In October, a group of tattoo artists from the United States traveled to Israel to offer free tattoos for victims of terror and injured veterans. Craig Dershowitz, founder of Healing Ink and Artists 4 Israel, led the group and gives us his insight.

israel360: Craig, can you tell us a little about Healing Ink and the trip you just completed to Israel in October?

Craig Dershowitz: This was the second of our Healing Ink projects, which is where we bring the world’s greatest tattoo artists to Israel to tattoo over the scars of victims of terror and those injured in conflict. The goal is to help them reclaim their bodies, to cover their scars with something they choose to put on themselves and not just these terrible reminders of what was done to them, and to empower them to further their healing both physically and emotionally.

israel360: Can you tell us more about the 22 people who received tattoos from your project?

Craig Dershowitz: These men and women that we were tattooing just blow me away. These are actual heroes. Literally, we had two Medal of Honor winners who got tattooed. Just to be in the room with them after what they’ve done was really moving. We had people who were injured in some of Israel’s wars going all the way back to the 1970s, to the most recent conflict with Hamas. We had those who were injured in terror attacks, again going all the way back to the early 2000s to someone who was injured in a car-ramming accident this year. It’s just across the board and they are absolutely amazing heroes. I think two of my favorite would be this young woman, Sheri, who was injured in the Mike’s Place [Tel Aviv] bombing in 2003. And we had the opportunity to tattoo her at Mike’s Place. So to bring her healing full circle. We also had an individual who was injured stopping a suicide bomber from walking into a kosher supermarket on Shabbat afternoon and was able to save people. A few people died, but he was able to save countless lives.

israel360: Can you tell us a little more about the tattoos they got during the Healing Ink project?

Craig Dershowitz: There were some general themes that emerged, which I thought were interesting. We had a lot of music-related tattoos. So, before us, there was another art form that was helping these wonderful individuals. A lot of people found that joy or found that healing in music. It was great to memorialize that. Of course we had a number of people tattooing memorials to their friends that they lost or other people. And we had a lot of, which was different from last year, a lot of people tattooing heroic-looking figures. So, a vision of a warrior with a Jewish star emblazoned across his chest and a lot of flowers this year, which I thought was fun.

My favorite tattoo was for a wonderful kid who was injured in a fire fight, I believe with Lebanese soldiers a couple years back, and he got a tattoo right across his chest that said, “God only gives you trials you can overcome.” And that’s been, to him, what’s kept him going. Just when every time he thought he couldn’t go on anymore, he thought of this sentence and he said, “I know I can get past this.” And so we helped to put that on him.

israel360: There was one tattoo that had me in tears, and I’d love to hear the story behind it. It was of a man being lifted out of a wheelchair by a woman. Can you talk about that one?

Craig Dershowitz: Everything about that is freaking magical. His name is Barak Maron. He’s become a close friend. He’s absolutely amazing in so many ways and just also a cool person, even if this hadn’t happened to him. He was a medic and he was performing CPR on a friend of his, one of his teammates and friends. While performing CPR, Barak got hit with a bullet near his spine or in his spine. He passed out; he woke up because he saw an image of his parents telling him you didn’t say goodbye to us. I get choked up even thinking about it. I’m trying to not get choked up.

His friend dies in his arms. He then allows himself to pass out. He wakes up from a coma a couple of weeks later. First thing, of course, he does is ask about his friend, who died in his arms. It turns out he had eight bullets in his arms and another 15 in his vest. And when he awakens, his wife picks him up in her arms, and that’s what he wanted tattooed on his arm.

israel360: So, now we get to the awkward question—what’s the deal with Judaism and tattoos? Is it really forbidden? Can you really not be buried in a Jewish cemetery? Is there something in the Torah or somewhere that says…

Craig Dershowitz: Wait, is there some issue? I never heard of that.

israel360: First time it has come up, right?

Craig Dershowitz: This is shocking. So yes, we definitely have dealt with that question. I am not a rabbi, in case my heavily tattooed skin didn’t give that away. I am gonna give my layman’s interpretation, but there’s been a ton of research I did just because this question comes up. There’s one place in the Torah that says it. And it says…it doesn’t actually say it. It actually says you can’t cut yourself. Modern interpretations or translations say tattoo, but more authentic translations say cut and it’s a subjective clause in relation to the memory of the dead. It’s part of a mourning ritual that it’s saying should not be part of our mourning rituals. So there’s absolutely, in my mind, no actual injunction in the literal Torah that says you can’t get a tattoo. Of course, the oral tradition is heavily against it, and it’s something your grandmother tells you since birth, and of course they say the absolute lie that you can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery, which is totally untrue.

israel360: Our mothers? Our grandmothers? They lied to us?!

Craig Dershowitz: I know. And I think a lot of them even believe it themselves. To be honest, it’s just something we’ve heard and has been passed down. But absolutely not true as far as that goes. Of course, it’s debatable what the oral tradition teaches, and of course that’s interpretive and subject to change, and it’s changed in many ways. Let me just jump to what I consider the most important answer to that question, which is, any mitzvah in Judaism can be broken to save a life. Right? Other than maybe murdering someone else, there’s almost nothing else that you can’t do. These heroes that we tattooed, some of them were suicidal. Some of them have really or had really low standard of living because they were in so much pain physically and/or mentally. And so, if this tattoo is gonna heal somebody, it’s very similar to reconstructive plastic surgery in my mind, in that it transcends the prohibition because it has and serves a higher purpose.

Hear the entire conversation—and others—on the israel360 podcast channel on SoundCloud and iTunes.