Updated 3:00 p.m.
Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Congregation in Pittsburgh, the site of the deadliest anti-Semitic incident in American history, announced Friday that they intended to eventually reopen their doors, turning their building into a “center for Jewish life in the United States.”
The Tree of Life building, which housed three separate congregations, has not re-opened since the events of October 27, 2018, in which 11 people were killed by an alleged anti-Semitic gunman. At the time, officials said that the building, which was already more than 60 years old, had sustained significant structural damage.
According to synagogue leaders, the new Tree of Life building will contain “places for Jewish worship; memorial, education and social engagement; exhibit space for archival historical artistic expression; as well as classrooms and training spaces.”
They noted that it will still take some time for the plan to come together, and that they intended to move deliberately. They have already held eight “listening sessions” with community members, including survivors of the attack and family members of those who were killed.
“We want to create something that enlivens the community, that balances the history of our past with potential for the future,” synagogue president Sam Schachner told the Forward. “And we want it to be a flexible site that can change with the times.”
He added that the other two congregations that prayed in the building at the time of the shooting, New Light Congregation and Dor Hadash, had been invited to join them in the new building, and that other local Jewish organizations had been invited too (representatives from the other two synagogues did not immediately return requests for comment). The Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh has already signed on.
The fact that the new Tree of Life will have more than just prayer spaces is an “acknowledgement of how traditional congregations are shrinking” and that more flexibility and creativity is required to entice young Jews to enter Jewish spaces, Schachner said. “We can be similar to the JCC, but I don’t think it will compete because it’s not like we are going to have a gym or a swimming pool - just create another wonderful location for people to connect with Judaism in lots of different ways,” he said.
Erika Doss, a professor of American studies at the University of Notre Dame and the author of “Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America,” told the Forward that communities can take different approaches to rethinking spaces after atrocities occur. Columbine High School renovated part of the building and added a memorial, while Sandy Hook Elementary School was completely torn down and rebuilt with a brand-new design.
Doss praised Tree of Life not only for choosing to return to the site, but for using a redesign process to prioritize bringing people together in different ways, including prayer but also other activities. Doing so, she said, would likely help heal the community.
“A lot of religious communities are isolated and insular,” she said. “They’re saying, ‘We want to bring people in.’”
A fundraising campaign is expected to begin in the first quarter of 2020. In the meantime, the congregation will continue to pray in a nearby synagogue.
Aiden Pink is the deputy news editor of the Forward. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @aidenpink