CHAMPAIGN — Two days after the weekend shooting at a synagogue near San Diego, a school principal showed up with a gift for the Chabad Center for Jewish Life in Champaign.
The staff, students and families at University Primary School had spent weeks creating a "Tree of Life" mural for Chabad, to show their support and solidarity after another horrific shooting — on Oct. 27, when 11 people were killed at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.
"We weren't planning, of course, on that kind of timing," Principal Ali Lewis said Thursday.
It made the gift all the more welcome for Rabbi Dovid Tiechtel, who praised it as a ray of hope in a dark time.
"The best response to darkness is light," Tiechtel said, quoting the rabbi injured in Saturday's shooting during a Passover service in Poway, Calif. "They are adding light."
Lewis delivered the mural Monday, along with a letter describing the project.
Painted on clear vinyl, the mural features a large tree of life with multicolored leaves surrounded by a blue circle. Gold leaves symbolize the lives lost in Pittsburgh. At the top, in silver, is the word "shalom," or "peace," in English and Hebrew.
The project was a group effort by students, parents, teachers and volunteers, Lewis said.
"Everybody got to color in a leaf," she said, and the mural is signed by all the students.
The school has 85 students in preschool through fifth grade from diverse backgrounds. They also learned the "It is the Tree of Life" song in Hebrew, she said.
"(W)e hope to continue learning more from our Jewish families and community members here on campus and more broadly as one way to build a much kinder, peaceful world," the school's letter said.
Lewis said the project grew out of a discussion with two student teachers at the school, the laboratory school for the UI College of Education. The two UI students are involved in Jewish life on campus, and "we were just trying to consider how we would show that we care and that we're very concerned about discrimination towards the Jewish community," Lewis said.
Lewis said the group wanted to deliver the project to Chabad Center before the end of the school year, to let the community there know the school was still thinking of them six months later. It just so happened that the second shooting took place six months to the day after the Pittsburgh tragedy.
"I think in some ways it's just a shock that it could happen again. But it's a reminder that these discussions around religion and tolerance need to keep happening, especially with young children," Lewis said. "They want to show care and love, and they do. And this is one way that they can do that, through their art."
Tiechtel said the project helps kids understand that "hardship happens. My own kids have been asking, 'Are there bad people here?'"
"Every one of us, when darkness happens, we can do our part. How? By adding a little light," he said. "You don't have to be a leader or a great person in the community. Every single person can add light. That's a very, very strong message."
Tiechtel and two UI students, senior Talia Cohen and junior Julie Zavelevich, hung the mural in Chabad Center's dining room Thursday, in preparation for a special Shabbat service tonight in honor of the Poway synagogue.
"It looks perfect," Cohen said, adding that it will be seen by thousands of people each year.
Both students said it gave them a feeling of community and family.
"I think that it's very special and touching that the kids made this," Zavelevich said.
The Chabad Center, 509 S. Fourth St., C, will join other synagogues and Jewish centers around the country hosting a "Standing with Poway" Shabbat service this evening.
A candle-lighting is scheduled for 6:45 p.m., and people of all faiths are invited, Tiechtel said. A private dinner for students will follow. Extra security will be on hand to ensure people feel comfortable attending, he said.
Chabad also hosted a vigil Sunday night, the day after the Poway shooting, which drew several dozen people of varied backgrounds, including Champaign Mayors Deb Feinen, Urbana Mayor Diane Marlin, UI Provost Andreas Cangellaris, UI police Chief Craig Stone, Champaign County State's Attorney Julia Rietz and Danita Brown Young, UI vice chancellor for student affairs.
"These hate crimes, these acts of intolerance targeting our Jewish brothers and sisters are an attack on all of us," Stone said in a video posted to Facebook, pledging that Champaign-Urbana will remain a community that works together to "include everyone."
Marlin delivered the same message of unity and support she brought to the local Central Illinois Mosque and Islamic Center in March after a terrorist attack killed 51 people at two mosques in New Zealand.
"Our places of worship should be free of fear and hatred," Marlin said, and that only works "if we all stand together. We are with you."