This October marked five years since the horrific attack at Tree of Life in Pittsburgh, a synagogue where eleven Jewish worshippers were shot and killed in the city’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. Those murdered, ranging between the ages of 65 and 97, were members of the Tree of Life-Or L’Simcha, Dor Hadash and New Light congregations; all located in the same building. Now, plans by a nonprofit, The Tree of Life Foundation, are moving forward to build a new synagogue at the corner of Pittsburgh’s Wilkins and Shady Avenues.
Tree of Life has hired Studio Libeskind for the job. Previously, the New York firm has completed projects around the globe centered upon Jewish healing, namely Ottawa’s National Holocaust Museum and the Jewish Museum in Berlin. The announcement follows a successful capital campaign that raised $75 million for the project.
Studio Libeskind first unveiled renderings of a preliminary design for the new synagogue last year. On December 7, Studio Libeskind revealed images of the rebuilt synagogue’s outdoor memorial, located adjacent to the forthcoming building. Design renderings show a walkway that leads visitors into a garden memorial with eleven sculptures. The forms evoke the “Book of Life” from Jewish tradition where the righteous are named. Each book represents a Jewish worshiper murdered on October 27, 2018.
“Creating a meaningful memorial is a highly emotional and personal process, while at the same time, it must communicate to a broader audience,” Libeskind said in a press release. “For the 10/27 Memorial, we worked closely with the families and the congregations throughout the design process. It was through this collaboration that we created a memorial that celebrates those we lost and brings the families and the community together in healing.”
In Squirrel Hill, the plan is to demolish the existing Tree of Life synagogue, completed in 1953; but retain its signature facade that lines Shady Avenue. The rest of the building will be razed and replaced with a new one. The new structure will be 20 percent smaller than the existing building, albeit fitted with new programming.
The new, 45,000-square-foot building will have two functions: It will be a synagogue and a memorial to those killed in 2018. The memorial will also be a museum that addresses anti-semitism in the United States, the country’s first of its kind. It will also include a 125-plus-seat movie theater.
The New York firm’s Tree of Life project is being carried out with Rothschild Doyno Collaborative, a local Pittsburgh firm. The Tree of Life Foundation’s CEO Carole Zawatsky represents the congregation in Pittsburgh. Previously, Zawatsky was chief advancement and strategy officer for the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. “Daniel Libeskind is an artist … and this will be an iconic building that adds to the landscape of Pittsburgh,” Zawatsky told local reporters. “He is one of the true treasures as an architect. I believe this building is a gift to the city of Pittsburgh.”
While Studio Libeskind is working closely with The Tree of Life Foundation on the building design, the architects crafted the outdoor memorial with the Memorialization Working Group, an organization specifically focused on the synagogue’s exterior commemorative space. Diane Rosenthal, a member of the Memorialization Working Group, and sister of Cecil and David Rosenthal, who were both killed in the attack, added: “The journey to unveiling the preliminary memorial designs has been a long and emotional one, but I am grateful for a process that prioritized our hopes that our loved ones are remembered for how they lived, not solely for how they were murdered.”
For guidance, the project team visited commemorative memorials around the U.S. These included the 9/11 memorial in lower Manhattan; and the Flight 93 National Memorial near Shanksville, Pennsylvania outside Pittsburgh.
Groundbreaking on the outdoor memorial will commence in 2024. The new Studio Libeskind–designed Tree of Life is expected to open in mid-2026.