Community leaders gathered on Sunday to mark the groundbreaking for a new Tree of Life synagogue.

‘A victory over antisemitism’ prevails as Tree of Life rebuilds in Pittsburgh

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‘A victory over antisemitism’ prevails as Tree of Life rebuilds in Pittsburgh

Community leaders gathered on Sunday to mark the groundbreaking for a new Tree of Life synagogue.

PITTSBURGH – Five and a half years ago, the people who wandered into the grounds at the corner of Wilkins and Shady avenues here were well known to the congregants of Tree of Life. They included 11 pillars of the shul who were regulars at Saturday morning services, among them a 97-year-old who was regarded as the congregation’s matriarch, a Jewish community fixture with a Catholic wife, and two disabled brothers who always wandered over on Shabbat.

Some of those who gathered here this past Sunday likely could not have been identified by the synagogue’s congregants. One was a partner in the DLA Piper global law firm at the time, another was the attorney general of Pennsylvania, and others were in the fifth grade.

But as congregation members, national leaders, and local luminaries came together to commemorate the Tree of Life attack and perform a ceremonial groundbreaking for the site’s renewal, the podium was occupied by former law partner Douglas Emhoff, the first Jewish spouse of a vice president, Kamala Harris; former state attorney general Josh Shapiro, now the governor of Pennsylvania after running for the office with an advertisement that showed his family sharing a Shabbat challah; and the onetime grammar school pupils who now are members of the Northgate High School choir, which sang – somewhat incongruously – “What a Wonderful World,” the Louis Armstrong ballad that speaks of “The bright blessed day/The dark sacred night.”

This role reversal is just one of the great transformations at the site of the deadliest antisemitic incident in American history.

Now the venue that was the site of the commemoration – a ceremony marked by the sounding of the shofar by a survivor of the attack, an implicit call to spiritual renewal; the breaking of the glass, symbolizing a remembrance of the pain of the past and a broken world – bears little resemblance to the place where a gunman disrupted morning services and made the word “Pittsburgh” a poignant reference in the Jewish world.

Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, who presided over services during the 2018 murders, led an interfaith prayer that spoke of synagogue doors open to people “regardless of the color of their skin, their sexual orientation, or their faith” and of doors closed to “pettiness and crime.”

Much of the stone structure that held Tree of Life along with Congregation Dor Hadash and New Light Congregation has been razed. The commemoration occurred in a space that once held the chapel that was the site of the attack. The congregation has been meeting elsewhere; the conservative synagogue found a temporary home at Congregation Rodef Shalom, one of the landmarks in the history of the Reform movement in the United States.

“Each of us has a responsibility to continue to share the stories of that day – of the people we lost and the resilience that followed,” said Governor Shapiro, who visited the nearby Jewish Community Center the day of the attack. “Some leaders at times offer permission slips to hate,” he added, in a clear reference to former president Donald Trump.

Emhoff, a prominent member of the Biden administration’s task force on antisemitism, said since the Pittsburgh attack, “We have seen antisemitism rise to unprecedented levels” and asserted “It is indeed a crisis of antisemitism we are seeing.”

The site will become the home of a memorial, museum, sanctuary, education center, and the newly formed Tree of Life Institute for Countering Hate & Antisemitism, all housed in a new structure designed by Daniel Libeskind, the architect whose vision took form in, among many other buildings, the Jewish Museum in Berlin and commemorations at the Auschwitz concentration camp and the Ground Zero site of the 2001 terrorist attack in New York.

The new building stands as a statement from Libeskind – and for the Tree of Life congregation.

“The statement we are making is that we didn’t let this tragedy chase us from our house,” Rabbi Myers said in an interview in the days leading to the event. “This is a victory over antisemitism. In today’s world, with the continued horrific increase in antisemitism, this is a real achievement. This could be a shining symbol for the world: hope, inspiration. It is a powerful moment.”

Three days later, the congregation celebrated its 160th anniversary.

“We mark tragedies as a people and we continue to thrive,” Tree of Life CEO Carole Zawatsky said in an interview. “As Jews, we know what tragedy feels like. We know what it looks like. We are living through it now in a post-Oct. 7 world. And yet we continue to be an optimistic people with a zeal for a beautiful future. When we say in the Jewish tradition ‘May their memories be a blessing,’ we really mean that – that these 11 lives lost for the simple act of praying as Jews [will] continue to be fervently, proudly Jewish.”

That notion suffused the event Sunday.

“Even when attacked, we did not roll over,” said Jeffrey Cohen, a urologist who is cochair of the development of the project. “We are keeping going. And this recognizes how the Pittsburgh community reacted to this tragedy. The Muslim community lined up in front of our synagogue and said that they would protect us when we pray, they would help us rebuild, and they would help us bury our dead.”

Wasi Mohamed, at the time of the attack the executive director of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh – which sits two miles from Tree of Life; and Bishop David Zubik – whose flock makes Pittsburgh one of the three most Catholic cities by population in the U.S. – were among the guests.

So were several children, many of whom wore yellow ribbons, symbolic remembrances of both the victims of Oct. 27, 2018, and of the Israeli hostages still in captivity in Gaza after the attacks of Oct. 7, 2023. The congregation distributed fliers, noting, “This ancient instrument in the hands of our youngest generation symbolizes centuries of Jewish perseverance.”

The setting also reflects the hands of young people whose childhoods have been marred by mass shootings. On the fence around the building site are dozens of pieces of art from the Pittsburgh community and from the Parkland, Fla., community where the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School also was the site of a 2018 mass shooting. The school was demolished two weeks ago.

One of those pieces of art is a collage of butterflies, produced by five students at the J.E. Harris Middle School in Pittsburgh.

Could those 14-year-olds somehow have encountered the 1959 book, “I Never Saw Another Butterfly” – a mainstay in synagogue religious schools six decades ago, a slender but powerful volume marking the deaths of 90 percent of the children in the Terezin concentration camp from 1942 to 1944? Could they have understood that the butterflies stand as a symbol of freedom from oppression, intolerance, and hatred – reflecting the kind of rebirth and transformation from egg, larva, pupa to beautiful adult that butterflies experience? Is a sorrowful but hopeful allegory is underway among the Tree of Life congregants? On a morning like Sunday, it was impossible to repress the possibility. Θ

David M. Shribman, who won a Pulitzer Prize as Washington bureau chief of the Boston Globe, is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and teaches at Carnegie Mellon University and McGill University.

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