In the days and weeks following the Oct. 27 attack at the Tree of Life building, mourners created a makeshift memorial outside the scene of the massacre.
Stuffed animals, notes, a marathon medal, tennis shoes and painted stones were some of the items left among the thousands of flowers that lined the sidewalk on Wilkins and Shady avenues. These objects — some with an explicit connection to the shooting; others without — were a visible way for the community to express their grief.
Laurie Zittrain Eisenberg, a board member at Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha and faculty member of the history department at Carnegie Mellon University, was one of the volunteers who helped dismantle the memorial.
“Since most of these items were left anonymously, we were left to our own devices to read into some of the more ambiguous ones what the person’s intent had been, what the item meant to them, why they wanted us to have it.”
Tree of Life is now working to discover the backstory behind some of the more esoteric pieces, since the stories behind the more obviously connected items are “very touching, moving and powerful.”
In addition to looking for people who left inanimate objects, Tree of Life members also hope to identity a violinist and church choir that performed in front of the building in the first weeks after the attack.
The synagogue has been able to locate some people who left gifts through contemporaneous media stories or happenstance. It is now widening the search, creating a page on its website where people can submit the story of what they left at the memorial.
Historian Eisenberg said she has a “sensitivity to preserve this tangible evidence of the community’s response to the assault on the synagogue,” a generous, spontaneous reaction “that should be preserved as part of the larger story.”
While no permanent home has been chosen yet to house the collection and stories, it will ultimately be a location that’s accessible to researchers and scholars in the future.
City of Pittsburgh archivist Nick Hartley said that items such as guitars or baseballs may have no obvious connection to the attack, but they had meaning to the people who left them.
“These items are an attempt by members of the community to express empathy and sympathy for the attack at the building,” he said, adding that the more removed in relevance the item is, the more important it likely is to the donor.
10.27 Healing Partnership Director Maggie Feinstein agrees.
“(These items) help us think about how we show empathy for people you don’t know,” Feinstein said. “They also give a little bit of a window about the person leaving the item without making it about them. People want to show that if a tree falls in the forest, they’ve seen it.”
Feinstein said that leaving an object behind after a tragedy “can define someone’s grieving.”
The city of Boston experienced a similar occurrence in 2013 after the Boston Marathon bombing. Shoes, race bibs, T-shirts, banners and stuffed animals were left behind by those mourning the attack. Ultimately, those items were cataloged and stored at the Boston City Archives.
After the death of Kobe Bryant in a helicopter accident several weeks ago, fans of the retired NBA star left basketballs, signs, letters, flags, stuffed animals, shoes and jerseys, among other items, at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, and at his old high school gymnasium in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania. His widow, Vanessa, requested some of the items, which will be cataloged and shipped to the family.
Each item and story is unique, Eisenberg said, but all of them brought “great comfort” to the synagogue, “even if (the gift-giver) decided to remain anonymous.”
Anyone interested in sharing the story behind an item left at the synagogue is invited to do so at treeoflifepgh.org/stories. pjc
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com.