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'We'll be back again': Jewish congregants welcome a new chapter for the Tree of Life synagogue

Jillian Forstadt
90.5 WESA

Members of the Tree of Life Congregation in Squirrel Hill gathered Sunday to bid farewell to their former building. The synagogue will undergo major renovations as members of the city’s Jewish community distance themselves from the 2018 shooting there.

Rather than saying “goodbye," attendees sang “l’hitraot," or “until we meet again.”

“We'll be back again,” said Rabbi Jeffrey Myers. “And evil did not chase us from our building.”

Myers led community members in a ceremony that focused on the many joyous moments experienced at the synagogue. From the building’s garden, congregants remembered holidays, weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs celebrated inside.

Tree of Life and two other Jewish congregations — Congregation Dor Hadash and New Light Congregation — all practiced in the building. The 11 worshippers who died in the 2018 shooting were members of the three congregations.

“We do need to move on, and there has to be a moment to set aside [and] to be grateful for all the joy that we've had in 71 years in that building,” Myers said.

Renovation plans for the synagogue include a sanctuary and museum. A dramatic skylight will run across the length of the structure.

While a groundbreaking date has not been announced, faith leaders removed one of the building’s mezuzahs — a small set of scrolls inscribed with Torah passages that are traditionally affixed to the doorframes of Jewish homes and places of worship.

“By taking the mezuzah down from the synagogue, it now says that we're now moving on to the next phase in the project,” Myers said.

Congregant Mel Solomon said he looks forward to returning to a “reimagined” Tree of Life, which will also host a center for addressing anti-Semitism.

“We're going to be once again enjoying the facility and moving forward with the learning of why this whole event happened to begin with,” he said.

Solomon, who is a member of the committee working to transform the building, said construction could be complete as early as 2025.

The ceremony also marked a new chapter for the synagogue and those who worshipped there: Jury selection begins this week in the federal death-penalty trial of the man accused of killing the worshippers inside the building.

While the trial is expected to last through July, Myers added the synagogue has stood — and will continue to stand — for far longer.

“And we cannot, we must not permit one day out of 25,993 days to define us,” he said.

“Not only do these venerated walls hold great stories, but so do all of you assembled here today,” he continued. “And no one can take that away from us.”

Jillian Forstadt is an education reporter at 90.5 WESA. Before moving to Pittsburgh, she covered affordable housing, homelessness and rural health care at WSKG Public Radio in Binghamton, New York. Her reporting has appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition.