Standing before community members, survivors and loved ones of those killed in the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, Tree of Life Congregation’s Rabbi Jeffrey Myers said “l’hitraot” (goodbye for now) to a beloved space at a ceremony outside the Tree of Life building in Squirrel Hill on April 23.
After 71 years of daily religious services — and countless weddings, circumcisions and b’nei mitzvot — significant portions of the structure will be demolished and built again.
Myers signaled the transition, and end of a congregational chapter, by referencing various biblical usages of “etz chayim” (tree of life).
“It’s an interesting phrase,” he said.
There is a tree of life mentioned in the Garden of Eden. In Proverbs the words are used to describe wisdom. The Torah — “the source of what makes us Jewish” — is also referred to as a “tree of life,” Myers said.
Since its 1864 founding the congregation has called itself “Etz Chayim,” Myers said, and like a tree’s manifold leaves, so are the “innumerable joyous celebrations” that have occurred there.
“We are grateful to God for the thousands of blessings that have passed through these doors,” he said.
But the synagogue’s doors have remained mostly closed since a gunman killed 11 people during Shabbat services on Oct. 27, 2018, and seriously wounded six others, including four first responders.
Myers, a survivor of the shooting, recalled the events of four-and-a-half years ago.
“We cannot, we must not, permit one day out of 25,993 days to define us, nor outweigh all the good, for we have been shown more than we can recall,” he said.
Despite being one day among thousands, Oct. 27, 2018, is a critical piece of the congregation’s history. The l’hitraot ceremony was deliberately scheduled to occur less than 24 hours before the start of the trial against the accused Pittsburgh synagogue shooter, Myers said.
“The next chapter opens tomorrow,” he said, “so we needed to close that chapter today.”
Helping symbolize the shift were songs and responsive readings.
Alan Hausman, Tree of Life’s president, recited a verse from Alden Solovy’s acrostic poem titled “Tree of Life.”
“Oh, Rock of Israel, Forget not the Jews of Pittsburgh,” Hausman read.
Myers asked attendees to place memorial stones beside the building for collection and later integration into the new structure. The rabbi then undertook a final act. He asked Cantor Laura Berman to sing a popular Hebrew folk song while he and Hausman approached the building’s exterior doors facing Shady Avenue. With a screwdriver in his left hand, the rabbi raised his right hand to his mouth. He kissed his fingers and pressed them against the mezuzah.
Berman and attendees continued singing “Shalom Chaverim,” a song whose few lyrics describe an elusive meeting between friends. “Shalom” — one of the folk song’s three words — means hello, goodbye and peace.
When used to say goodbye, shalom has a “finality,” Myers said. “We are not saying shalom.”
The rabbi pried the protective cover and handwritten Hebrew scroll from the doorpost.
“It will be cleaned, stored and reaffixed,” he said.
Berman kept singing.
Rose Gerson, a Tree of Life congregant, cried.
“You never know how you’re going to react,” Gerson said of seeing the mezuzah’s removal.
“It just brings you back to a place you don't want to be,” congregant Ann Levin said. “I know it’s going to be a new building and a beautiful building, but the reason we're here is just so painful.”
Past president Suzanne Schreiber acknowledged the difficulty of seeing an iconic Jewish symbol removed from a shuttered house of worship, but encouraged congregants to look ahead.
“It does mark the closing of one chapter, but I can't wait to read the rest of the book because the rest of the book hasn't been written yet,” she said.
Thirty minutes after the ceremony’s conclusion, Gerson, a member of Tree of Life for nearly 20 years, remained on site. She ambled up the steps from the Zittrain Gardens and stood near the corner of Shady and Wilkins avenues.
With her back to the building, she told the Chronicle her eyes are fixated on the days to come.
“Today is done. Tomorrow the next ugly chapter begins,” she said. “The trial starts tomorrow morning but we will get through it because you can’t let them win.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.
This story is part of ongoing coverage of the upcoming Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial by the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle and the Pittsburgh Union Progress in a collaboration supported by funding from the Pittsburgh Media Partnership.