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'This will be a sanctuary': Groundbreaking for Pittsburgh synagogue shooting memorial begins new chapter

Megan Guza, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on

Published in News & Features

With the remaining portions of the synagogue at the corner of Shady and Wilkins avenues as the backdrop, second gentleman Doug Emhoff spoke of the continued battle to fight back against the antisemitism that led to the deadly attack that occurred a few yards behind him almost six years ago.

"Since the evil of that day, we have seen antisemitism rise to unprecedented levels," Mr. Emhoff, husband of Vice President Kamala Harris, said to the hundreds gathered in Squirrel Hill. "It is indeed a crisis of antisemitism that we are undergoing right now in America and the world."

But what will rise out of that site in the coming months, he said, will be a hopeful reminder: "This will be a sanctuary that reminds all of us that there is more that unites us than divides us."

The ceremonial groundbreaking marked yet another chapter in the long book that has been the story of the synagogue, which housed congregations Dor Hadash and New Light in addition to the Tree of Life.

"We must never forget," Mr. Emhoff said. "We must never forget ... what antisemitism can do, and that we all have the responsibility to stand up to hate not through empty words and not through silence, but through action."

The ceremonial groundbreaking was permeated by a sense of hope as well as the lingering grief and trauma that time can't heal.

Diane Rosenthal said she can still feel her brothers when she visits the site at the corner of Shady and Wilkins avenues. Cecil and David, both in their 50s, were born with fragile X syndrome, a genetic disorder that caused intellectual and some physical disabilities. They knew they were different, Ms. Rosenthal said, and they knew they were often excluded.

But at the synagogue their congregation shared with Dor Hadash and New Light, Cecil and David were included, she said. The building was a second home to them and, the congregation, a second family of worshippers.

The new building, simply called Tree of Life, will include a memorial to Cecil and David, to Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Bernice and Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax and Irving Younger. It will house the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh and education spaces.

"The new Tree of Life will be a place where education is given to individuals of all ages who can learn what happened that day and why it happened and how to counter antisemitism and other forms of identity-based hate," Ms. Rosenthal said.

 

"My hope," she continued, "is that this new chapter will be an opportunity to welcome more people in, just as my brothers Cecil and David once welcomed everyone who came here to the Tree of Life."

Tree of Life CEO Carole Zawatsky pondered what it mean to move forward.

"It means when we say we will not forget them, we remember their whole lives," she said. "When we say, 'May their memories be for a blessing,' we do all in our power to make it true."

For more than five years, the hulking stone building sat empty, its only visitors FBI agents and some family members and survivors.

Some 80% of the building has been demolished, while the rest will become part of a campus that will house a memorial, sanctuary, education center, and museum dedicated to the history and study of antisemitism.

The design for the memorial portion of the site was unveiled in December. Its design is by architect Daniel Libeskind, who is also designing the renewed synagogue space. He has said the process was a painstaking one undertaken in conjunction with the survivors and the nine families of those killed.

The son of Holocaust survivors, Mr. Libeskind's portfolio includes the design of the 9/11 memorial in New York, Jewish Museum Berlin, and the Dutch Holocaust Memorial of names in Amsterdam.

The renderings released at the time show a stone path cut across the greenery on the Shady Avenue side of the building. Eleven sculptures of open books will line the walkway and garden — one for each of the 11 killed.

The sculptures will be inscribed with stories of how each person lived. The books represent the Jewish idea of the Book of Life: Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — the Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement — those who are leading good lives and destined for heaven are written into the Book of Life.


©2024 PG Publishing Co. Visit at post-gazette.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 

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