PITTSBURGH – For more than two years the Tree of Life – or L’Simcha Synagogue on a hilltop corner in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh – has been full of memories but devoid of worshipers.
Since the morning of October 2018, when a Sagittarius appeared on Shabbat and killed eleven believers, the gloomy building complex has alternated between a crime scene, a place of mourning and long, emotional discussions about its future. Slowly, over months of deliberation, the Tree of Life Congregation decided that the building would once again be the home of worship, as well as a memorial, a center for community events, and a place where people from all over the world could learn about encountering hatred.
On Tuesday morning, the leadership of the community was ready to announce the person chosen to turn this vision into structure: Daniel Libeskind, the architect known for remembering historical trauma and the son of Holocaust survivors.
“For me, the most important thing in the end is not that people stand there and literally hang their jaws on the ground when they look at it,” said Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers of Tree of Life. “But that they can say, ‘Now look what the tree of life has achieved. After what happened to you, you could be in this incredible moment.’ And we think Daniel Libeskind is the one who can deliver that. “
In recent years, there has been no shortage of places that once fitted well with the patchwork of local communities – schools, churches, synagogues, grocery stores – but suddenly became internationally recognized armed violence sites.
As the acute trauma in these places receded and community life largely resumed, charged conversations ensued about how to or even mark what had happened there. Sanctuaries and classrooms have been replaced, but questions remain about how to live up to memory.
The vision at Tree of Life is similar in that there are many intersecting circles of people who feel involved in the place: the families of those killed, the members of the three congregations who worshiped in the synagogue, the Jewish community in Pittsburgh , the city in general, the country as a whole, and the Jewish and non-Jewish people around the world.
Libeskind, who won the 2003 World Trade Center design competition after the 9/11 attacks, said strong but often contradicting motivations are known in such companies.
“The same spectrum, the same spectrum of emotions went through this project,” he said of the World Trade Center design process. “Lots of groups, competing groups with different emotions. You know, ‘Raze everything.” Https://www.nwaonline.com/news/2021/may/08/recalled-to-life/ “Build even bigger, bigger again.” Https://www.nwaonline.com/news/2021/ may / 08 / recalled-to-life / “Rebuild exactly the twin towers.” https://www.nwaonline.com/news/2021/may/08 / brought to life / “Don’t build anything for the next 30 years.”
“That’s the range you get,” he continued. “There are different aspects that people remember and that they want to delay and also confront.”
Libeskind had been in New York when the Tree of Life attack took place. He has designed museums and monuments commemorating the evils of the Holocaust, but it shook him deeply, he said, that such an outbreak of violent anti-Semitism could take place in America – the country where his family, as Jews, sought freedom .
He would soon learn that the suspect appeared to have chosen Tree of Life because one of the three communities that worshiped there, Dor Hadash, had participated in a program for refugees with HIAS. Under its original name as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the same group had funded the Libeskind family members and helped them rent an apartment in a public housing complex in the Bronx when they arrived as immigrants in 1959.
“That fell to my heart,” he said.
Filled with sorrow
In Pittsburgh, the months following the attack were filled with grief, condolences, and recitations of the mourner’s kaddish. The wounded began to recover and some worshipers poured their fear into activism. The gears of the legal process began to spin, albeit slowly; Robert Gregory Bowers, charged with assaulting the synagogue, is yet to be tried. In those first weeks, however, a sensitive conversation began about the building itself.
In December 2018, Rothschild Doyno Collaborative, a Pittsburgh city planning firm, began a series of listening sessions in the synagogue with members of the three congregations who had gathered for worship in the smaller chapels of other Pittsburgh synagogues. Opinions about the future of the Tree of Life building went well beyond demolishing it, rebuilding it exactly as it was, or creating something new.
Two of the parishes, Dor Hadash and New Light, decided not to return. However, Rabbi Myers said there was consensus among Tree of Life members that they wanted to return.
“As time went on, through all of these conversations, it became clearer,” he said, “that the supremacy was, we must return. If we don’t, we are sending the message that evil has won because it has chased us out of ours . ” Building.”
They would renovate the 58 year old sanctuary and keep the tall stained glass windows that are the most noticeable feature of the synagogue. But they would rebuild the rest of the campus, creating classrooms, a common room, a memorial hall dedicated to the attack itself, and a home for exhibitions and public programs from the Pittsburgh Holocaust Center.
CONGREGATION IS EAGER
Libeskind said he planned to visit the website for the first time this month. The project will no doubt take some time, but the community is keen to find a permanent home as the shooting banned them from their building and then kept away from any physical gatherings by the coronavirus.
In a statement emailed, Andrea Wedner, who was shot in the arm that October morning and whose mother, 97-year-old Rose Mallinger, was killed, described the news of Libeskind as “an exciting next step in this long rebuilding process” . “”
“I look forward to entering a new Tree of Life building,” wrote Wedner, “without fear or hesitation.”
Michele Rosenthal’s brothers Cecil (59) and David (54), both men with developmental disorders, who met worshipers at the door every week before the service, were also killed.
“They greeted everyone who came through their doors to share their beloved building,” she said in a statement Monday. “We hope that this new chapter will be an opportunity for the building to remember those who were recorded and to welcome more people into it.”
The Tree of Life – or L’Simcha Synagogue in Pittsburgh has decided to renovate its sanctuary but is rebuilding the rest of the campus. A hall of remembrance was set up for the 2018 attack, when a shooter appeared on Shabbat and killed eleven worshipers. (The New York Times / Ross Mantle)
FILE – Flowers on a memorial outside the Tree of Life – or L’Simcha Synagogue in Pittsburgh on October 25, 2019, almost a year after the attack. The community has decided to renovate their sanctuary but are rebuilding the rest of the Pittsburgh campus. She has created a Hall of Memories dedicated to the 2018 attack when a shooter appeared at the Shabbat services and killed eleven worshipers. (Michelle Gustafson / The New York Times)
Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers on May 2, 2021 in front of the Tree of Life – or L’Simcha Synagogue in Pittsburgh. The community decided to renovate their sanctuary but rebuild the rest of the Pittsburgh campus and set up a hall of memories for the 2018 attack when a shooter showed up on Shabbat and killed 11 worshipers. (Ross Mantle / The New York Times)