Participants gather to break glass houses at the Tree of Life groundbreaking ceremony June 23. (Photo by Dale Lazar)

This article was first published in the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle.

Beneath an overcast sky, a crowd of more than 400 invited guests gathered on Sunday, June 23, at the corner of Shady and Wilkins avenues to witness the groundbreaking ceremony for the new Tree of Life building.

Survivors, family members of some of the victims, first responders, interfaith religious leaders, politicians, dignitaries and other community members braved humid temperatures and strong winds to hear from a litany of speakers that included Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro and second gentleman Douglas Emhoff.

The groundbreaking took place on the site of the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history, where a gunman entered the building that housed three synagogues — Congregation Dor Hadash, New Light Congregation and Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha — and murdered Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil and David Rosenthal, Bernice and Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax and Irving Younger.

With much of the building razed, the vacant lot continues to be surrounded by fencing but will soon be home to construction vehicles and contractors, as the work on the new building begins.

The ceremony began with a short performance by members of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra before survivors Audrey Glickman and Rabbi Jeffrey Myers blew the shofar along with local children wearing black shirts emblazoned with a yellow ribbon graphic in honor of the hostages kidnapped on Oct. 7 and still held in Gaza by the terrorist group Hamas.

Pittsburgh Jewish children blow the shofar wearing shirts with yellow ribbons in honor of the hostages still held in Gaza. (Photo by Rebecca Elhassid)

Diane Rosenthal, sister of Cecil and David Rosenthal, then offered words that would become a theme of the event: remembering the victims and survivors while moving beyond the tragedy.

Cecil and David, she said, will forever be linked to the horror of their deaths but “we want them to be remembered for how they lived their beautiful lives.”

Diane Rosenthal spoke of her brothers, Cecil and David, at the Tree of Life groundbreaking. (Photo by Dale Lazar)

Her brothers thought of the Tree of Life as a second home and would regularly welcome those entering the synagogue, Rosenthal said, adding that she hoped the groundbreaking would be the beginning of a new chapter for Tree of Life, a building that would soon welcome everyone.

The first of three short films was then screened. “Our Resilience” featured reflections from several survivors, some of the victims’ family members and first responders.

Speaking before an interfaith prayer that included clergy from across Pittsburgh’s religious landscape, Myers said it would be easy to focus on the “unprecedented nature of what happened to us, but the events of Oct. 27 do not define us.”

“Our response does,” he said. “Today we announce loudly and clearly to the entire world: Evil did not win.”

CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer offered welcoming remarks that spoke of his connection to antisemitism — he is the son of Holocaust survivors, and all of his grandparents were killed, he said, because of hate.

Wolf Blitzer emceed the event. (Photo by Dale Lazar)

“Today, we break ground on a new path to peace,” he said. “The new Tree of Life will not only be attributed to those we lost and a home for the Pittsburgh Jewish community to come. It will also be a place to teach and share profoundly important lessons against hate.”

A musical performance from the Northgate High School Choir included the Louis Armstrong staple “What a Wonderful World.”

Sharing the podium with Tree of Life, Inc.’s vice chair Jeffrey Solomon, the organization’s CEO Carole Zawatsky said it was no coincidence that the groundbreaking was taking place on the weekend of the summer solstice, “to celebrate our journey out of darkness and into light.”

“It is here, on this holy ground, that we seek to rebuild after a tragedy,” she said.

Solomon read remarks from Board Chair Michael Bernstein who was unable to attend the event.

“From college campuses and town halls to rural communities and urban centers across the country, people are experiencing antisemitism in ways they never have before,” Bernstein wrote.

The reimagined Tree of Life, he added, will be a place that tells the story of antisemitism as well as equip visitors with the tools and confidence to take a stand against hate in their own communities.

Echoing a familiar refrain from the days immediately following Oct. 27, Tree of Life Congregation President Alan Hausman said Pittsburgh is “stronger than hate.”

A second video, “Our Supporters,” included reflections from former Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and other public officials.

Event Co-chairs Meryl Ainsman and Jeffrey Letwin offered remarks and introduced Shapiro.

In a lengthy address, the governor noted that he attended the ceremony as a proud member of the Jewish community and said he and his administration were dedicated to ensuring the memories of those murdered were not forgotten.

Shapiro recalled the lesson from the Talmud that no one is required to complete a task, but neither are they free to refrain from it.

Remembrance, he said, can not be a passive act.

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro called himself a proud member of the Jewish community at the Tree of Life groundbreaking. (Photo by Dale Lazar)

“The task of remembering requires all of us to stand up, to speak out and to ensure that everyone in this country knows the stories of the 11 people that were murdered here and the dangers of antisemitism,” he said.

Shapiro’s remarks were followed by the video “Our Path Forward,” which included remarks from primary architect Daniel Libeskind and Daniel Rothschild, co-founder and CEO of the project’s local architecture firm Rothschild Doyno Collaborative.

Author and Tree of Life Academic Advisory Committee member Eric Ward spoke before Emhoff.

Emhoff’s remarks told not only of the time he spent at the site and his bond with the Tree of Life —he and Vice President Kamala Harris celebrated Chanukah last year using a menorah loaned to them by Tree of Life and designed by Libeskind — but connected the events of Oct. 27, 2018, and the rise in antisemitism since Oct. 7.

“It is a crisis of antisemitism we are undergoing right now in America and the world,” he said.

“We’re seeing it on our campuses and schools, our markets, our neighborhoods, our synagogues and online. Students are terrified to go to class. People are living in fear, scared to wear their Star of David publicly.”

Emhoff drew a line in the sand, defining antisemitism.

“When Jews are targeted because of their beliefs or identity or when Israel is singled out because of anti-Jewish hatred, that is antisemitism,” he said.

Second gentleman Douglas Emhoff wed the events of Oct. 27 and Hamas’ terrorist attack on Oct. 7 with the rise in antisemitism. (Photo by Dale Lazar)

The Tree of Life building, he said, will be a sanctuary from hate and will remind the world of what makes America great.

“And we must always, as Jews, live powerfully without fear and with joy,” he concluded.

Rather than break ground the traditional way, family members of some of the victims, survivors, first responders, a representative for the U.S. attorney, Hausman, former JCC CEO Brian Schrieber, 10.27 Healing Partnership Director Maggie Feinstein, Ainsman, Emhoff, Sen. Bob Casey and Gov. Shapiro joined Solomon and Zawatsky to break miniature glass houses.

Survivors, some family members of victims, community leaders and elected officials smashed small glass houses at the conclusion of the event. The glass shards will be made into mezuzahs to be fixed in the doorways of the new building, which is expected to be completed in 2 1/2 years. (Photo by Dale Lazar)

The breaking recalled the tradition of breaking a glass at a wedding, and the shards will be used to create mezuzot that will be affixed to doorways in the building. The mezuzot will include a prayer to bless the community, Zawatsky said.

Blitzer closed the ceremony by saying he hoped to be offered an aliyah when he visited Pittsburgh after the building is finished.

The new Tree of Life building is projected to be completed in 2026 and will include a 10/27 Memorial, The Tree of Life Center of Jewish Life and Culture, The 10/27 Museum and Education Center, The Tree of Life Institute of Countering Hate and Antisemitism, the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh and the Tree of Life Congregation. PJC

David Rullo can be reached at [email protected].

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