Tree of Life prepares for groundbreaking
Remember. Rebuild. Renew.National, state, local dignitaries to take part in ceremony

Tree of Life prepares for groundbreaking

“It’s a moment that highlights the reality of the building,” the architect said, “and that’s important for everybody.”

New dirt is brought to the Tree of Life site following the razing of the building in preparation for construction of a new building. (Photo by Dan Rothschild)
New dirt is brought to the Tree of Life site following the razing of the building in preparation for construction of a new building. (Photo by Dan Rothschild)

Nearly six years after the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, ground will be broken on a new building and memorial at the site of the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history.

The ceremony on Sunday, June 23, will include second gentleman Douglas Emhoff, Sens. Bob Casey and John Fetterman, and Gov. Josh Shapiro. Musical performances will feature members of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the Northgate High School Choir and the sounding of the shofar by survivor Audrey Glickman.

Diane Rosenthal, sister of shooting victims Cecil and David Rosenthal, will speak, as will Tree of Life, Inc. CEO Carole Zawatsky; Michael Bernstein, chair of Tree of Life, Inc.; Alan Hausman, president of Tree of Life Congregation; event co-chairs Meryl Ainsman and Jeffrey Letwin; and Tree of Life, Inc.’s Academic Advisory Committee member Eric Ward.

Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, survivor and rabbi of Tree of Life Congregation, will be joined by interfaith clergy from Pittsburgh and around the country for an interfaith blessing.

Three videos will be shown as part of the ceremony: “Our Resilience,” featuring reflections from survivors, victims’ family members and first responders; “Our Supporters,” offering reflections from public officials; and “Our Path Forward,” including reflections from project and community leaders.

CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer will emcee the event. Attendance is by invitation only.

After sitting basically unchanged since the attack on Oct. 27, 2018, much of the former Tree of Life building, at the corner of Shady and Wilkins avenues, was razed earlier this year to prepare for the construction of a new structure designed by architect Daniel Libeskind.

Zawatsky said the groundbreaking will be an “incredible moment” and the first public expression of all the work that has gone on over the last several years “to rebuild, to create something, to show the world what resilience is. We get to burst forward and show this is how we remember and educate and celebrate.”

Bernstein said the project has been in development for a long time, The last few years, he said, were spent planning for a site to channel the sadness and grief while carrying the full weight of “resiliency and the very Jewish value of repairing a shattered world.”

“To get to a place where we’re ready to be a truly public institution is very exciting,” he said.

Libeskind said the groundbreaking is “crucial and momentous.”

“It’s a moment that highlights the reality of the building,” the architect said, “and that’s important for everybody.”

The groundbreaking and subsequent laying of the foundation for the building, Libeskind said, is a “transformation.”

“It’s the victory of life over dark events and tragedies,” he said. “I think creating a building and creating a space really is that sort of affirmation of things that we all believe.”

Dan Rothschild, founder and CEO of Rothschild Doyno Collaborative, the local architecture firm working with Libeskind, recalled visiting the site after the building was demolished and removed.

“I was there the morning they brought in fresh dirt to fill some of the holes,” he said. “I remember standing there thinking, ‘This is the first sight of renewal in that new material is being brought onto the site.’”

Rothschild took a photo, calling the moment a “significant step.”

“New energy was being brought to the site,” he said. “For me, that was a milestone because up to that point, there’s only been in the last five years the tragic events and the deterioration of the unoccupied building, and then the demolition, which is a lot of negative energy.”

The road to a groundbreaking, Rothschild explained, is akin to creating a meal that starts with a recipe.

“You start to add the ingredients and they start to simmer and then, all of a sudden, they begin to meld together and before you know it, something new is created from these different factors,” he said.

The new Tree of Life building will include a 10/27 memorial, the Tree of Life Center for Jewish Life and Culture, the 10/27 Museum and Education Center, the Tree of Life Institute for Countering Hate and Antisemitism, and a home for the Tree of Life Congregation.

Casey said that the Tree of Life site will be much more than a place of remembrance. Recalling the organization’s call to action — Remember. Rebuild. Renew. — the senator said “purposeful rebuilding” is taking place.

“Not just in a physical sense, but trying to help put people’s lives back together and move forward,” he said. “The third word they use is ‘renew,’ and that’s about the future of teaching young people, especially one generation after another, about hate and antisemitism and what it means to prevent it from happening again.”

Last month, Casey announced $1 million in federal funding for Tree of Life to develop educational programming at the K-12 level.

Tree of Life’s first programming has already been created.

A traveling exhibit, sponsored by Casey and Fetterman, was recently displayed at the rotunda of the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C. It featured mementos that were left at the synagogue by mourners after the attack, as well as a siddur that was shot by the gunman.

Immediately following the groundbreaking, Zawatsky will travel to the Aspen Ideas Festival in Aspen, Colorado, where she will speak, and a new website is also being readied for the organization.

The CEO said she believes the way to puncture the darkness of hate is through the light of education.

“I think about the Talmudic notion that it’s not ours to finish the task, but neither can we desist from it,” she said, noting that there is a team of people dedicated to the organization’s mission.

“We’re a team,” she said. “The lay leaders work in partnership, the consultants are partners. The staff we’ve built over time with Jackie [Reese, chief of staff] and Robin [Cohen, chief financial and operations officer], we all work together. It’s very clear that what we’re doing is meaning-making work. What we’re doing is holy work.”

That work extends even to the logistics of the groundbreaking.

Typically at a groundbreaking, people stick a shovel into the ground and turn over dirt. That didn’t feel great to the planning team given the fact that 11 members of the Jewish community — Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil and David Rosenthal, Bernice and Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax and Irving Younger — were murdered.

“It is not the right way to create a new house,” Zawatsky said.

So, taking a page from Jewish tradition, those participating in the physical groundbreaking will smash small glass houses, recalling that even amid joy we remember the sadness of the past.

The glass will be gathered and placed in mezuzot that will be fixed in the doorways of the building.

For Bernstein, the groundbreaking is the first step in the important work the organization will do moving forward.

“To have the site of the deadliest antisemitic attack be the site of the center that’s going to really deeply investigate, interrogate and educate about American antisemitism couldn’t feel more present and relevant than it does today,” he said. PJC

David Rullo can be reached at

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