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Squirrel Hill ceremony

Community members, political leaders gather for new Tree of Life synagogue groundbreaking

A memoria, museum and house of worship will be built on the site of the synagogue, where 11 members of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community were murdered more than five years ago

AP Photo/Rebecca Droke

From left, second gentleman Doug Emhoff with Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro, Carole Zawatsky, CEO of The Tree of Life, Sen. Bob Casey, Jr., (D-Pa) and U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) and others during a groundbreaking ceremony for the new Tree of Life complex in Pittsburgh, Sunday, June 23, 2024. The new structure is replacing the Tree of Life synagogue where 11 worshipers were murdered in 2018 in the deadliest act of antisemitism in U.S. history.

More than five years ago, 11 members of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community were murdered at the Tree of Life synagogue on Shabbat by a white nationalist gunman. The relatives of those killed, Squirrel Hill Jewish community members and political leaders gathered on Sunday for an official groundbreaking ceremony for a new building — housing a memorial, museum and house of worship — that will be built on the site of the synagogue, much of which has been demolished.

Among the politicians who spoke, current events were top of mind, even as they reflected on the toll of the Oct. 27, 2018 attack and the lingering wounds in the community. In a speech sprinkled with Hebrew and Yiddish words, Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro said the new Tree of Life complex and the memory of that day should help counter rising hate in Pennsylvania and the U.S.

“I know this is a difficult time in America, on college campuses and in our town squares. Antisemitism is rising, and some world leaders at times offer permission slips to hate. Here, here on this sacred ground, we should learn the lessons of the past, develop the tools to speak up and build safer communities for all,” Shapiro said. 

Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff, in his fourth visit to Tree of Life since 2020, spoke somberly about the crisis facing the Jewish community today. “Since that evil day, we’ve seen antisemitism rise to unprecedented levels. It is a crisis. We’re seeing it in our schools, markets, neighborhoods, synagogues and online,” said Emhoff. “Let me be clear: when Jews are targeted because of their beliefs or identity, and when Israel is singled out because of anti-Jewish hatred, that is antisemitism, and it must be condemned clearly, unequivocally and without context,” seemingly a reference to a December Capitol Hill hearing in which several university administrators equivocated on the term “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

Amid tears and heartbreak, the overarching tone of the event was one of hope. Emhoff closed his speech that way, too: “We must rededicate ourselves to embracing our faith and practicing our traditions,” he said. “And we must always live openly and proudly and joyfully as Jews.”

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