10/27 memorial to be built on unity, not unanimity
Tree of Life buildingFamilies, synagogues work to build a lasting memorial

10/27 memorial to be built on unity, not unanimity

“I think that we really had to develop trust,” Recht said. “At the beginning, people were still very, very wounded.”

Tree of Life building rendering with new memorial, the path in front of the building with stone markers. The organization has announced its founding board members. (Photo copyright Studio Libeskind)
Tree of Life building rendering with new memorial, the path in front of the building with stone markers. The organization has announced its founding board members. (Photo copyright Studio Libeskind)

How do you create a memorial for the 11 people murdered during the Oct. 27 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting? Is it possible for nine families and three congregations to agree on the scope, location and look of a monument? Should they even try?

You begin, according to Jo Recht, by not even discussing a memorial. Instead, you work on creating trust.

“I think that we really had to develop trust,” Recht said. “At the beginning, people were still very, very wounded.”

Recht is a member of Congregation Dor Hadash. She serves as the congregation’s representative on the Memorialization Working Group and as a member of the 10.27 Healing Partnership’s steering committee, created in January 2020.

The steering committee, she explained, began meeting shortly after Maggie Feinstein was hired in late spring 2019 to head the 10.27 Healing Partnership. The committee had only one in-person meeting before the pandemic forced its work to move online.

Feinstein said that the idea of a memorial first arose during meetings of the steering committee.

“We realized that to have a memorial that centers on the experience of those directly impacted, we’re going to have to create a specific space for that to happen,” she said. “And so, in 2020, we created a Memorialization Working Group.”

Invited into the group were one family member from each of the nine families who had a relative murdered during the attack, and two representatives from each of the affected congregations—Congregation Dor Hadash, New Light Congregation and Tree of Life Congregation.

At that point, though, no one knew where the group was headed.

“We hadn’t yet formed a plan,” Feinstein said. “We wanted them to be the leaders of it, but that would take work and how to problem-solve, how to get through differences of viewpoints and opinions.”

So, before an idea was on the table, or a sketch was created, or there was talk of where the memorial would be, the group first crafted a purpose statement that became their north star.

“This Memorial honors and remembers the eleven Jewish lives taken while they gathered in a sacred space to celebrate Shabbat with their congregations. Each leaves behind loved ones who will forever carry their memories as a blessing. We believe bringing awareness of the deadliest attack against Jews in the history of the United States will promote the continued fight against the dangers of antisemitism.”

They also hired Selina Shultz, from The Conflict Lab, to serve as a mediator.

Shultz, who calls herself a “recovering lawyer,” was hired to serve as a neutral party, “to help foster cogent conversations and avoid unnecessary conflict and to really get this group together from the get-go,” said Tree of Life representative Suzanne Schreiber.

Feinstein said that Shultz’s role was important.

“We had somebody who facilitated it with the pure intention to help the group find consensus — that it wasn’t necessarily a voting process. It should be consensus-driven, and that was really to be trauma-informed,” she said.

Shultz worked with the group, first on Zoom, and later in person, to develop active listening skills and to build trust between members. Some of the activities included one-on-one meetings with the mediator, breakout sessions on Zoom and foundational work to train members how to listen to one another.

“We needed to learn how to listen and not be judgmental,” Recht said.

Amy Mallinger, granddaughter of Rose Mallinger, who was killed in the Oct. 27, 2018 attack, said the work was important to find unity.

“That was hard for us at the beginning, but we did a lot of groundwork for that,” she said. “We all knew why we were there.”

Crucial to the group were conversations they had with other organizations that had gone through the process of building memorials after various tragedies and shootings, including representatives from the National September 11 Memorial and Museum; the Aurora, Colorado theater shooting, which created the Ascentiate memorial; and the National Pulse Nightclub Memorial and Museum in Orlando, Florida.

The group also visited the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, Pennsylvania — something Schreiber called “life-changing.”

She said the group met with the memorial’s director, who talked about the process, which involved 43 families and 15 years to complete.

“He threw a lot of questions out,” Schreiber remembered, “like, what kind of story do you want to tell.”

The group also spent time with Clifford Chanin, executive vice president and director of the 9/11 Memorial Museum.

Chanin said he met with several representatives of the MWG and made several trips to Pittsburgh in the early days of the project.

“It was going back to the early stages of our project here in New York and explaining what we had done in the hopes that some of it might prove relevant,” he said. “That it has — to whatever degree it has — I’m glad to learn, but all of these processes take their own course at a certain point. They have to.”

