How we remember
OpinionGuest columnists

How we remember

Our loved ones’ names will forever be tied to the horrors of 10/27, but we don’t want them to be solely remembered for how they were killed.

Flowers left outside the Tree of Life building on Oct. 27, 2020. (Photo by Adam Reinherz)
Flowers left outside the Tree of Life building on Oct. 27, 2020. (Photo by Adam Reinherz)

Over the past four-and-a-half years, how to remember our loved ones is a question with which we have wrestled, both individually and together.

It’s been a long and difficult journey. We have not always agreed, but we kept listening to each other and we found places of agreement and a path forward to memorializing our family members murdered on Oct. 27, 2018, at the Tree of Life synagogue building.

Lead architect for rebuilding the Tree of Life, Daniel Libeskind, local architect Daniel Rothschild and their teams have spent countless hours with us — those of us whose names appear on this piece and those whose names do not — listening to our hopes and dreams for the future of the building and memorial. They have helped us consider the different ways we might remember our loved ones and how the physical space can support our remembrance. They’ve listened to the desires of each of the families who lost someone on 10/27, the hopes of the survivors and the needs of the congregation that will return to the building.

Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel once wrote that G-d gave humans a secret — not how to begin, but how to begin again.

The building as it existed on Oct. 26, 2018, is gone. We cannot go back and undo what was done. If we could, each and every one of us would choose more time with our loved ones. And so we must begin again. We must imagine new possibilities for the building and not allow ourselves to be paralyzed by grief and anger at the injustice our families experienced.

Our loved ones’ names will forever be tied to the horrors of 10/27, but we don’t want them to be solely remembered for how they were killed; we want them to be remembered for how they lived. We learn from Torah portion Chaya Sara (Genesis 23:1), which describes the burial of the first Jew, that, as the title suggests, we should focus on the life of Sara.

Our mothers and grandmothers — Joyce Fienberg and Rose Mallinger — and our sons and brothers — Cecil and David Rosenthal — loved the Tree of Life and the Pittsburgh Jewish community. The building was a second home and the congregation an extended family. We attended services. We went to Hebrew school. We celebrated b’nai mitzvot, both our own and our friends’.

The designs and plans for the reimagined Tree of Life give us hope and excitement that future generations of Jewish families will be able to have the same happy memories that ours did. Vibrant Jewish life will be able to return to the corner of Shady and Wilkins where it has been for generations. There will be weddings, b’nai mitzvot, Shabbat and holidays. The raucous laughter and noise of Purim celebrations will ring through the hallways once again.

While those memories will be formed in a building dramatically different than the one in which ours were formed, familiar elements will be preserved, including the well-known limestone facade and the beloved stained glass windows depicting the intertwined stories of American and Jewish history. The Pervin Chapel, where part of the attack occurred, will be entirely reimagined and transformed into a space of memories that, as Mr. Libeskind previously told the Chronicle, “creates the sense of importance of that particular space” and provides all who visit the Tree of Life the opportunity to remember and honor the 11 who were killed on 10/27.

In addition to the memorial, developed collaboratively with the families of the 11 to be honored, the building will house a museum that tells the story of that day as well as the roots and ongoing existence of antisemitism. The museum will house elements from the Pervin Chapel and other parts of the building that were damaged in the violence that day. Taken together, he Pervin Chapel, museum and memorial will move us forward to ensure that Tree of Life continues to be a vibrant hub of Jewish life in our city while telling a compelling and necessary story so that future generations can never forget what we suffered on 10/27.

Most prejudices begin at home. There’s no vaccine, booster, patch or pill to cure hate. The only cure for the hate and antisemitism that fueled 10/27, in our opinion and those of many experts, is education and to start that education young.

We’ve been grateful to have the opportunity to share stories of our loved ones with experts like Libeskind, as well as Ralph Appelbaum, who leads an internationally-recognized “practice dedicated to the planning and design of museums and narrative environments.”

Each of the experts understood the importance to us of educating people as part of how we choose to remember our family members. As the experts worked with the new Tree of Life’s leadership and Interim Governance Committee, which includes representatives from all three congregations impacted by 10/27 alongside community volunteers, they took care to meet with victims’ families and survivors to share their draft plans and seek feedback that they interpreted and incorporated into the next iteration of the plan.

We are hopeful that this new chapter for Tree of Life will be an opportunity to welcome more people in — just as Cecil and David once welcomed everyone who came through the doors to share their beloved building — to learn, pray and cultivate community.

When the new building opens its doors, it will be simultaneously a place to remember our loved ones and what happened on 10/27, a space for the return of vibrant Jewish life and practice, and a place for individuals of all ages to learn about not only what happened, but also why it happened and how to counter antisemitism in the future. PJC

The Fienberg, Mallinger and Rosenthal families are the loved ones of four of the victims from the Tree of Life Congregation killed on Oct. 27, 2018. In total, 11 people were killed from three congregations that day.

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