For four and a half years, since the Shabbat morning of October 27, 2018 when a white nationalist named Robert G Bowers allegedly killed 11 congregants and wounded six more, the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh has been closed.
Work has now begun on a new, airy and light-filled campus, designed by Daniel Libeskind.
“We cannot, we must not, permit one day out of 25,993 days to define us, nor outweigh all the good,” Rabbi Jeffrey Myers said as he removed the mezuzah that had been on Tree of Life’s doorpost for 71 years. Meanwhile, Rabbi Myers is part of Tree of Life’s campaign to do just that.
The accused in the Tree of Life shootings case, Robert Bowers (Photo: Handout)
When the mezuzah goes back up, the synagogue will be folded into a museum. This will present “the horrific story of 10/27” against “the backdrop of antisemitism as a continuous phenomenon”, from its “historical roots and manifestations (including the Shoah) to the uniquely American brand of antisemitism that is reported to have fuelled the attack”.
The goal is to ensure “the beginning of the end of antisemitism”.
Libeskind designed the Jewish Museum in Berlin and was the masterplan architect for the rebuilding of the World Trade Centre after the 9/11 attacks. His monumental architecture intends to dwarf the visitor before the accomplished enormities of history. There is a place for this, but should that also be a place of prayer?
If Tree of Life were in Israel, it would not have closed after the attack. It would have reopened as soon as the forensic teams had gone and the blood had been mopped up.
A small plaque might have gone up, or perhaps a semi-abstract memorial sculpture in concrete.
The same goes if Tree of Life were in Europe. The Rue Copernic shul in Paris, where four were killed and 46 wounded by a Palestinian terrorist in 1980, is still there. But this is America, where the Jewish duty to remember is multiplied by the US passion for trauma.
The whole place must close. Millions must be raised. A new nonprofit is being set up, to manage a campus that “encompasses a museum, education, events, outreach programs, and a memorial”. The Holocaust Centre of Pittsburgh will merge into the new nonprofit. The nonprofit’s CEO and board of trustees will manage the new site.
“Limited naming opportunities” are available for “Angels/Malachim”, the website says, for donations of “$1,000,000 or higher”.
Is this willingness to reshape a kahal kadosh (a “holy community”) in the image of its worst day a sign of strength or weakness? The Tree of Life congregation will retain its own charitable status and will continue to be run by its own board, but it will be unavoidably diminished.
Prayer and sanctification will become a sideshow.
Tree of Life will become a perverse monument to Robert G. Bowers: an unlimited naming opportunity for a name that should be blotted out.
The new Tree of Life argues that its expanded purpose will secure American democracy against antisemitism by building intercommunal bridges in Pittsburgh, the racially mixed “city of bridges”.
Mourners outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh after the shootings (Photo: Getty Images)
This sounds great, but infrastructure is the government’s problem, just as antisemitism is a problem for antisemites. The “beginning of the end of antisemitism” is just another quick-fix sales pitch.
Tree of Life, the communal work of 71 years, was uprooted by one man in a single day. Not just because he is accused of being a murderer, but also because when its roots were tested, they turned out to be shallow. Airiness is next to emptiness.
The new building will become a light-filled sarcophagus for a community that, like most Jewish American communities, is ageing and assimilating.
If the Angels of Pittsburgh want to memorialise their dead and secure the Jewish future, they could build a free Jewish school.
Instead, the Tree of Life board seem to have misunderstood Berakhot 64a, “Do not read ‘your children’ [banayich], but ‘your builders’ [bonayich].”