Andrea Wedner is looking forward to going back to the Tree of Life building after it has been rebuilt.
Her mother, Rose Mallinger, was one of 11 victims murdered Oct. 27, 2018, while attending Shabbat services there. Wedner, who was by her side, was also shot that day, sustaining serious injuries. The Squirrel Hill resident, who is a lifelong member of Tree of Life Congregation, said that reopening the building will demonstrate “that we will not be driven out of our sacred space because of this horrible act of hate and violence.”
Wedner recently met the lead architect of the Tree of Life redesign project, Daniel Libeskind, on a Zoom call along with other survivors of the attack and the families of those murdered at the three congregations housed in building: Dor Hadash, New Light and Tree of Life. The architect had “some very insightful words,” said Wedner, although he did not share specific plans for the redesign.
Her mother, Wedner said, was dedicated to the congregation, and would have wanted the synagogue rebuilt at its current location on Wilkins and Shady avenues.
Audrey Glickman was also attending Shabbat services at Tree of Life at the time of the attack. She survived by hiding in an office filled with boxes and bags of clothes.
During the Zoom call, Libeskind allayed her concerns about the synagogue’s redesign, particularly “that we’re going to end up with a big, dark memorial that houses the Holocaust Center and has a pall of death around it,” Glickman said. But Libeskind, she found, “has the vision of openness and lightness and toward a positive future, which I was very glad to hear.”
Glickman said she has no qualms about returning to the building; she wanted to go back to the site immediately following the attack.
“The holiness of the building has not dissipated by what happened there,” she said.
Tree of Life member Judah Samet is a Holocaust survivor, and, because he arrived 10 minutes late for services on Oct. 27, a survivor of the attack at the building. Tree of Life is his “home and life,” he said.
“I wish I could have gone there the last two years.”
Still, he understands why some people may be hesitant to return to the building, but thinks it’s important to rebuild and allow those families who wish to attend services at the building again the opportunity to do so.
Joe Charny has been a member of Tree of Life for more than two decades and was in the building during the massacre. His attachment to the building runs deep and he believes the congregation ought to remain at the corner of Shady and Wilkins.
“That’s my building,” he said. “I was there when the thing happened. There’s no reason we can’t use that building. In fact, it’s what I think we should do.”
“To go somewhere else,” Charney said, “makes no sense.”
Like Charny, many survivors and their families are adamant that the building should be rebuilt at its present site, but others aren’t so sure.
“There are some of us in our group…we’re from three different congregations, so there are different opinions among us,” said Glickman.
Barry Werber survived the shooting by hiding in a dark storage closet along with Carol Black and Melvin Wax. He called 911 and remained in the pitch-black space after Wax stepped out and was shot and killed, and the murderer made a cursory pass through the closet.
Werber, a member of New Light Congregation, has only been back to the site once. He now worships with other New Light members at their current home in Congregation Beth Shalom
At his only visit to the Tree of Life building following the attack, he walked through its halls with his wife, his psychiatrist and a security person, “simply for my own mental wellbeing — to remove any chains this guy had on me,” he said. “You know, any fears to walk in, and especially, to walk out of the building.”
Werber remembered a conversation he had recently with another survivor of the attack who also took the emotional trip back to the building and said he returned to the site “not as a house of worship, but simply to be able to walk back in and out under his own steam,” Werber recounted. “That’s how I felt.”
Werber was also on the Zoom call with Libeskind, and said there were different opinions about the rebuild among the survivors and families.
“There’s an old saying: You have six Jews in a room, you get 12 ways to solve a problem,” he said. “That’s where we’re at. There’s the survivors’ group, the relatives’ group, the family group. Then you have three different synagogues…There’s a lot of chaff thrown in the air, and you wonder where it’s all going to land.”
Werber said he thinks it’s a great idea to rebuild the synagogue and that it makes sense for partners like the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh and area universities to make use of the building.
However, he said, “I don’t think that I could view the place as a house of worship.”
Werber said the shooting has left him with mental scars. He no longer enters a building without checking the location of the exits, and he won’t sit with his back to a public door.
Regardless of how the site is rebuilt, to Werber it will always remain a memorial.
“They could flatten it, make it a parking lot and it will be that site,” Werber said. “I made that quite clear when I spoke with the architect.”
Rabbi Doris Dyen survived the massacre because she arrived at the Tree of Life building just after the shooting began and was cautioned to stay away. The Congregation Dor Hadash member said she thinks practically about the fate of the building.
“People are concerned that there will be a memorial of some kind, whether it’s on that premises or not,” Dyen said. “The word that keeps coming back is ‘respectful acknowledgement’ of what happened there.”
Glickman, of Tree of Life, has some other ideas of what they should do with the site.
“We should be putting in a daycare, something that points to the future, because that’s how we continue as a congregation,” she said.
Marc Simon’s parents, Sylvan and Bernice, were both murdered at Tree of Life, where they were members. Marc Simon said that while the rebuilding project is in its infancy, he hopes the congregation will flourish.
“As longtime members who were married there many years ago, that is what my parents would also desire,” Simon said. “In their rebuilding process, I am hopeful and very confident that Tree of Life will honor in a meaningful and dignified manner the lives and memories of our 11 beautiful and loving souls that were taken from us on Oct. 27, 2018.” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.