PITTSBURGH – The caretakers of the Tree of Life synagogue intend to transform the site of the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history and expand its mission.
Newly released design plans show a revitalized complex housing a sanctuary, museum, memorial and center for fighting antisemitism – unified symbolically and physically with a dramatic skylight running the length of the structure.
Organizers also announced plans Tuesday for a new Tree of Life nonprofit organization that would work with the similarly named congregation, oversee the building complex and offer education, museum exhibits and programming to counter hatred aimed at Jews and other groups.
The synagogue building – located in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood, the heart of Jewish Pittsburgh – has been vacant since Oct. 27, 2018. A gunman, who awaits trial on capital federal charges for what prosecutors say was a hate-motivated attack, killed 11 worshipers from Tree of Life and two other congregations – Dor Hadash and New Light – that shared the building.
The new design is by renowned architect Daniel Libeskind, whose previous works include Jewish museums, Holocaust memorials and the master plan for the redevelopment of the World Trade Center after 9/11.
Organizers said they don’t have a cost estimate or a timetable yet for the construction project. And many of the details for the interior, including the design of a memorial, are still being determined. The organizers are raising funds locally and nationally.
But they see Tuesday’s announcements as a big stride.
“We’re eager to be back in our spiritual home,” said Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, a survivor of the attack and rabbi of Tree of Life / Or L’Simcha Congregation, as it is formally known.
The plans call for retaining the synagogue’s large, main sanctuary, which was unused on the day of the attack.
Other parts of the complex would be razed, including a separate chapel where most of the killings occurred, though its historic stained-glass windows would be preserved. A new addition – framed by dramatically angled exterior walls, a hallmark of previous Libeskind projects – would incorporate the museum, a memorial to the victims and space for education and other programs.
Unifying the complex – at about 45,000 square feet in all – would be a skylight that spans the entire length of the roof, according to Libeskind’s design. The “Path of Light,” as Libeskind titles it, would begin in the historic sanctuary and widen, ray-like, across the programming area toward a new, more secure entrance.
“The light is not only physical light, it’s also spiritual light,” he said.
Libeskind said he met with congregants 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 present reality.
“The building has to be a response to the needs of the community, but it is also a response after the attacks,” he said. “This is no longer the Tree of Life before the attacks. 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 the child of Holocaust survivors who immigrated to the U.S. with his parents after facing communist-era antisemitism in Poland.
“We were able to be Jews in America,” he recalled. “That was like another promised land. Who would have ever thought America would be a country where Jews would be targeted for being Jews?”
He said his family was even helped by the same Jewish refugee-aid organization the alleged gunman ranted against online.
All three congregations targeted in the attacks have been worshipping at nearby synagogues since then. While Dor Hadash and New Light plan to stay in their new locations for the foreseeable future, Tree of Life members look forward to returning, Myers said.
“It’s an incredibly beautiful building,” he said. “However, what’s also important is what emanates from that. It provides a foundation for what we want to do.”
Diane Rosenthal, whose brothers Cecil and David Rosenthal were among those slain at Tree of Life, said they “would want this place to be rebuilt in some shape and form.”
The two men, who had intellectual disabilities, were faithful attendees and bonded closely with the congregants, she said.
“This was their home,” she said. “They felt safe there. … I’d like this to be a safe place again.”
Rosenthal is helping plan the memorial. While no designs are under consideration yet, “What we’ve all agreed upon is we want something that is tasteful, that represents the lives we lost there,” she said.
The new nonprofit organization overseeing the complex and educational programs will merge with The Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, which had already announced plans to move into the renovated complex.
Programming would include exhibits telling the story of past and present manifestations of antisemitism, including the Holocaust and the 2018 attacks, along with programming on ways to counter antisemitism and other identity-based hate.
Barbara Shapira, chair of the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, said the 2018 attacks caused her “to want to do something to stand up against these acts of hate that are becoming more prevalent in our world.”