Demolition set to begin at Tree of Life building
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An anticipated startDemo work is first phase in new Tree of Life building

Demolition set to begin at Tree of Life building

“It feels like a moment of gratitude and blessing,” she said.

Demolition equipment has started to arrive at the Tree of Life building. Work is expected to begin by the end of January, (Photo by  Maureen Busis)
Demolition equipment has started to arrive at the Tree of Life building. Work is expected to begin by the end of January, (Photo by Maureen Busis)

The corner of Shady and Wilkins avenues will soon look very different.

That’s because demolition is scheduled to begin at the Tree of Life building on January 17. In fact, an observant eye might have already noticed the arrival of demolition equipment, like earth-moving vehicles and forklifts, at the site.

Nearly 80% of the existing structure will be removed, according to Michael Bernstein, chair of Tree of Life Inc.’s Interim Governance Committee.

“The Daniel Libeskind design preserves the sanctuary walls, but the rest of it is really all new construction,” he said. “The process will take several months to complete and, by the end of that, it will be, for the most part, a level lot with the sanctuary walls preserved allowing us to then begin construction in earnest.”

Libeskind is the chief architect of the reimagined Tree of Life, working in collaboration with local firm Rothschild Doyno Collaborative. He is the founder of the world-renowned Studio Libeskind.

Over the last several months, Bernstein said, Tree of Life has removed everything of value that the congregation wants to save, as well as items that could be donated.

“The building is a shell,” he said. “We’ve been conducting asbestos remediation and preparation for the demolition.”

For Carole Zawatsky, Tree of Life’s CEO, the demolition is the initial step toward healing for the community at the site.

“When we removed the evidentiary material — the ark, the drywall in the room where the shooter was apprehended, the kitchen island — and I would walk through, it felt like a scarred building,” she said. “The absence of that material was stark. And this is the first step in moving from that horror to memory and moving forward.”

While she acknowledged that moving forward might be difficult, she has heard a lot of enthusiasm for transforming the building through Libeskind’s design, which aims to bring “light and worship in a beautiful new space,” she said, citing the Memorial Garden as an example.

“[It] really makes that corner alive, both with the memories of each of the victims and, as we continue to say, to never be defined by our haters and our killers,” she said.

Andrew Stewart, the co-chair of the construction work group, has deep ties to both the building and the congregation.

His family have been longtime members of the congregation. In fact, the reception for his bar mitzvah in 1974 was the inaugural event in the building’s social hall.

Because of those roots, he said the demolition and construction are personal.

“Which is to say, it is a very important and special project to have the opportunity to work on and I view it as a real privilege,” he said.

Like Zawatsky, he views the demolition an important first step for the community.

“Every milestone is affirming,” Stewart said. “And each milestone is a step forward in making something good out of something bad.”

Tree of Life Congregation President Alan Hausman said the demolition of the building “packs a ton of emotion.”

“You’re seeing this building that originally in 1950 being torn down,” he said.

It’s demolition, he said, is tough on people who celebrated life cycle events like weddings and b’nai mitzvot there.

“But, it also gives us the opportunity to move forward in an incredibly positive fashion,” he said.

And while the congregation has been welcomed with open arms at their temporary home in Rodef Shalom, he said it will be nice to eventually be back in their own building, saying he’s looking forward to the day when they can invite the Reform congregation to their home for a joint program.

Like Hausman, Sharon Novak also believes in making something positive out of a negative.

Novak heads S&B USA, the Pittsburgh-based operations of Israeli-headquartered Shikun and Binui, Ltd. Fay, S&B USA Construction, which will be performing the demolition. It is a subsidiary of S&B USA.

The company is performing most of the approximately $500,000 demolition job pro bono.

Novak is an Israeli native who moved to Pittsburgh about three-and-a-half years ago. He lives only a few blocks from Tree of Life.

“When I moved here, it was very awkward for me to see that nothing had been done,” he said. “Obviously, it’s very sensitive and many people, all of the community, was affected by the events back then.”

That lag in reconstruction contrasted with how things are done in Israel and is contradictory to what Novak thought should be done.

“In speaking with many people, it’s always been a topic of concern,” he said. “Obviously, there are a lot of different opinions.”

Many of the people he has worked with, and several of his friends, were affected by the events of Oct. 27, 2018, he said, so he was looking for a way to contribute and support the project.

“We have 250 employees in the Pittsburgh region. Home is Pittsburgh,” he said. “We thought this was the best way that we could bring the most benefit to the project and, rather than just make a contribution in terms of dollar value, we could bring more to the project doing this work.”

Novak noted that the company is donating all of the labor and equipment for the demolition, which he said is the first stage of the reconstruction project.

He views the work as “very meaningful,” he said, both because of S&B USA’s ties to the city and on a personal level.

“The fact that the company is now part of an international company owned by a country based out of Israel adds another flavor,” he said. “It’s an important part of our DNA and what we do. It’s going to be a very important project and milestone.”

Tree of Life is still raising money for the project, despite starting demolition.

Bernstein said that Tree of Life has raised approximately $30 million of the $75 million comprehensive campaign, of which $50 million will be allocated to the capital cost of the building, museum and memorial.

The rest of the money will go to the organization’s operations over the first few years — something that Zawatsky said she can now begin to think about — including public programming for adults, schools and families, and high-level symposia and film festivals.

In the meantime, she said the demolition is a “resounding shehecheyanu” moment for the project.

“It feels like a moment of gratitude and blessing,” she said. “With new things, oftentimes, comes some tough feelings which I’m keenly aware of, that not only is this a building that so many people have generational memories, but it’s also a building that the ultimate tragedy took place in and seeing 80% of it come down will be associated with some difficult moments.”

That said, she’s also aware of the forward momentum it represents.

“It is a moment of shehecheyanu. It is a moment of gratitude that we’ve all as a community come to this place,” she said. “To have gotten to this point feels very rewarding.” PJC

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

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