On Wednesday, Sept. 15, 1999, a gunman entered Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas. In less than 10 minutes, seven people died, including four teenagers.
“That night we were all home together as a family, and it was just not believing what had happened,” said Debbie Gillette, who has been an employee and a member of the church for more than three decades. Her then-teenage daughter, Rebecca, was in the sanctuary during the shooting. “It's just like, how can this happen in a church?”
The next day, church leadership met at the pastor’s house. Gillette said there was no doubt that they would continue to hold services in the space where so many lives were lost.
“We … had a time of prayer and we just decided that that was what we needed to do. Our pastor … spoke out first saying he thought that was what the Lord wanted us to do, and we just all agreed.”
After the bullet holes in the walls were fixed and the blood-stained carpet was replaced, congregants returned to the sanctuary for worship the next Sunday, just five days after the shooting.
‘I cannot go in there now’
By contrast, a chain link fence has blocked off the entrance to the Tree of Life synagogue for nearly a year now, ever since 11 worshippers were killed in the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history. The imposing, concrete building at the corner of Shady and Wilkins avenues in Squirrel Hill was built in the 1950s. Inside the 1,400-seat sanctuary, huge stained glass windows illustrate the story of creation and remind worshippers of their responsibility to care for the earth and one another. But no one has worshipped here since Oct. 27, 2018.
“I cannot go in there now,” said Andrea Wedner, whose 97-year-old mother, Rose Mallinger, was killed on that day during Shabbat morning services. “I've said that I will go back in the building if it looks totally different.”
Wedner is not alone. Sam Schachner, president of Tree of Life * Or L’Simcha congregation, said they began holding listening sessions to discuss what to do with the building early this year. He said some people were concerned that making only small fixes in the sanctuary, the kitchen, and other places where people were killed, could cause some congregants’ imaginations to run wild, recreating in their minds the scene from that deadly day.
“Because most people are not aware what actually happened in the site and yet they're aware of what was there,” Schachner said. “So they would approximately know where somebody was by what had changed.”
Schachner said others have pushed for a return to the existing synagogue. “Some people that have been members for 80 years, they would not want much of the synagogue space to change.”
While the specific details of repairs and rebuilding have yet to be worked out, one thing is clear: people will once again worship at this site. Tree of Life leadership announced last week that the congregation will one day return to that corner in Squirrel Hill, “in a demonstration of its faith with a pledge to fight anti-Semitism and all forms of discrimination,” according to an emailed statement.
Andrea Wedner says that’s what her mother would have wanted.
“I don't want this person to win. I don't want what happened to take away our home,” she said.
An honor and a responsibility
There’s no template for how to move forward after a mass shooting occurs in a house of worship, but this idea of staying put in the face of great evil is a common theme. After four black girls were killed in a bombing at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. in 1963, the building was closed to worship for eight months. When it reopened, it basically looked the same, save for a few modifications.
“The bathroom where the girls were found in, it was moved,” said current, Rev. Arthur Price. “That particular portion of the church was sealed off.”
Some families of the murdered children never returned to the church. But nearly 60 years after that racist attack, congregants don’t think of the space as a place of violence and trauma, but rather one of renewal and reconciliation, said Price.
“Many of the people that worship here, they do feel the burden of the legacy of 16th Street Baptist Church,” Price said. “Many feel honored and feel that responsibility, that worship must continue to go on in this space.”
Tree of Life executive director Barb Feige said she expects the Squirrel Hill synagogue to one day serve a similar purpose.
“I think it's a default thing for us,” Feige said. “It's not something we're going to plan, but I think the rest of the world will make us this historic site.”
Before the shooting last year, Tree of Life was in the process of developing what they call a “metropolitan” model of collaboration across congregations. Not only does Tree of Life share space – the building itself was also home to Dor Hadash and New Life congregations – but also programming and resources.
“Can we have meals together? Can we socialize together? Can we study together?” said Feige, who joined Tree of Life in July of this year. “That process obviously got stopped once the shooting occurred.”
Over the past nine months, Tree of Life has recommitted to that model, and in the wake of last year’s deadly attack, the vision has become more ambitious and expansive. In addition to worship spaces for Tree of Life and other congregations, the building could become home to the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh. Chatham University has expressed interest in providing an educational component. And there will be a memorial to the 11 victims of last year’s shooting, though it hasn’t yet been decided if it will be the main memorial to the victims or if that will be located elsewhere.
There are still many details to be worked out, said Feige. Tree of Life leadership knows the purpose they want the building to serve, but how exactly to get there is still up in the air. They’ll soon hire strategic planning and fundraising consultants, and next year will see the launch of a national capital fundraising campaign to complement the $450,000 set aside for rebuilding from the $6.3 million raised after the shooting. A preliminary building plan and timeline is expected to be completed by late spring 2020.
“We are poised to become an incredible center for Jewish life in the United States,” said Rabbi Jeffrey Myers in a statement. “When we re-open, and we most certainly will, I want the entire world to say ‘Wow. Look at what they have done.’ To do anything less disrespects the memory of our 11 martyrs.”