smaller rose along with Rose’s initials on her right arm, while Eric, 29, got a larger, more detailed rose on his left arm.

Eric said his grandmother was the “best person” he knew, and Amy described her as a “loving person” who cherished being around her family. They both reminisced about her cooking and said that things are as normal as possible for both of them more than three years after losing her.

“It heals over time, but you still can’t get over it,” Eric said.

One of the tattoo artists was Brittany Arizona, a 26-year-old who flew in from DeLand, Fla., specifically to tattoo Sharon Serbin, who in 2018 was an elementary school teacher at Dor Hadash Religious School in Tree of Life. Arizona was tattooing Serbin with a phoenix whose tail turns into an infinity sign that includes the Hebrew words for the phrase, “Still, I will rise.”

The two went back and forth for weeks to get the design Serbin wanted just right, and Arizona said it was awesome to hear the recipient of her work say she thinks the tattoo will “help her heal stronger.”

“It’s honestly almost a little overwhelming to know that I’m doing something for someone who’s been through something super traumatic and intense,” Arizona said. “To make it something beautiful for them is a big deal.”

None of the tattoo artists in attendance took their responsibilities lightly, including Arizona and Jamie Handyside, 21, of Bellevue, Pa. Handyside spent three years at the Ice 9 Studio tattoo shop as an apprentice and, like many Pittsburghers, had her sense of security at home permanently rocked by the Tree of Life shooting. She may not be Jewish, but she was eager to help Healing Ink with the project.

“You never know what people are going through,” she said. “It definitely is therapy. It’s a way to get that anger, sadness, stress out. And you get something really nice at the end, which is always amazing.”

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