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Tree of Life synagogue's future remains undetermined

Megan Guza
| Sunday, Nov. 25, 2018, 1:00 a.m.
People leave flowers and take a moment to remember the 11 individuals who were killed at the mass shooting at Tree of Life congregation on Monday, Oct. 28, 2018.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
People leave flowers and take a moment to remember the 11 individuals who were killed at the mass shooting at Tree of Life congregation on Monday, Oct. 28, 2018.

The dead have been buried and the memorial deconstructed. Investigators have removed the crime tape and evidence markers.

New tragedies have grabbed headlines and public outcry, leaving the congregants of Tree of Life, Dor Hadash and New Light to pick up the physical and emotional pieces of their synagogue and decide what comes next.

The early plan is to not let hate win.

“We don’t think it’s in the best interest of the community or our congregation to pick up and move,” said Tree of Life, or L’Simcha, Vice President Alan Hausman. “Then we admit defeat, and we won’t allow one person to defeat us.”

The Oct. 27 mass shooting at the Wilkins Avenue synagogue left 11 people dead among the three congregations. The FBI spent about a week processing the scene inside before agents reopened Wilkins and allowed civilians near — but not inside — the synagogue.

The massive makeshift memorial that grew outside near the corner of Shady and Wilkins avenues was deconstructed Nov. 14. Part of it will be moved inside the main lobby, which remained relatively unscathed. Visitors can view the memorial through the large glass entry doors but cannot go inside.

Dor Hadash president Ellen Surloff said her congregation’s focus has been on helping the victims’ families and the recovery of congregant Daniel Leger, who was critically wounded in the shooting. She noted that they are still in Shloshim, a 30-day grieving period in Judaism.

“Four weeks out, we’re not even thinking about what kind of space we want,” she said. “We’re still just trying to get our hands around how to thank all the people that have reached out to us.”

She said that from what she has been told, it could be more than a year before the building is inhabitable again.

“I can’t say we wouldn’t be interested, but I can’t say we would be,” Surloff said. “We haven’t even really talked about it.”

Stephen Cohen, co-president of the New Light Congregation, said decisions regarding the fate of the building will lie with Tree of Life, but he expects that all congregations will have input.

“I was in the building Friday to retrieve our Torahs,” he said. “I can tell you that it was very difficult to be in the building.”

He said on a practical level, the congregation is interested in remaining a renter.

“I would like to say we’re looking forward to going back — but not just yet,” he said. “We are still grieving.”

Other shooting sites have been razed or repurposed. Sandy Hook Elementary School was demolished. Pulse nightclub in Orlando will become a large-scale memorial to the 49 killed inside.

The Mandalay Bay hotel in Las Vegas no longer acknowledges its 32nd floor, where a gunman positioned as a sniper opened fire on a concert below.

Columbine was renovated, and the library, where most of the 13 students were killed in 1999, was torn down.

Building 12 of Marjory Stone­man Douglas High School will be torn down, as officials and legislators agreed early on that students would never return to the building where a gunman killed 17 in February. The rest of the campus reopened gradually in the weeks after the killings.

In Sutherland Springs, Texas, First Baptist Church reopened — as a memorial — the week after a gunman killed 26 people during services. It became a bright white room with a white chair in the place where each congregant fell.

“In most situations like this, the building would be closed off for months, but America was attacked, and we want America to grieve with us because they’ve expressed so much love for us,” associate pastor Mark Collins told the Washington Post a week after the attack.

“We don’t want to appear defeated,” he said. “We’re back in business, and it’s God’s business.”

The congregation meets in a temporary building on the church grounds, and ground broke this month on a new church near the old one.

Charleston’s “Mother” Emanuel AME Church opened its doors for Sunday service just four days after a gunman hoping to start a race war killed nine people during a service June 17, 2015.

“Some folks might need some more time in order to walk in,” the Rev. Norvel Goff, a presiding elder, told the Press-Democrat at the time. “But for those of us who are here this morning … because the doors of Mother Emanuel are open this Sunday, it sends a message to every demon in hell and on earth.”

For congregants who meet in the Tree of Life synagogue, the displacement is a product of more than just grief.

The damage, Hausman said, is extensive.

Unable to provide details because of the ongoing investigation, he still offered a hint of optimism amid the tragedy.

“Two of our most important features — Torah scrolls and the stained-glass windows — were not substantially damaged,” he said. “That’s the heart and soul of the congregation.”

The Tree of Life website, with a large “Stronger Than Hate” banner across the front of the homepage, offers thanks for donations and directs those wishing to “assist the families of the victims and to assist with rebuilding the synagogue” to any branch of First National Bank or an online fundraiser.

Tree of Life Rabbi Jeffrey Meyers did not return an email request for comment, but his automatic email response reads, in part: “In the end, my consistent message is that the only way for us to move forward is to do so with love and respect.”

Hausman said the outpouring of support “really restores your faith in humanity.”

“There are letters from all over the world. Some donations are beyond touching,” he said. “The first time you think you’re not going to cry today, you open another letter.”

For now, congregants from Tree of Life and Dor Hadash have been holding services at Rodef Shalom in the city’s Shadyside section. Members of New Light have been meeting in Beth Shalom in Squirrel Hill, as many members of the congregation walk on Shabbat. Staying in the neighborhood allows them to still walk to services.

“Our main sanctuary is pretty intact, and we believe that’s our home,” Hausman said. “We’re going to fix our home so we can move forward.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the injured congregant from Dor Hadash.

Megan Guza is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Megan at 412-380-8519, mguza@tribweb.com or via Twitter @meganguzaTrib.

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