New Design, Mission for Site of Pittsburgh Synagogue Attack

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PITTSBURGH — Guardians of the Tree of Life Synagogue intend to transform the site of the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in United States history and expand its mission.

Newly released design plans show a revitalized complex housing a shrine, museum, memorial and anti-Semitism center – symbolically and physically unified with a dramatic skylight running the length of the structure.

Organizers are also announcing plans on Tuesday for a new Tree of Life nonprofit that would work with the congregation of the same name, oversee the building complex and provide education, museum exhibits and programs to counter hate aimed at people. Jews and other groups.

The synagogue building — located in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood in the heart of Pittsburgh’s Jewish neighborhood — has been vacant since Oct. 27, 2018. A gunman, who is awaiting trial on capital federal charges for what prosecutors say is a hate-motivated attack, killed 11 congregants of Tree of Life and two other congregations – Dor Hadash and New Light – which shared the building.

The new design is the work of renowned architect Daniel Libeskind, whose previous work includes Jewish museums, Holocaust memorials and the master plan for the World Trade Center‘s post-9/11 redevelopment.

Organizers said they do not yet have a cost estimate or timeline for the construction project. And many details for the interior, including the design of a memorial, are still being determined. The organizers raise funds locally and nationally.

But they see Tuesday’s announcements as a big step forward.

“We can’t wait to be back in our spiritual home,” said Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, a survivor of the attack and rabbi of the Tree of Life/Or L’Simcha congregation, as it is officially known.

Plans include retaining the large main shrine of the synagogue, which was not in use on the day of the attack.

Other parts of the complex would be razed, including a separate chapel where most of the murders took place, although its historic stained glass windows are preserved. A new addition – framed by dramatically angled exterior walls, a feature of Libeskind’s previous projects – would incorporate the museum, a memorial to the victims, and space for education and other programs.

Unifying the complex – at around 45,000 square feet in all – would be a skylight that spans the length of the roof, according to Libeskind’s design. The “Path of Light”, as Libeskind calls it, would begin in the historic sanctuary and widen, in a radius, through the programming area to a new, more secure entrance.

“Light is not just physical light, it is also spiritual light,” he said.

Libeskind said he met worshipers and survivors of those killed as he prepared the design. He kept in mind the long history of the congregation – which was founded in 1864 and dedicated its current sanctuary a century later – as well as its current reality.

“The building must be a response to the needs of the community, but it is also a response after the attacks,” he said. “It’s not the Tree of Life before the attacks anymore. It’s a different space.”

The attacks targeted “Jews praying in a synagogue,” he said, and the design had to reflect the building’s new purpose.

“It’s also about America, it’s about American democracy,” Libeskind added.

Libeskind said the project ‘means something very deep to me’ as a child of Holocaust survivors who immigrated to the United States with his parents after facing communist-era anti-Semitism Poland.

“We may have been Jews in America,” he recalls. “It was like another promised land. Who would have ever thought that America would be a country where Jews would be targeted because they are Jews?

He said his family was even helped by the same Jewish refugee aid organization that the alleged shooter was reporting online.

The three congregations targeted in the attacks have been worshiping in nearby synagogues ever since. While Dor Hadash and New Light plan to stay in their new locations for the foreseeable future, the members of Tree of Life are looking forward to returning, Myers said.

“It’s an incredibly beautiful building,” he said. “However, what’s also important is what emanates from it. It provides a basis for what we want to do.”

Diane Rosenthal, whose brothers Cecil and David Rosenthal were among those killed at Tree of Life, said they “would like to see this place rebuilt in some form and another”.

The two men, who had developmental disabilities, were faithful attendees and bonded closely with congregants, she said.

“It was their home,” she said. “They felt safe there. … I wish it was a safe place again.”

Rosenthal helps plan the memorial. Although no project is yet under consideration, “what we all agree on is that we want something that tastes good, that represents the lives we lost there”, she said.

The new nonprofit organization overseeing the complex and educational programs will merge with the Pittsburgh Holocaust Center, which had previously announced plans to move into the renovated complex.

Programming would include exhibits telling the story of past and present manifestations of anti-Semitism, including the Holocaust and the 2018 attacks, as well as programs on ways to combat anti-Semitism and other hatreds based on identity.

Barbara Shapira, president of the Pittsburgh Holocaust Center, said the 2018 attacks made her “want to do something to stand up against these acts of hate that are becoming more and more prevalent in our world.”

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Associated Press religious coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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