Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha recently took a small but significant step away from the Oct. 27, 2018 shooting that shuttered its Squirrel Hill edifice and toward a brighter, soon-to-be envisioned future. Congregational leadership announced it has hired two consultants to establish a plan for rebuilding the site and the fundraising campaign needed to pay for it.
Rothschild Doyno Collaborative, an architectural firm based in the Strip District, has been brought on board to provide “programming services” while Lipton Strategies of Los Angeles will guide the capital campaign to fund rebuilding efforts, said Barb Feige, the congregation’s executive director.
“We have a desire to make something new – we’re not erasing anything but we need to look forward,” Feige said. “How do we fit into Pittsburgh’s Jewish community? That’s what this is all about. This is about renewal and remembrance and reflection.”
Tree of Life’s president, Carol Gross, said there is an emotional component, too, to the urge to rebuild the site.
“This is where I’ve always gone to shul,” said Gross, a Squirrel Hill resident and attorney whose father once served as president of the congregation. “I was raised there. I raised my children there. I’m looking forward to us celebrating simchas again.”
“[The building] has just been a part of my life and I want it back,” she added. “And I think a lot of people in our congregation want it back.”
At least two organizations – nearby Chatham University and the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh – have expressed interest in using space in a “broader community asset” at the corner of Shady and Wilkins avenues in Squirrel Hill, Feige said. The capital campaign also will fund long-standing issues in the building that predated the shooting.
“Look, every synagogue needs a new roof,” Feige said. “The center of the building is 80-something years old. The sanctuary is 70 years old and the pavilion is 50 years old. Those issues will be addressed.”
Tree of Life was founded in 1864 and moved its Conservative congregation from Oakland to Squirrel Hill in 1953. It merged with Congregation Or L’Simcha in 2010.
Chatham University is interested in potentially holding classes and meetings in spaces at the re-envisioned building, as well as using the sanctuary for larger occasions, said David Finegold, the university’s president.
“We’re really committed to try to make that collaboration work as they pursue rebuilding,” Finegold told the Chronicle.
“Having the flexibility” to use Tree of Life space for various programming “would be beneficial for everyone,” Finegold said. He also expressed interest in involving Chatham University, whose campus sits across Wilkins Avenue from the Tree of Life building, in programming related to the impact of the 2018 shooting.
“I think we are very interested in collaborating on things that have a broader message of anti-hate, of tolerance,” he said. “We see this as something that can be valuable together.”
The Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh also expressed strong interest in the site, for everything from exhibits to, potentially, a new home. The center currently is based in the Squirrel Hill Plaza on Hazelwood Avenue.
“It’s really a process that’s been exciting – we’ve had a series of hopeful conversations,” said Lauren Bairnsfather, the Holocaust Center’s director. “We’ve been talking about ways to have a real Holocaust museum in that space.”
Exhibit space in the Tree of Life building would be particularly valuable, Bairnsfather said, because it could sit at the intersection of studying the Holocaust, anti-Semitism and modern forms of bigotry.
“All of these things are possible in a rebuilt Tree of Life,” Bairnsfather said. “We can respond to what happened [in 2018] with education, with learning. It will be for the Jewish community and it will be beyond the Jewish community.”
Bairnsfather said, however, it is too early in the process to say whether the Holocaust Center would move its entire operation into the Tree of Life building.
Tree of Life steering committee co-chairman Jeffrey Letwin – a Squirrel Hill resident and downtown attorney – said talks of transforming the synagogue into a “broader community asset” are still very new.
“We have some concept of what the building may ultimately look like – it’s still early in the process,” said Letwin, who has attended services at Tree of Life for some 60 years and became a bar mitzvah there as a young man. “I just think bringing these elements together could make something very special.”
Gross said she would like particular attention paid to the stained glass windows in Tree of Life’s Pervin Chapel.
“It’s just one of those things I remember looking at and thinking, ‘It’s very peaceful,’” Gross said. “I enjoy seeing the beauty through those stained glass windows.”
No funds donated in the name of the shooting will be used for the rebuilding campaign, unless they were designated to do so, Feige stressed. And talks continue – separate of the consultants — among congregants and victims’ families about a memorial for the 2018 massacre, the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history.
“We’re going to do right by our donors, by the congregation and by the victims’ families,” Feige said. “We will build something that will honor the history of Tree of Life and the role of Tree of Life in the Pittsburgh Jewish community.”
The hiring of the two consultants is funded, in part, by grants from the Hillman Foundation, The Heinz Endowments and a third, national foundation that does not publicize its grant awards, Feige said.
“The $50,000 grant from The Heinz Endowments is to support the planning processes to help determine the future of the Tree of Life building, and is part of the recovery of the Jewish community and honors those who tragically lost their lives,” a Heinz Endowments spokesperson said in a prepared statement.
Feige declined to say how much the grants totaled or how much the two consultants would be paid. Hillman Foundation did not return calls seeking comment.
The public phase of fundraising – COVID-19 dependent – could kick off in 2021, Gross, the congregation’s president, said in a recent letter to the congregation.
“We will be building a campaign leadership team over the summer with plans to launch the ‘silent phase’ – initial major donor engagements – in the fall,” Gross said in the letter.
The “multi-million dollar local and national fundraising capital campaign” will seek funding for “building renovations, programming and operations, endowment and sustainability, and educational programming and community outreach,” she said.
Feige rejected the suggestion that a congregation, like many throughout Pittsburgh and the U.S., whose membership has declined should not invest heavily in a rebuilt site.
“We’re not looking to build a crystal palace,” she said. “We’re looking to build a right-sized space for the Tree of Life congregation as it exists today.”
Bairnsfather, who leads the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, said she is thrilled that Tree of Life and its stakeholders have been processing the tragedy of the shooting and resolutely moving forward.
“I’m very excited it’s reached this point, that it’s moving and that [the congregation] is thinking about it,” Bairnsfather said. “You can’t push it. You have to give it room. It’s just really exciting. It says a lot about healing and hope. It’s a really positive thing, to look toward the future.” PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.