Tree of Life Synagogue Plans a New Beginning, Years After Deadly Shooting

Tree of Life Synagogue Plans a New Beginning, Years After Deadly Shooting

2021-05-04 07:00:10

PITTSBURGH – The Tree of Life for over two years – Or the L’Simcha Synagogue, on a corner on a hill in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, was heavy with memory but empty of worshipers.

Since the morning in October 2018, when a gunman appeared on Shabbat services and murdered 11 worshipers, the gloomy building complex has alternately been a crime scene, a place of mourning and the subject of long, emotional discussions about its future. Slowly, after months of deliberation, the Tree of Life congregation came to the decision that the building would be its home for worship as well as a place of remembrance, a center for community events and a place for people from all over the world to learn about confronting hatred.

On Tuesday morning, the congregation's leadership was ready to announce the person chosen to translate that vision into structure: Daniel Libeskind, the architect known for commemorating historical trauma and a son of Holocaust survivors.

“For me it is ultimately not the most critical that people stand there with their jaws literally hanging on the ground looking at them, ”said Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers of Tree of Life. "But they can say," Look what the Tree of Life has accomplished. In the aftermath of what happened to them, they could be in this incredible moment. & # 39; And we think Daniel Libeskind is the one who can make that happen. & # 39;

There has been no shortage in recent years of places that once fitted well in the patchwork of local communities – schools, churches, synagogues, supermarkets – but suddenly became internationally recognized venues of gun violence.

As the acute trauma abated in those places and life in the community largely resumed, heated conversations ensued about how and even or to highlight what had happened there. Shrines and classrooms have been replaced, but questions remain about how to do justice to the memory.

These questions can take years to answer, if they are answered at all. In Newtown, Conn., Where 20 first graders and six educators were killed in a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, residents voted by a small margin last week to build a memorial.

In some places, such as the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., where nine black worshipers were murdered in 2015, the scheduled commemorations have linked individual tragedy to a greater fight against violence and hatred.

The vision at Tree of Life is similar, recognizing that there are many overlapping circles of people who feel an interest in the site: the families of those murdered, 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 people, Jewish and Gentile, all over the world.

Mr. Libeskind, who won the competition in 2003 design of the World Trade Center site after the September 11 attacks, said strong but often conflicting motivations were known among companies like this one.

"The same spectrum of emotions ran through that project," he said of the World Trade Center design process. “Many groups, competing groups with different emotions. You know, "Raze everything." "Rebuild even bigger, even bigger." "Rebuild exactly the Twin Towers." "Don't build anything for the next 30 years."

"That's the range you get," he continued. "There are several aspects that people want to remember and postpone and also want to confront."

Mr. Libeskind had been in New York when the Tree of Life attack took place. He designed museums and memorials who commemorate the evils of the Holocaust, but it upset him deeply, he said, that such an outbreak of violent anti-Semitism could take place in America – the land his family had come to as Jews seeking freedom.

He would soon learn that the defendant had apparently chosen Tree of Life because one of the three congregations worshiping there, Dor Hadash, had participated in a refugee program with HIAS. Under its original name as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the same group had Mr. Libeskind provided financial support and helped them rent a house in Bronx when they arrived as an immigrant in 1959.

"That struck my heart," he said.

In Pittsburgh, the months following the attack were filled with grief, condolence, and recitations from the grieving kaddish. The injured started to recover and some worshipers plunged their fear into activism. The gears of the legal process began to turn, albeit slowly; the man accused of attacking the synagogue has yet to be brought to justice. But those first weeks were also the start of a delicate conversation about the building itself.

In December 2018, Rothschild Doyno Collaborative, an urban planning firm in Pittsburgh, began a series of listening sessions with members of the three congregations in the synagogue who had gathered for worship in the smaller chapels of other synagogues in Pittsburgh. Opinions on the future of the Tree of Life building varied from demolition to rebuilding just as it had been to creating something new.

Two of the congregations, Dor Hadash and New Light, decided not to return. But, Rabbi Myers said, a consensus was beginning to emerge among Tree of Life members that they wanted to come back.

“As time went on, it became clearer through all these conversations,” he said, “that the domination was, we must return. If we don't, we are sending the message that evil has won, because it has taken us out of our building. has hunted. "

They would refurbish the 58-year-old shrine, retaining the tall stained glass windows that are the synagogue's most striking feature. But they would rebuild the rest of the campus, create classrooms, a common room, a Hall of Memories dedicated to the attack itself, and a home for exhibits and public programs at the Pittsburgh Holocaust Center.

The process of selecting an architect began last winter, with requests sent to nearly a dozen firms. What followed were letters and interviews and conversations with various architectural firms, but Paula Garret, who headed the selection committee, said it was quickly drawn to Mr. Libeskind, who wrote about his identity as a European Jew and his belief in American freedom.

"Daniel Libeskind wants to design the Tree of Life building in Pittsburgh?" she said of the commission's initial response. “We were blown away. But we were also so impressed with his thoughtful and sensitive responses. He has really, really understood the understanding of this view. "

Mr. Libeskind said he intended to visit the site for the first time this month. The project will undoubtedly take time, but the municipality is longing for a permanent home, having been banned from their building by the shooting and subsequently kept from some physical gatherings by the coronavirus.

In an emailed statement, Andrea Wedner, who was shot in the arm that morning in October and whose mother, 97-year-old Rose Mallinger, was murdered, described the news of Mr. Libeskind as “ an exciting next step. in this long process of reconstruction. "

“I look forward to entering a new Tree of Life building without fear or hesitation,” wrote Ms Wedner.

Michele Rosenthal's brothers Cecil, 59, and David, 54, both men with developmental disabilities, met worshipers at the door every week for services.

"They welcomed everyone who came in to share their beloved building," she said in a statement Monday. "We are hopeful that this new chapter for the building will be an opportunity to remember those who were taken and welcome more people."


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