This story was updated on Dec. 6 with additional information.
Tree of Life Congregation will be receiving $6.6 million in Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program funding from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf announced on Dec. 3. The grant reflects the full amount of funding Tree of Life requested.
RACP funding provides financial assistance for “the acquisition and construction of regional economic, cultural, civic, recreational, and historical improvement projects,” according to the website of Pennsylvania’s budget office.
Tree of Life’s property on the corner of Wilkins and Shady avenues in Squirrel Hill is being rebuilt as a site for worship, education and commemoration of the Oct. 27, 2018 antisemitic attack that left 11 Jews dead and six people seriously injured. The redesign is under the direction of world-renowned architect Daniel Libeskind and the Pittsburgh firm Rothschild Doyno Collaborative.
The description of the Tree of Life project on the Pennsylvania budget office’s website says it includes: “preserving the historic spaces, including stained-glass windows and iconic structure at the corner of Shady and Wilkins; modernizing and right-sizing the main sanctuary to serve as a flexible space for worship, celebrations, educational programming and communal space; creating a welcoming and commemorative space to reflect and remember events and lives lost on Oct 27, 2018; designing an innovative and interactive Holocaust and modern anti-Semitism exhibit; adding flexible and modular classrooms, state-of-the-art collaborative and communal space for symposia and conferences.”
Gov. Tom Wolf appeared at a press conference at the Tree of Life building on Dec. 6 to discuss the funding. Tree of Life Rabbi Jeffrey Myers also appeared at the press conference, along with a host of local politicians and community leaders, including Mayor Bill Peduto, Mayor-Elect Ed Gainey, state Sen. Jay Costa, Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh Director Lauren Apter Bairnsfather and 10.27 Healing Partnership Director Maggie Feinstein.
Myers opened the press conference by noting that it was being held on the last day of Chanukah. He said the holiday was significant because it recalls the struggle of a minority community to maintain its right to live and worship as Jews.
“Chanukah mean rededication,” Myers said, “and that is the journey we are on.”
Myers presented Wolf with a gold hanukkiah, or Chanukah menorah, in the shape of a tree of life. While presenting the gift he quoted Holocaust victim Anne Frank.
“Look at how a single candle can both defy and define the darkness,” he said, adding, “May you continue to defy the darkness and bring more light into the world.”
Wolf said he was proud to support the reimagining of the Tree of Life building “to create a welcoming place for residents, for visitors in Pittsburgh to reflect, learn and grow.”
Sen. Jay Costa (District 43) said the funding, part of the congregation’s Remember. Rebuild. Renew. campaign, would help strengthen the roots of Tree of Life Congregation, which was founded in Pittsburgh more than 150 years ago.
“Through this campaign, we seek to work with a state-of-the-art campus,” Costa said. “Tree of Life will reach beyond the walls that we know today, and in all the neighborhoods in our community, into a space of inclusion and collaboration — a cooperative space located here at the Tree of Life Center.”
Unable to attend the event in person, Rep. Dan Frankel (District 23) thanked Wolf for supporting the Tree of Life rebuilding project in a statement.
“After the attack on the congregations in the Tree of Life building three years ago, many noted that our community had joined a club that nobody wants to be in: those devastated by hate-driven violence,” Frankel said. “This funding allows the site of that trauma to become something more — a place of remembrance, healing and education for all.”
Neither Myers nor Wolf said they knew the total cost of the rebuild or what, specifically, the money would be used for, and said the project was evolving.
The rabbi would not publicly identify other organizations that might ultimately occupy the building along with his congregation.
“All I can say is this: This site will be a place of memory,” Myers said. “It will be a site of education. It will be a site of prayer. Beyond that, it’s still a work in progress.”
The RACP funds going to Tree of Life are among $54.5 million “going to 16 projects around the commonwealth, and only one of two in all of western Pennsylvania,” the Pittsburgh Business Times reported, with $5 million going to the Children’s Museum in Erie.
“I am pleased to announce these projects will receive the state funding they need to improve or create new community projects and facilities that add to the quality of life for residents in these communities,” Wolf said. PJC
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