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Three years after the Tree of Life attack, community looks to creating new space, healing

Memorials for shooting victims outside the Tree of Life synagogue.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
Wooden Stars of David built in the days after an attack at the Tree of Life Synagogue three years ago memorialize the lives of those killed.

On today’s episode of The Confluence: Rabbi Jeffrey Myers describes how his congregation is still healing since the attack at the Tree of Life synagogue; Carol Sikov Gross, president of the congregation, explains how an architect with family ties to the Jewish community is helping restore and refurbish the synagogue; the head of the Community Day School, Avi Baran Munro, reflects on student and faculty actions to mourn the attack; and journalist and author Mark Oppenheimer explains why he focused on the neighborhood of Squirrel Hill in his book about how the community came together.

Rabbi Jeffrey Myers says although he wears ‘two yarmulkes’ as both survivor and rabbi, he’s doing his best to move the congregation towards healing
(0:00 - 8:38)

Three years ago today, a lone gunman walked into the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill during Shabat services and shot and killed 11 worshippers.

Rabbi Jeffrey Myers has been the leader of the Tree of Life Congregation since 2017 and is a survivor of the attack. He says he’s learning to live with the good and bad days.

“It’s not always easy to figure out, at what point am I solely a survivor and work from that perspective, when am I the rabbi, or sometimes do I wear both yarmulkes, so to speak, simultaneously?” says Myers. “That’s a daily struggle.”

Myers says it’s an ongoing process to move himself, and the congregation, towards continual healing.

Last week, Myers participated in the city’s inaugural Eradicate Hate Sumit.

“Antisemitism is the world’s oldest ‘H’ [hate] speech, it’s been around for 3,500 years” says Myers. “Clearly the things we’ve been doing have not been sufficiently effective. It needs to move to action. When I say action, we all need to gather together, to work together to share in our commonalities, because when we do, we discover we are far more alike than we are different.”

Carol Sikov Gross, president of the Tree of Life congregation, says the building refurbishment will help it become a place of ‘hope, remembrance, and education’
(8:42 - 13:23)

The Tree of Life synagogue has sat empty since the 2018 attack.

Immediately thereafter, nearby synagogues hosted the congregants for services, and then the pandemic kept the community from gathering in person.

During that time away, the decision to refurbish the building was made and architect Daniel Libeskind was selected by the board of trustees.

“When we reviewed things from various architects, and I read what he had submitted, it brought tears to my eyes,” says Carol Sikov Gross, president of the Tree of Life congregation, and part of the group that selected Libeskind. “You just got the sense that this was someone who cared, and who wanted to help remember people who were victims.”

Sikov Gross says she sees Libeskind as helping “transform a site of tragedy and hate into one of hope, remembrance, and education.”

The Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh will have a presence in the new building, which Sikov Gross says will help Tree of Life accomplish its educational priorities. It’s not yet clear when the building will be reopened, but Sikov Gross says progress is being made every day.

Community Day School faculty are continuing trauma-informed care to help their students process
(13:27 - 20:00)

Community Day School, a Jewish day school, is located about a mile from the Tree of Life Synagogue.

After the mass shooting at the Tree of Life, schools and educators needed to figure out how to address this tragedy with their students.

“The attack happened on a Saturday. By Monday morning, we had ten volunteer counselors to stand in our hallway to greet the adults who came early, to be available all day to counsel them, also support them in groups that they created to help students process what had happened,” explains Avi Baran Munro, the head of school at Community Day School.

Munro says the community has been in an ongoing state of trauma since the attack, citing other hate crimes and the pandemic. She says the school continues to guide conversations, using a trauma-informed lens.

“We're very careful not to be specific about, especially this recent tragedy. Students are circulating through it and living through it with their families,” says Munro. “What we’re trying to do is carefully afford opportunities for conversation without hitting anyone in the face with something that they might not be ready to talk about in this space.”

Mark Oppenheimer’s new book looks at how the community of Squirrel Hill and others responded to the attack
(20:07 - 29:30)

Over the 18 months following the shooting attack, Mark Oppenheimer, former religion columnist for the New York Times, and the host of the podcast, “Unorthodox”, visited Pittsburgh dozens of times and spoke with hundreds of people. Those conversations inspired his new book, “Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood.”

Oppenheimer already knew some things about Squirrel Hill — his father had grown up there.

He wrote about how people were drawn to Pittsburgh, whether they had direct connections, family and friends, or not. This included Greg Zannis, known for his handmade memorial crosses, “Crosses for Losses,” which he brought to the sites of mass shootings and deaths caused by natural disasters.

“When he was creating memorials for Jews, he built Stars of David, Jewish six-pointed stars that he would affix on top of the cross, so that it wasn’t a cross people saw as they walked by, but a star,” says Oppenheimer.

Oppenheimer says many gentile allies supported the Jewish community through gifts and by displaying imagery, like the now ubiquitous “Stronger than Hate” signs, where a hypocycloid in the Steelers logo is replaced by a Star of David.

On the first anniversary, Oppenheimer spoke to Dan Leger, who was seriously wounded in the attack. Leger told Oppenheimer he was moved by how “walls came down in the aftermath of the killing,” including political divides, and walls between those in the Jewish community.

“From the moment that I heard about the killing, I was never interested in the killer, and I realized pretty quickly that it would fall to other people to memorialize the lives of the eleven who were killed,” says Oppenheimer. “Really, my interest was in the neighborhood.”

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in Monday to Thursday at 9 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts.

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