Story By MEGAN GUZA | Photos By KRISTINA SERAFINI
One year after a white supremacist with an AR-15 killed 11 congregants in their Squirrel Hill house of worship, the synagogue at the corner of Wilkins and Shady remains empty and tomblike, a hulking reminder of Oct. 27, 2018.
It will not stay that way.
“For certain we must reopen,” said Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, who was leading services for Tree of Life-Or L’Simcha when the attack began. “Reopening says to the congregation and to the rest of the world that evil will not win. It will not chase us out of our building. So we must reopen, and we will.”
Two other congregations, New Light and Dor Hadash, also worshipped in the building.
Myers is adamant that something great will rise from the synagogue rendered uninhabitable by the attack. Last week, congregation leaders announced a vision for that future.
For now though, there are days Myers still can’t drive past his congregation’s empty home.
“Some days I’m just not in the right frame of mind, and I know it,” he said. “So when I’m driving, I’ll detour.”
Dr. Jeffrey Cohen, president of Allegheny General Hospital, lives a half block from the synagogue. He got married there, and his daughters and sons had their bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs there.
“It’s hard. Walking around the corner of Tree of Life to come home – I couldn’t do it for a while,” Cohen said. “It’s too painful.”
It’s only within the last few months that he’s been able to walk past the building. He called it sacred ground, but he isn’t sure if he could ever set foot inside again.
“Eleven people were executed there just for being Jewish,” he said. “I think that, broadly, something should be done to commemorate that site.”
A memorial is part of the vision Tree of Life leaders laid out last week in their first official announcement on the issue.
Whether it’s in the form of a public memorial or a space dedicated to the victims’ memories remains to be seen, according to Barb Feige, executive director of Tree of Life. She said trauma experts have said the planning process for a physical memorial should happen slowly.
Other plans for the site include space for worship, classrooms and exhibits, she said. The Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh and Chatham University have signed on to share space in the eventual redesign. There has been no determination whether the building would be razed or remodeled. What else the future holds for the space will be up to the community and congregants through an open planning process.
“We’re redesigning our future,” Feige said.
Congregation president Sam Schachner said the 60-year-old building had already outlived its original purpose, needing hundreds of thousands of dollars in repairs, and leaders were already eyeing a more collaborative space.
“Our buildings are too old and damaged for a narrow, limited vision,” he said. “We will create a place that is alive with a balance of future and the past – a place that has the flexibility to change with times.”
Focus groups with congregants and other stakeholders have given insight into what some want to see at the site.
New Light president Stephen Cohen said his congregation participated in a focus group early this year. He called it “an eye-opener.”
“It was really the first time that many of our congregants have been able to focus on what they wanted to see in terms of the building and the future,” he said. “It was very much a wakeup call to us as leaders as to how we needed to proceed to make sure there’s healing going on in our own congregants.”
It’s different for Dor Hadash, said congregation president Donna Coufal, but Tree of Life leaders have always included them in conversations about the synagogue’s future.
“I think we are stakeholders in the sense that we care about the Jewish community and we have ideas about the use of space that could be wonderful for the whole community, but we are not committed to the building process,” Coufal said.
Whatever comes next, Schachner said, it will take funding. He hopes to bring a fundraising consultant onto the congregation’s board early next year, and preliminary building plans should be finished by late spring.
Myers said they are poised to become “an incredible center for Jewish life in the United States,” and he wants the eventual reopening to be grand.
“When we reopen – and we most certainly will – I want the entire world to say, ‘Wow, look at what they have done,’ ” he said. “To do anything less disrespects the memorial of our 11 martyrs.”