During a hastily arranged May 3 morning press conference, Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Rabbi Jeffrey Myers and Carla Swickerath of Studio Libeskind — the architecture firm engaged to rebuild the site — unveiled plans for a new national institution dedicated to ending antisemitism.
They also revealed a new building design concept.
Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Congregation will be a separate entity from the newly established nonprofit and will be housed in the Tree of Life building. It will have its own board of directors, and Myers will continue to serve as the congregation’s rabbi.
The new Tree of Life entity will be led by its own CEO and governed by its own board of directors, which will oversee the building.
The Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh will merge into the new organization. The renovated building will also house a museum, memorial and center for education under the name Tree of Life.
Myers opened the press conference by noting that it had been 3½ years since the massacre at the site on Oct. 27, 2018 — the worst antisemitic attack on U.S. soil — during which 11 congregants of Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha, Congregation Dor Hadash and New Light Congregation were murdered. Six people were injured, including four first responders.
Myers acknowledged that the goal of eliminating antisemitism is lofty but noted that hate against the Jewish community does not stop with Jews.
“People who commit antisemitic acts are not merely antisemites; they’re anti-Black, anti-gay, anti-Asian, anti-Pacific Islander and any group they’re not comfortable with,” the rabbi said. “They spew forth their vile language and action.”
The rabbi, who was inside the building during the attack, expressed his thanks for the support the congregation received from Pittsburgh, the country and beyond.
Swickerath noted that Studio Libeskind has spent the last year working closely with Tree of Life leaders, other stakeholders and the wider community. She recognized the work of local architectural partner Rothschild Doyno Collaborative.
“The challenge here is huge,” she said. “To have architecture rise to the aspirations the rabbi has set forth. Our approach has been to try to communicate the mission of the new organization while respecting this incredibly historic neighborhood that we’re in and to remember the importance of what happened on this site.”
Swickerath said no time frame existed yet for the start or completion of the project. And neither she nor Myers could provide an update on its funding.
“We don’t have any information on that. It’s all interconnected,” Myers said.
The limited amount of information available at the press conference was directly related to the novelty of the project, Myers said.
“You have to realize that we’re trailblazing. We’re creating a new brand, a new concept that doesn’t exist in the United States,” he said. “The whole idea of an institution that’s going to house a synagogue, a Holocaust Center, a place for education, a place for remembrance. If you look at synagogues in the United States, there’s no one who’s ever done this.”
Myers said that the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh’s director, Lauren Apter Bairnsfather, and its staff would be joining the new institution. Asked if the congregation’s members supported the project, Myers responded, “Wholesale.”
He noted that the planning process included more than a year of listening sessions and focus groups, not only with Tree of Life members, but also with congregations Dor Hadash and New Light, as well as other stakeholders and community groups.
The fundraising campaign to reimagine the Tree of Life building is named Remember. Rebuild. Renew. Campaign co-chair Ellen Stewart, in an interview following the press conference, said Tree of Life had reached a “milestone” before announcing plans but didn’t elaborate on what that milestone was.
Michael Bernstein, chair of the Tree of Life interim governance committee, told the Chronicle that the plan for establishing the new separate entity came to fruition about six months ago.
“As we began to look at the opportunity, the overarching campaign and the goals for the new organization and what the institution would be, I think it was clear that thinking of a broader construct made a lot of sense,” he said.
Bernstein said that the new organization would have its own 501(c)(3) status, and that the Tree of Life congregation would, likewise, retain its nonprofit status.
A new permanent governing board with its own executive board will be developed for the new Tree of Life entity. Additionally, the Holocaust Center and other organizations housed in the building will have their own advisory boards, according to Bernstein.
On Dec. 3, the congregation received $6.6 million from Pennsylvania’s Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program.
Bernstein said that donations received after the attack at the Tree of Life building were distributed by an independent committee, and that most of that money was earmarked for specific purposes.
“Those funds are outside of the scope of the fundraising we’re doing,” he said. “Most of the funds raised in the aftermath [of the Oct. 27 massacre] have been distributed to either the families, victims, first responders, congregations, etc.”
Any additional funds raised by the Remember. Rebuild. Renew. campaign will go to funding the new Tree of Life project, he said.
Shannon Craig Straw, part of the Chicago team of West End Strategy, a communications firm, said updates on the project will continue to be provided. Another press conference may be held in November. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com.