‘That’s What Friends Do!’

Hope and love prevail in children’s book retelling of Pittsburgh shooting

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Cover artwork for the new children’s book, That’s What Friends Do!

At the onset of Cantor Steven Stoehr's new book , That's What Friends Do!, an act of hate-filled violence has just ended.  But for a Torah damaged in the attack, the story of hope is just beginning.

Stoehr's retelling of the shooting at the Tree of Life * Or L'Simcha Congregation on October 27, 2018--the deadliest antisemitic attack in United States history--shares the day's events for children in a way that inspires readers to be kind and friendly to nurture a tolerant world.

A Pittsburgh native, Stoehr--who is the Senior Cantor of Congregation Beth Shalom in Northbrook--called Tree of Life's Rabbi Jeffrey Myers after the attack to ask about the damage. "Miraculously," Stoehr said, "he said that only one Torah was hit, and only on the bottom wooden leg. None of the parchment or holiness was destroyed."

Inspired by the damaged Torah that still survived, Stoehr commissioned artist Jeanette Kuvin Oren to create a Torah cover to "give it a sense of renewal." The cover features 36 stars, tied to the idea of 36 righteous people in each generation, with 11 of the stars representing the victims and the remaining stars representing the first responders and community members who helped the synagogue and community recover. Words like chaim (life) and beads cascading down the side to represent "a river of people of all faiths and ethnicities who came to support the community" adorn the cover.

When Stoehr told the story of the Torah scroll cover to the Cantors Assembly, they wanted to chip in. Shortly after, Myers agreed to let the cover travel the country throughout 2019 to teach people of all faiths about the power of hate and hope.

"It didn't start out with the idea of being a book, but the message of hope is one that's desperately needed," said Stoehr, who then turned to writing the book That's What Friends Do! (Indy Pub) to tell the story of the Torah scroll and cover for young audiences. Aside from the talking Torah scroll and cover, everything in the story is factual, and thanks to some help from teachers and a librarian, children can understand the day's events at an age-appropriate level.

"It's a true story of a sad event that I'm trying to turn into a message of positivity and hope, countering the hate with love," Stoehr said. "There are a lot of nicer words than 'hate,' and those are the words I want kids to focus on."

The book, illustrated by Amber Leigh Luecke and published on Amazon in November, ends with a challenge for kids to create their own Torah cover design on a coloring page. They are encouraged to send these pictures to Stoehr, who passes them on to Tree of Life. He then sends the child a special button in accordance with the book's message that "you only need one true friend to help you," Stoehr said. He recounted the story of the Torah scroll as help coming from friends, and in turn, he helps the Tree of Life * Or L'Simcha Congregation by sending all profits from book sales to the reconstruction effort.

In the end, "I hope it's not just a book, but a living lesson that kids can create and be a part of," Stoehr said. "I believe the children are the future. That's where we have to start. It's a natural instinct to love and be loved. Children don't know any better and I wish they didn't grow up to know any worse. And maybe parents and adults can absorb this as well" from reading the story of a Torah with a broken leg who inspires people across the country.

To learn more about the book, visit amzn.to/38IXyr4 .

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