Craig Dershowitz is an ardent Zionist. He doesn’t eat pork or shellfish, runs a successful nonprofit and plans to move to Israel next month. But for the tattoos that cover his entire body except his face, palms and the bottom of his feet, he is what your bubbe might call “the perfect Jewish boy.”
Dershowitz is the co-founder and president of Artists 4 Israel, an organization that works to prevent the spread of anti-Israel bigotry through art and aims to help communities and people affected by terrorism and hate. The nonprofit was created during 2009’s Operation Cast Lead, or the Gaza War, when Dershowitz was alarmed by “anti-Israeli forces using modern contemporary artforms, particularly in marginalized communities, to talk about Israel in a negative light,” he said.
When he met with leaders of various Jewish legacy groups to explain there was an antisemitic problem in artforms like hip-hop and graffiti, he said, “they laughed us out of their offices.”
So, Dershowitz, a Brooklyn-born, Los Angeles-based Jew, launched Artists 4 Israel, bringing graffiti and street artists to paint murals on bomb shelters in Israel. The project found its place, he said, by collaborating with non-Israeli artists on humanitarian aid projects.
“That became the entry point for them to learn about and advocate for Israel,” he said.
In 2016, Artists 4 Israel launched another, more controversial, project — Healing Ink, which provides free tattoos to cover the scars of survivors of terrorist attacks, and of IDF soldiers injured in combat. Dershowitz said the tattoos help survivors reclaim their bodies and continue to heal physically and mentally.
On Oct. 3 and 4, Artists 4 Israel is bringing Healing Ink to Pittsburgh, offering free tattoos to those affected by the massacre at the Tree of Life building. Approximately 15 different Pittsburghers will receive tattoos on each of the two days. The location for the event is yet to be announced, but tattoo artists may be available to visit someone’s home should an individual prefer to receive a tattoo privately.
Participants don’t have to be Jewish, but they must apply for a tattoo in advance. In addition to members of the Jewish community, Dershowitz said he has a soft spot for first responders and a passion to help them.
Sharon J. Serbin is a longtime attendee of Congregation Dor Hadash, one of the three congregations attacked in the Tree of Life building. She has deep roots at the congregation, including as a teacher in its religious school, and although she wasn’t in shul on Oct. 27, 2018, she said the attack affects her tremendously.
“I knew some of the people who died and others who were injured,” Serbin said. “I was in that building every week, teaching my students the joy of being Jewish. This was personal. This was home. This was an invasion and attack on my community.”
Serbin wrote in her Healing Ink application that she was surprised to discover that she is still traumatized by the massacre.
“I knew how I felt for the first year after it happened, but I thought I had boxed it up and moved forward,” she said. “I hadn’t.”
The Pittsburgh project will use local artists as well as a few “heavy hitters” in the tattoo world, Dershowitz said. All the artists donate their time.
Despite his confidence in the benefits of Healing Ink, Dershowitz, 44, understood the project would have its critics. Prior to launching the initiative, representatives from Artists 4 Israel spoke with several Conservative and Orthodox rabbis and the group has featured conversations with various rabbis about tattoos and Jewish tradition on its Facebook page.
According to Jewish law, tattooing is “unacceptable,” said Rabbi Danny Schiff, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Community Foundation scholar.
The prohibition against tattoos, Schiff said, can be found in Leviticus 28: “You shall not make a laceration for the dead in your flesh. And the imprint of a tattoo you shall not place upon you. I am the Lord.”
“Placing permanent markings in the flesh is forbidden and the inverse of holiness,” Schiff said.
Our bodies, he added, don’t belong to us, therefore we have a duty to keep them whole, unblemished and intact.
Rabbi Alex Greenbaum, a Conservative rabbi and the spiritual leader of Beth El Congregation of the South Hills, agreed with Schiff that tattoos are forbidden according to the Torah — and still a “no-go” in the Conservative movement — but noted that there is a misconception that someone with a tattoo cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery.
“We bury people that eat cheeseburgers, and we bury people that have tattoos,” Greenbaum said.
Despite the positions discussed by Schiff, Greenbaum and other rabbis, Dershowitz came to a different conclusion. He recalled the Talmud precept, “Whoever saves a life, it is considered he saved the whole world.” In his opinion, that salvation isn’t strictly physical.
“We knew we were entering provocative territory, but we said, if this is a healing modality that can help, who would have the chutzpah to tell someone that jumped on a terrorist bomber as he entered a public space that he can’t get a tattoo if it’s going to heal him?”
“We’re not out there with a gun protecting people from terrorists, but we’re saving them,” he said. “They’re coming out of their houses — some of these people haven’t left their houses alone, they haven’t worn shorts, as silly as that might sound, in 10 years. They can’t hold their children because of PTSD, they’re afraid they’ll drop them if they hear a loud sound. These stories are horrific. I don’t want to seem immodest, but I’m proud that we’ve helped turn peoples’ lives around.”
In some ways, Dershowitz sees Healing Ink as a religious calling.
“I feel like I’m doing the best work I’m capable of and the organization is doing as close to God’s work as we can find,” he said. “When we get up to the Pearly Gates, I don’t think anyone is going to doubt what we did and that our intentions were right.”
Anyone interested in applying for a tattoo through Healing Ink can do so at healingink.org.
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