Daniel Libeskind will redesign Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue

A New Beginning

Daniel Libeskind will redesign Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue

Mourners pay their respects at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue in November, 2018. The campus will be redesigned and reimagined by Studio Libeskind and the Rothschild Doyno Collaborative. (Daveynin/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0)

Polish-American architect, artist, and educator Daniel Libeskind and his eponymous New York-based studio have been selected by Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life/Or L’Simcha Congregation to lead an expansive redesign of its synagogue as part of the REMEMBER. REBUILD. RENEW campaign. Self-described as a “traditional, progressive, and egalitarian” congregation, Tree of Life’s 1950s-era synagogue is situated in Squirrel Hill, a neighborhood in Pittsburgh’s East End that’s long been a center of Jewish life in the Steel City. On the morning of October 27, 2018, the synagogue was the site of a mass shooting that claimed the lives of 11 worshippers. Six people were also wounded in what was the single deadliest antisemitic attack in United States history.

As detailed in a press release announcing Libeskind’s selection, the capital campaign marks a “new beginning” for the congregation and greater Squirrel Hill community, with the planned rebuilding and reimagining of the synagogue being part of a larger effort to “transform a site of tragedy and hate into one of hope, remembrance, and education.” Studio Libeskind, in collaboration with Pittsburgh-based architecture and urban design practice Rothschild Doyno Collaborative, will create a “collaborative and cooperative space” at Tree of Life that includes dedicated classrooms for educational programming and spaces set aside for “worship, reflection and commemoration of the horrific events of October 27, 2018.” The Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, also located in Squirrel Hill, will also have a new home at the reconstructed Tree of Life campus for public programming and special exhibitions.

The congregation’s partnership with the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh will be one of several community-based collaborative efforts launched as part of the REMEMBER. REBUILD. RENEW campaign, which will also entail national outreach and engagement and the creation of what the congregation describes as a “new programmatic center programmatic center dedicated to eliminating hate.”

“It is with a great sense of urgency and meaning that I join the Tree of Life to create a new center in Pittsburgh,” said Libeskind in a statement. “Our team is committed to creating a powerful and memorable space that addresses the worst antisemitic attack in United States history. When my parents, survivors of the Holocaust, and I came as immigrants to America, we felt an air of freedom as Jews in this country. That is why this project is not simply about ‘Never Again.’ It is a project that must address the persistence of antisemitism and the intolerance of our time and affirm the democratic values of our country.”

Born in 1946 in Łódź, Poland, Libeskind is, as mentioned by the architect himself, the son of Holocaust survivors. Among his most celebrated and well-known works are highly emotional ones: spaces for remembrance and reflection realized at the sites of—or in memory of—mass trauma and tragedy including the Ottawa’s National Holocaust Monument, the Ohio Holocaust and Liberators Memorial in Columbus, and the original World Trade Center Master Plan, which includes the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. In 2019, Perpetual Light, a design conceived by Studio Libeskind with Claude Cormier + Associés, was shortlisted for the National Pulse Memorial and Museum in Orlando.

Libeskind has also designed several Jewish museums, including the just-unveiled Jewish Museum in Lisbon, as well as spaces dedicated to the understanding and eradication of intolerance and hate, beginning with his internationally lauded first major commissioned work, the Jewish Museum Berlin. Spread across three buildings, two of them designed by Libeskind, the Jewish Museum Berlin opened in 2001 and is the largest Jewish museum in Europe.

As noted in a New York Times article on the selection of Libeskind as project lead, three congregations were using the synagogue when the 2018 hate attack occurred. One of them, Dor Hadash, was a participant in a refugee resettlement program with nonprofit humanitarian organization HIAS. This link with HIAS is reportedly why the shooter, an anti-immigration right-wing extremist, carried out his attack. Back when it was known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the organization had provided aid and assistance to Libeskind’s own family when they arrived in New York as immigrants in the late 1950s. “That struck in my heart,” Libeskind told the Times of the connection. (Dor Hadash along with New Light, the third congregation that worshipped at the synagogue at the time of the shooting, are not returning to Tree of Life.)

“Our collaboration with Daniel Libeskind will not be the culmination but is the beginning of our efforts to create a Makom Kodesh, a safe and sacred space for all who wish to be a part of our community,” said Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers of Tree of Life in a statement. “Our new and reimagined space will not only serve the needs of our congregation but will offer an open space to our neighbors and the broader community – here in Pittsburgh, across the country and around the world. The space will be welcoming and accessible for people of all abilities and backgrounds, offering safe and secure places to learn, cultivate partnerships, remember and reflect.”

Led by co-chairs Drs. Ellen Stewart and Jeffrey Cohen, and Linda and Jeffrey Solomon, Tree of Life’s REMEMBER. REBUILD. RENEW. campaign was first announced last fall. An honorary cabinet, led by Rabbi Myers, also includes Tom Hanks, Billy Porter, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, and Joanne Rogers, wife of the late, great Pittsburgher, Fred Rogers. You can read more about the campaign here.

AN will share more details about the Tree of Life campus reimagining as they become available.