Son of Holocaust survivors, designer of Berlin's Jewish Museum chosen to lead Tree of Life rebuild

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Megan Guza, The Tribune-Review, Greensburg
·4 min read
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May 4—The son of Holocaust survivors will help rebuild the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill, the congregation's board of trustees announced Tuesday, 2 1/2 years after the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in the country.

Daniel Libeskind was selected unanimously by the Tree of Life — Or L'Simcha board of trustees to act as lead architect in the rebuilding process, a campaign dubbed "Remember. Rebuild. Renew."

"When my parents, survivors of the Holocaust, and I came as immigrants to America, we felt an air of freedom," Libeskind said in a statement. "That is why this project is not simply about 'never again.' It is a project that must address the persistence of anti-Semitism and intolerance of our time and affirm the democratic values of our country."

Libeskind, 74, was born in Lodz, Poland, and moved to New York with his family as a teenager.

He has designed the Jewish Museum in Berlin and was central to the rebuilding of the 9/11 site in New York City.

"That's why, for us, it was so amazing," said congregation President Carol Sikov Gross. "The size of the work that he has done and all of the people he has touched and, basically, to have him want to come here to our community and for the Tree of Life is wonderful."

Barb Feige, executive director for Tree of Life, called it "a most fitting selection to have Mr. Libeskind join us.

"Bashert, as we say in Yiddish — meant to be, a kismet kind of thing," she said.

The Oct. 27, 2018, attack on the synagogue killed 11 worshippers from the three congregations holding Shabbat services in the space — Tree of Life, Dor Hadash and New Light. Seven people were injured in the attack.

Since then, the hulking building at the corner of Wilkins and Shady has sat empty, first as a crime scene and then as a solemn reminder-turned-memorial.

The plan, Feige said, is to renovate the sanctuary and tear down and rebuild the rest of the building.

"I don't know that we ever considered not keeping the sanctuary," she said.

The renovated and renewed building, which will be built and designed by Libeskind in collaboration with Pittsburgh's Rothschild Doyno Collaborative, will include space for worship, for reflection and for remembrance. Pittsburgh's Holocaust Center will also move into the building, and there will be space for classrooms, exhibits and public programming.

Sikov Gross said the congregation's board asked for qualifications from a number of firms in January and received 11 responses. Some moved on to interviews, but the decision to go with Libeskind was unanimous.

She said she cried reading Libeskind's response.

"It was so moving, the things that he wrote about his background and why he wanted to help deal with issues of anti-Semitism and to help educate people to move forward after such a terrible tragedy as we suffered here," she said.

Dr. Ellen Stewart, one of the co-chairs of the rebuilding campaign, said there is no firm timetable for when work will be completed or even start. She declined to discuss fundraising and capital campaign efforts.

The process of rebuilding — even deciding to rebuild — has been a slow, deliberate one.

Rabbi Jeffrey Myers was leading services for Tree of Life that day. He survived the attack, and he has promised time and again to rebuild.

"Reopening says to the congregation and to the world that evil will not win," Myers said in October 2019, one year after the attack. "It will not chase us out of our building. So we must reopen, and we will."

On Tuesday, he said the rebuilt space will be a "Makom Kodesh" — a sacred space.

"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," he said.

Andrea Wedner survived the attack. Her 97-year-old mother did not. She called the announcement "an exciting next step.

"I am looking forward to entering a new Tree of Life building without fear or hesitation," she said.

Michele Rosenthal lost two brothers: David and Cecil. She said the congregation was an extended family for them.

"They welcomed everyone who came through their doors to share their beloved building," she said. "We are hopeful that this new chapter for the building will be an opportunity to remember those who were taken and welcome more people in."

In addition to Rose Malinger and David and Cecil Rosenthal, eight others were killed: Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Jerry Rabinowitz, Bernice and Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax and Irving Younger.

Megan Guza is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Megan at 412-380-8519, mguza@triblive.com or via Twitter .