Diane Rosenthal has served on the MWG not only as the representative of the Rosenthal family and her brothers, Cecil and David, but has also worked with Tree of Life, Inc.’s Interim Governance Committee.

She said that the process was initially difficult and intense, with many different voices and opinions, as well as people in various stages of grief.

“The families that were on the calls really put their heads together,” she said, “to come up with something that they felt was appropriate for the 11 lives that we lost.”

Early on, Rosenthal said, it was decided that a memorial would be built outside the new Tree of Life building. Its precise location was another point the group discussed, eventually opting for the same site as the building, near the corner of Shady and Wilkins avenues in Squirrel Hill.

That was intentional, Schreiber said, and something that came from the group’s conversations with Chanin.

“If you go around Manhattan, there are fire houses that have created memorials to 9/11 and police stations, but he said, as far as the official memorial to 9/11, it’s going to be in Lower Manhattan, if not on the site, as close to the site as possible. We sort of took that to heart,” she said.

The group eventually moved on to consider things like the components of the memorial, Rosenthal said.

“I mean, even down to, ‘Do you want something that is peaceful like water or do you want a lot of trees?’”

Aware of many of the elements of the new Tree of Life building planned, Rosenthal said the group knew that the massacre of Oct. 27 would be commemorated inside the structure.

“But we wanted our own special place outside,” she said.

And while the memorial will be on the same property as the Tree of Life building, its design was left to the working group — and eventually Studio Libeskind, the architecture firm working on the building.

That decision, though, like everything else, was decided upon by the group.

According to Daniel Libeskind, founder of Studio Libeskind and chief architect of the new Tree of Life building, the memorial consists of a walkway and garden memorial with 11 sculpted forms of open books, representing each of the victims, and is an affirmation of life.

Given its location, he said, the memorial had to make sense for the space, which he describes as “intimate” and something that works in nature. He noted that there will be 11 trees — one for each of the victims — and a lot of vegetation in what he called a “verdant” space.

“Of course,” Libeskind said, “the symbolism is pretty direct because it’s about 11 people who were murdered at prayer, and so each of the murdered Jews is given a place of memory, which I call the ‘book of life’ in which the families will inscribe whatever they think is important to be inscribed for this project.”

The architect, who served as the master planner of the rebuilding of Ground Zero, said the process at the Tree of Life site was very different because he was able to engage with each family and the MWG, something he couldn’t do with the 3,000 families affected on 9/11.

The memorial, Libeskind said, was designed with the new Tree of Life building in mind.

“The building is designed on the path of light, which is really informing the entire structure emanating from the synagogue itself,” he said. “This really is a reflection of the path of life in a different space, outside of the building, in front of the old sanctuary and marked where the path of light begins. It’s a visible point of the building within the memorial.”

Chair of Tree of Life, Inc.’s Interim Governance Committee, Michael Bernstein, said the organization felt it was important for the families to decide how the project was approached.

“The memorial itself is such a personal part of the project directly to the families who lost loved ones,” he said.

If the MWG is beginning to think about the final product, it doesn’t mean the design is finished. Studio Libeskind is still working on sketches and the group is still thinking about things like design elements and materials.

And despite words like “consensus,” not everyone agrees with the decisions made.

Marc Simon, son of Sylvan and Bernice Simon, who were murdered in the Oct. 27 attack, said he and his family feel the proposed memorial is “very underwhelming, non-inspirational and inappropriate — both conceptually and in its design.”

“My opinion is not meant, in any manner, as a reflection of Studio Libeskind, as they have produced many outstanding memorials throughout the world,” Simon wrote in an email. “The MWG and, to some extent, TOLI are ultimately responsible and were tasked with the duty of appropriate memorialization.”

Simon is part of the MWG, as is Sharyn Stein, who said she joined the group to make sure her husband, Dan, who was killed in the shooting, had a voice.

As a New Light member, her interest in the new Tree of Life building was limited. That changed, though, over time.

“It was just the memorial I was thinking about,” she said. “As time went on, I realized the big picture was important.”

Stein said the unity the group found doesn’t mean unanimity.

“There were ups and downs over the years. It was a struggle and it’s gotten to the place where we’re in a good place,” she said. “We’ve definitely found consensus, not total agreement.”

For Amy Mallinger, a unanimous decision isn’t needed. She was happy to learn more about the other families and hear their perspectives on the monument.

“In the beginning,” she said, “we weren’t strangers, but we were kind of people sitting in a room. Now we’ve become a group where we understand how people think and understand what certain people are going to say before they even say it in some sense. It’s really brought us together, in a way.” PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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