The process of rebuilding the Tree of Life synagogue structure has been underway since November, although no plans or designs have yet been drawn.
For the past nine months, the leadership of Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Congregation — under the pro bono guidance of Dan Rothschild of the architectural and urban design firm Rothschild Doyno Collaborative — has been convening a series of “listening sessions” comprised of community stakeholders sharing their thoughts on what the building at the corner of Wilkins and Shady avenues should be now that it holds the lamentable distinction of marking the site of the worst anti-Semitic massacre in the history of the United States, as well as being a cherished house of worship.
“We are doing our due diligence,” said Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers, spiritual leader of TOL*OLS. “It’s going to take some time.”
The 155-year-old congregation moved from its building on Craft Avenue in Oakland to the corner of Wilkins and Shady in 1952, where it since has served as the spiritual home to generations of worshippers. Since the massacre, the congregation temporarily has been housed at Rodef Shalom Congregation.
Now, decisions have to be made as to what functions the Tree of Life structure will serve going forward, taking into account the building’s significance to a host of interested parties, including the congregation’s membership and the worldwide Jewish community, just for starters.
“It’s very complicated,” said Alan Hausman, vice president of TOL*OLS. “There are many things to consider, and it’s taking longer than anyone anticipated. Fortunately, none of us has had to do this before, so we are writing the book as we go. But we have started the process.”
The congregation’s immediate past president, Michael Eisenberg, is the chair of the capital repair committee, charged with heading up the process of determining how and what to rebuild.
“I’m finding it’s not just Tree of Life’s decision, although we own the land, we have the name and so forth,” he said. “There are a lot of cooks in the kitchen.”
That’s where the listening sessions come in.
“When you are designing a building, you have to get an idea of what people want and how they see the current status of what’s there, what their desires are for the future,” Eisenberg said, noting that during the sessions, Rothschild solicits feedback on the economic, social and physical impact of the events of Oct. 27.
So far, there have been seven sessions, with 15 to 20 people at each one. Groups have been convened of young adults, and members of TOL*OLS’s tenants New Light Congregation and Congregation Dor Hadash. A recent session for families of victims and survivors of the massacre drew about 40 people.
“It’s been very enlightening,” said Eisenberg. “You really see how emotion drives physical design. You look at the practicalities of it, what people were really seeing in our space prior to the event, what they saw as its shortcomings, how their community was affected by the attack and by being displaced from the Tree of Life building.”
People write down their thoughts on post-it notes that are posted on a board, and then compiled into a manuscript by Rothschild’s team.
“We have transcribed all these thoughts and ideas into a manuscript, completely anonymous, and sorted into those three categories [economic, social and physical], over 30 pages long,” said Rothschild, who has led these sorts of listening sessions in other neighborhoods and for other projects. “It becomes the programming information for future vision as described by the people who have participated.”
After people write down their thoughts, they have the option of reading them to the group.
One benefit of the process, Rothschild said, is that “people feel their voices are heard, and you are getting specific ideas from people who will be using the spaces we create. The manuscript has been written by the people who have been affected by this trauma, so it’s not an expert swooping in and saying, ‘I think this is what should happen.’”
Although the opinions gathered differ in detail, “you can begin to see how synergy is created by combining concepts that are not identical but can build on each other,” he added. “It’s not a uniform consensus that forms, but it’s bringing a fuzzy picture into focus.”
There have been a range of ideas communicated by the participants of the sessions.
“It runs the gamut from leveling the building and starting anew to putting it up the way it was, just fix it and move on,” Eisenberg said. “At this point anything is on the table.”
Some participants have suggested maintaining the synagogue’s large, main sanctuary, but taking down the central section of the building “because the victims were in that part of the building, and that part of the building is the oldest, so it’s getting to the end of its useful life anyway,” Eisenberg explained. “And then people want to remove the psychological reminders of the incident, so maybe take down the pavilion area as well.”
Rothschild believes the listening sessions have been “cathartic” for those who have attended.
“Some of these ideas have been inside people’s heads and either they have not been able to share them, but certainly they have not been able to hear them from others,” he said. “A lot of this isn’t about content, it’s about processing trauma.”
Eisenberg hopes to have at least one more listening session to which he will invite his entire congregation.
Tree of Life’s responsibility to the wider community is also part of the discussion, as the building may serve, at least in part, as a memorial and a place for visitors to Pittsburgh to pay their respects. To that end, the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh is exploring the possibility of relocating to the Tree of Life property as well.
“Moving to Tree of Life is a great idea, and we’d be foolish not to explore where that could go,” said Lauren Bairnsfather, director of the Holocaust Center. “It has a natural and powerful connection — the history of the worst anti-Semitic event with the most recent and worst in U.S. history. The potential to honor the victims of October 27 with a commitment to education, community and positive action appeals to us on many levels…. Over the past nine months, our programs have reached more than 10,000 individuals. A larger public space in a location of such significance would allow us to have an even greater impact across the region.”
These last nine months have also found Eisenberg working with insurance adjusters, and organizing the insurers’ required walk-throughs with contractors to determine the cost of repairs to restore the building to its condition prior to the massacre.
In addition to the anticipated insurance funds, the congregation has received donations through the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Victims of Terror Fund, as well as donations made directly to TOL*OLS. Whether additional fundraising will have to be undertaken in order to rebuild is not yet known, because the scope of the project remains undetermined.
While congregational leaders had hoped to have a firm plan in place for rebuilding by the first anniversary of the attack, “now, it’s going to be a vaguer description of what it will be,” Eisenberg said. “But we are trying to ride a momentum of sentiment to make sure that things are done right up at the corner, and we don’t want to squander the opportunity and we don’t want it to go too long.”
Rothschild’s firm planned the 1995 renovation of the Tree of Life building. Neither it nor any other architectural firm has yet been contracted to work on the building’s design going forward.
In the meantime, TOL*OLS leadership is “gung ho, we are moving ahead with this,” Eisenberg said.
“I’d like to see us get past this ‘Tree of Life is all about the tragedy,’” he continued. “There is still a vital community, and there are people who want to be together. We want to build something grand and big and make a model and show that we are strong and that we came back bigger and better than ever. And that’s what we are looking to do.” JN
Toby Tabachnick is the senior staff writer of the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle. Since Oct. 27, she has written more than 30 articles about the Tree of Life massacre.