Tree of Life Holocaust Memorial Takes Root at Congregation Beth El

by Sharon Rosen Leib June 6, 2019


segal-price-israel-at-dedicationSonia Ancoli Israel, 67, Cheryl Rattner Price and Helen Segal, both 56, share a notable trait–they all stand five feet, two inches tall. Their petite statures belie their towering creativity, vision and wisdom. These three San Diego Jewish women collaborated to create a monumental Tree of Life art installation commemorating the Holocaust at Congregation Beth El in La Jolla. Designed and installed by Escondido artist Segal, the 30-foot by 9-foot mosaic serves as an arresting visual focal point for congregants and visitors in Beth El’s expansive Turk Family Plaza.

On May 2, over 200 people gathered in Beth El’s courtyard to witness the installation’s unveiling and observe Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day). The moving ceremony provided solace during a dark time for San Diego’s Jewish community–just
five days after a horrific anti-Semitic attack at Chabad of Poway claimed the life of Lori Gilbert-Kaye, and injured Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, eight-year-old Noya Dahan, and her uncle, Almog Peretz. This shocking violence heightened the importance of preserving memory and reiterating the post-Holocaust mantra “never again.” Beth El’s Tree of Life achieves these goals with profound artistic intention.

Former Beth El President Israel’s vision of creating a Holocaust memorial in the synagogue’s courtyard proved to be a stroke of divine brilliance. Israel, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, first conceived of installing a memorial 10 years ago. Whenever she walked by an exterior concrete retaining wall, she imagined a meaningful work of art to serve the three-fold purpose of artistic enhancement, commemoration and education. She chaired Beth El’s Holocaust Memorial Committee, determined to raise the money to fund the memorial. This effort took longer than she anticipated. However, current events made the timing bashert (meant to be). The dedication on Yom HaShoah filled a Jewish communal need to harness creative light to blot out the darkness of renewed anti-Semitism.

“I wanted recognition of the horror of the past, combined with the promise of a decent and fair and humane future for us, always,” Israel, a UCSD professor emeritus of psychiatry, said in her introductory words. She emphasized the importance of educating children about the Holocaust to combat tribal hatred. “I believe our hope for the future lies with our children. Let’s fight with education,” she said.

The dedication ceremony included the congregation’s Holocaust survivors, and generations of survivors’ children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren lighting candles while a representative of each generation read the over 250 names and ages of congregants’ relatives who perished. Israel and many congregants wept during the recitation of names. When Israel’s own grandchildren lit candles, her voice radiated the pride of l’dor v’dor, passing the torch of Jewish values and history through generations.

Israel introduced Butterfly Project Co-Founder Cheryl Rattner Price and “artist extraordinaire” Helen Segal to light the final candle and describe their creative visions. Price, a multimedia artist, started the Butterfly Project in 2006 as a call to action through education, collaborative creativity and memorial making. Participants paint ceramic butterflies to be permanently displayed as symbols of resilience and hope in art installations around the globe.

Price and The Butterfly Project’s education team held several workshops at Beth El, engaging members of all ages in hands-on butterfly painting sessions. Their efforts yielded 661 earth-toned butterflies Segal incorporated into the Tree of Life’s complex mosaic. These 661 butterflies also contributed to The Butterfly Project’s ongoing global effort to create 1.5 million butterflies, one to represent each child who perished in the Holocaust.

Gesturing at the mosaic, Price said, “This work has all of your fingerprints on it and is a triumph over the Nazis’ plan to destroy us. May it inspire small and large conversations that we constantly return to in order to create a more peaceful world.” She praised Beth El for using this bold art installation as a Holocaust memorial, a template other synagogues may follow.

Price introduced Segal as a boundary-pushing artist. Born and raised in Cape Town, South Africa, Segal earned a fine arts degree there. She infuses both her art and poetry with the colors and cadences of her native Africa. Her work on the Tree of Life employed her broad skill set–from engineering the multi-dimensional form, to selecting and mosaicking a variety of materials, to composing a poem encapsulating the project’s meaning. Her poem, engraved on a plaque festooned with butterflies, adorns a wall adjacent to the mosaic.

Segal, also a sought-after Pilates trainer, used her well-developed core strength to complete the massive project in 10 months. “With the laying of each tile, pebble, mosaic and butterfly, I contemplated the enormity of the history this piece represents,” she said. She mosaicked the 30 plus pieces of the artistic jigsaw puzzle at her home studio before overseeing their transportation to Beth El. She then spent days standing on a scaffold to install it. “My bruised and bleeding fingers and aching muscles evidence the pure physicality of it,” she said.

The poem she wrote to accompany the mosaic came to her suddenly, as she worked
on the project’s final phase. The complex rhyme serves as a poignant artist’s statement and guide for appreciating the Tree of Life. She uses evocative language to describe the symbolism of the materials and forms she selected: mirror shards to self-reflect; beaten metal representing the munitions factories where Nazis forced Jews to perform slave labor; broken glass for Kristallnacht, a spasm of Nazi violence in 1938 that shattered the windows of Jewish businesses; pebbles symbolic of both permanence and grief; and Jerusalem stone in the shape of a shofar signifying the future state of Israel.

A bed of four tons of river rock surrounds the mural’s base, evincing stability and permanence. Living trees frame the mosaic tree creating a unity between art and nature. Segal considers her mosaic a form of artistic prayer for rebirth and growth toward the light.

Beth El’s Senior Rabbi Ron Shulman presided over the installation’s unveiling and Yom HaShoah prayer service. “Ours is a time and moment when we require people of character around us. We need people who, knowing the truth about human nature’s horror and beauty, can teach the rest of us how to build personal lives of love, hope and achievement,” he said. The petite but mighty threesome: Israel, as congregational leader, conceptualizer, fundraiser; Price, as global non-profit founder, ceramic artist, educator; and Segal, as mosaic artist, fabricator/installer, poet, demonstrated their knowledge of human nature’s darkness and light in this Tree of Life. These women of character combined their unique strengths to achieve a large-scale, enduring work radiating love and hope.

Israel invited community members interested in seeing the Tree of Life installation to attend one of Congregation Beth El’s Shabbat services or contact the congregation’s office to schedule an appointment. A schedule of services and contact information may be found on the synagogue’s website (


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