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Pittsburgh's Jewish community begins 'new chapter' with groundbreaking of new Tree of Life building

Kiley Koscinski
/
90.5 WESA
Rabbi Jeffrey Myers leads survivors and victims' families in song at a celebration of the new Tree of Life facility.

Nearly six years after the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history, Pittsburgh’s Jewish community was joined by local, state and federal leaders at the site of the Tree of Life synagogue to break ground on a new building and an expanded mission.

Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff and Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro were among the public figures who spoke about how the new facility could serve as an antidote to antisemitism and a reminder of the 2018 attack that killed 11 worshippers.

“We are turning what was once a tragic crime scene right here into a place of hope and inspiration and a place that will be full of light,” said Emhoff, who is the first Jewish person to serve as the spouse of a nationally elected U.S. leader.

Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff and Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro.
Kiley Koscinski
/
90.5 WESA
Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff and Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro.

Plans for the new complex include a cultural center, sanctuary, educational center and museum along with a memorial to the worshipers from three congregations who were murdered on the Sabbath morning of Oct. 27, 2018. The Tree of Life congregation — which previously worshiped at the site as well as the Dor Hadash and New Light congregations — plans to return there after construction.

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 — designed the building. A dramatic skylight will run the length of the facility to represent the Jewish practice of Tikkun Olam, or “repair the world.”

The new building will also serve as a memorial to the 11 worshippers killed in the attack: Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil and David Rosenthal, Bernice and Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax and Irving Younger.

Diane Rosenthal said her brothers — who both had a genetic disorder marked by intellectual disabilities — often felt excluded in the world but welcomed at the Tree of Life synagogue. She said the new building will be a welcoming place for everyone.

“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 … why it happened, and how to counter antisemitism and other forms of identity-based hate,” Rosenthal said.

About 500 people sat inside a packed tent to mark the occasion, with what remains of the synagogue in the background. Most of the building has been demolished, but what’s left will become part of the new campus.

In attendance were survivors, their families, faith leaders, politicians and members of the community at large.

Kiley Koscinski
/
90.5 WESA
Tree of Life Rabbi Jeffrey Myers

A fence surrounding the property was wrapped in images of art, poetry and inspirational messages. The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and Northgate High School choir gave musical performances, and a large interfaith prayer embodied the spirit of unity and hope that permeated the program.

The ceremony concluded with the breaking of the glass. Survivors, their families, first responders and public figures lined the front of the stage and stomped on cloth-covered glass houses to celebrate a new beginning while also remembering their grief.

“The breaking reminds us of the brokenness in our world and all that we must do to fix it,” Emhoff said. “But it also gives us hope, and we all must do our part.”

The glass pieces will be reused as part of a decorative mezuzah along the doorposts in the building, according to Carole Zawatsky, chief executive officer of the Tree of Life nonprofit organization overseeing the project in tandem with the congregation.

“The mezuzah will forever be a reminder of our obligation to try to pick up the shards of our broken world,” she said.

Organizers said they plan to open the new Tree of Life building in 2026.

Tree of Life Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, who led the spiritual portion of the program, said that reaching this new chapter for his congregation serves as proof that hate has no home in Pittsburgh.

“Today we announce, loudly and clearly, to the entire world that evil did not win — that it did not chase us from our home, and it never, ever will,” Myers said.

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, who is Jewish, told the audience that when he was sworn in as governor 18 months ago, among the three Bibles used during his oath-of-office ceremony was one from the Tree of Life congregation. He said the Bible still sits on his desk in Harrisburg.

“I am proof that the people of Pennsylvania can indeed find light in the midst of darkness, that we will not be defined by our darkest hour, but rather how we come together to comfort one another in these moments and to shine light,” he said.

Also in attendance Sunday were U.S. Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Lt. Gov. Austin Davis, Congresswoman Summer Lee, State Rep. Dan Frankel, Allegheny County Executive Sara Innamorato, Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey City Councilor Erika Strassburger and others. County Controller Corey O’Connor — who was a city council member representing part of Squirrel Hill at the time of the attack — former Mayor Bill Peduto and former Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald were also in the crowd.

Kiley Koscinski
/
90.5 WESA

Though much of the ceremony was hopeful, speakers also emphasized the dangers of a growing rate of antisemitic incidents in the United States amid the ongoing war in Gaza.

“It is indeed a crisis of antisemitism that we are undergoing right now in America and the world,” Emhoff said. “We see it on our campuses and schools and our markets, our neighborhoods, our synagogues and online.”

Shapiro argued that “some leaders at times offer permission slips to hate,” and challenged politicians to do more to disavow antisemitism.

Eric Ward, an activist and member of the Tree of Life academic advisory committee, said similar antisemitic rhetoric is what inspired the man responsible for the deadly attack in Pittsburgh.

“When bigotry goes unchecked, when leaders stoke fear and division, when they dehumanize others based [on] race, faith or ethnicity, they perpetuate the very ideologies that led to that fateful day here in Pittsburgh,” he said.

The gunman in the Pittsburgh synagogue attack was sentenced to death in 2023 after he was convicted on 63 counts, including hate crimes.

In an interview with reporters, Casey echoed the call for rooting out intimidation of Jewish people in America on college campuses and elsewhere, as protests against the war in Gaza continue.

“In some places, you have legitimate protest and First Amendment rights being exercised,” Casey said. “But in a lot of places, you see blatant anti-Semitism and hate directed at Jewish students [and] at the Jewish state of Israel. We can't tolerate that.”

Last month, Casey introduced a bill to crack down on antisemitism on college campuses. The measure could allow stronger enforcement of anti-discrimination laws on college campuses by expanding investigations into claims of hostile environments. And earlier this year, Casey announced $1 million in federal funding for Tree of Life to develop K-12 educational programming.

Kiley Koscinski
/
90.5 WESA

Despite the acknowledgement of a continued rise in hate, Pittsburgh’s Jewish community stood firm Sunday, arguing its character is one of resilience, not torment.

“We know we are stronger together. So let us this day — as we celebrate the start of this new chapter for the Tree of Life — reaffirm our resolve to bring light into our world,” said Zawatsky.

In the meantime, Rosenthal called the start of this new chapter “a testament to our resilience and the strength of our Jewish community here in Pittsburgh and around the world.”

“Vibrant Jewish life will return to this corner of Shady and Wilkins,” she said. “Where it has been for generations.”

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.