Years after fatal shooting, Tree of Life synagogue plans a fresh start

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PITTSBURGH – For more than two years the Tree of Life – Or the L’Simcha Synagogue, on a hilltop in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, has remained laden with memory but empty of worshipers.

Since the morning of October 2018 when an armed man showed up for Shabbat services and killed 11 worshipers, the grim complex of buildings has been a crime scene, a place of mourning and the subject of long discussions. emotional about his future. Slowly, over the months of deliberation, the Tree of Life congregation came to decide that the building would be both their place of worship and a memorial site, a center of community events and a place of learning. for people all over the world. face hatred.

On Tuesday morning, the congregation leadership was ready to announce the person chosen to help turn that vision into structure: Daniel Libeskind, the architect known to commemorate the historic trauma and a son of Holocaust survivors.

“For me, in the end, the most important thing is not that people stand there with their jaws literally hanging on the ground looking at it, ”said Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers of Tree of Life. “But that they may be able to say, ‘Well, look what the Tree of Life has done. In the wake of what happened to them, that they could be at this amazing time. And we think Daniel Libeskind is the only one who can offer this.

In recent years, there has been no shortage of places that once fit seamlessly into the patchwork of local communities – schools, churches, synagogues, grocery stores – but have suddenly become internationally recognized sites of gun violence.

As the acute trauma receded in these places and life in the community resumed for the most part, charged conversations ensued about how or even whether to mark what happened there. Shrines and classrooms have been replaced, but questions remain about how to do justice to memory.

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It can take years for these questions to be answered, if there is one. In Newtown, Connecticut, where 20 first graders and six educators were killed in a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, residents voted by a narrow margin to build a memorial to the last week only.

In some places, like the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, where nine black worshipers were killed in 2015, planned commemorations have linked individual tragedy to a greater struggle against violence and hatred.

Tree of Life’s vision is similar, recognizing that there are many overlapping circles of people who care about the site: the families of those who were killed, members of the three congregations who worshiped at the synagogue. , the Jewish community of Pittsburgh, the city as a whole, the country as a whole, and people, Jews and non-Jews, everywhere.

Mr Libeskind, who won the 2003 World Trade Center site design competition after the 9/11 attacks, said strong but often conflicting motivations are familiar in companies like these.

“The same range, the same spectrum of emotions, went through this project,” he said of the World Trade Center design process. “Many groups, competing groups with different emotions. You know, “shave it all off”. “Rebuild even bigger, even bigger. “Exactly rebuild the Twin Towers. “Don’t build anything for the next 30 years.” “

“That’s the reach you get,” he continued. “There are different aspects that people want to remember, delay and face.”

Mr. Libeskind was in New York City when the Tree of Life attack occurred. He designed museums and memorials that commemorate the evils of the Holocaust, but it shook him deeply, he said, that such an eruption of violent anti-Semitism could take place in America – the country that his family had come to seek freedom as Jews.

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He would soon learn that the suspect apparently chose Tree of Life because one of the three congregations that worshiped there, Dor Hadash, had participated in a refugee program with HIAS. Under its original name of Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the same group had given financial aid to Mr Libeskind’s family members and helped them rent a house in public housing in the Bronx when they arrived as a immigrants in 1959.

“It hit my heart,” he said.

In Pittsburgh, the months following the attack have been filled with heartache, condolences and recitations of the mourner’s Kaddish. The wounded began to recover and some of the faithful poured their anguish into activism. The wheels of the judicial process began to turn, albeit slowly; the man accused of attacking the synagogue has yet to be tried. But during those first few weeks, a delicate discussion about the building itself also began.

In December 2018, a Pittsburgh-based urban design firm, Rothschild Doyno Collaborative, began hosting a series of listening sessions with members of the three congregations at the synagogue, who gathered for worship in small chapels in other Pittsburgh synagogues. Opinions about the future of the Tree of Life building varied widely, from its demolition and rebuilding as it had been to creating something new.

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

“Over time it became clearer through all of these conversations,” he said, “that the predominance was: we have to come back. If we don’t, we are sending the message that evil has won because it chased us out of our building.

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

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The process of selecting an architect began last winter, with applications to nearly a dozen companies. What followed were letters, interviews and conversations with various architectural firms, but Paula Garret, who headed the selection committee, said he was quickly drawn to Mr Libeskind, who writes 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 committee’s initial reaction. “We were blown away. But we were also very impressed with his deliberate and sensitive responses. He really, really understood this vision.

Mr Libeskind said he plans to visit the site, for the first time, this month. The project will undoubtedly take time, but the congregation is eager to have a permanent home, having been exiled from their building by the shooting and then barred from any physical gathering by the coronavirus.

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

“I can’t wait to step into a new Tree of Life building,” Ms. Wedner wrote, “without fear or hesitation.”

Brothers Cecil, 59, and David, 54, of Michele Rosenthal, both men with intellectual disabilities, met worshipers at the door before services each week.

“They welcomed everyone who came through their doors to share their beloved building,” she said in a statement Monday. “We hope that this new chapter of the building will be an opportunity to remember those who have been taken away and to welcome more people.”

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