Looking ahead, Tree of Life ends one chapter and begins another

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Jeffrey Myers, rabbi of the Tree of Life congregation, stood before parishioners, survivors and families of victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting and said “l’hitraot” (goodbye) to one at a ceremony in front of the Tree of Life building beloved place Squirrel Hill on April 23rd.

After 71 years of daily worship — and countless weddings, circumcisions, and b’nei mitzvot — significant portions of the structure are being demolished and rebuilt.

Myers signaled the transition and end of a church chapter by referring to various biblical uses of “etz chayim” (tree of life).

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“That’s an interesting sentence,” he said.

A tree of life is mentioned in the Garden of Eden. In Proverbs, the words are used to describe wisdom. The Torah — “the source of what makes us Jewish” — is also referred to as the “tree of life,” Myers said.

Attendees raise their hands in response to Rabbi Jeffrey Myers’ question, “How many of you attended a joyful event at the Tree of Life?” during the Tree of Life congregation’s “L’hitraot Ceremony” on April 23, 2023 .(Alexandra Wimley/Union Progress)

Since its founding in 1864, the community has called itself “Etz Chayim,” Myers said, and like the varied leaves on a tree, so are the “countless joyous celebrations” that have taken place there.

“We are grateful to God for the thousands of blessings that have passed through those doors,” he said.

But the synagogue’s doors have mostly remained closed since a gunman killed 11 people and seriously injured six others, including four first responders, during Shabbat services on October 27, 2018.

Myers, a survivor of the shooting, recalled what happened four and a half years ago.

“We can’t, we mustn’t, let a day out of 25,993 days define us, nor outweigh any good, because we’ve been shown more than we can remember,” he said.

Although October 27, 2018 was just one day among thousands, it is a crucial part of the history of the community. The l’hitraot ceremony was deliberately scheduled to occur less than 24 hours before the accused Pittsburgh synagogue bomber’s trial began, Myers said.

“The next chapter starts tomorrow,” he said, “so we had to close that chapter today.”

Songs and engaging readings helped symbolize the change.

Alan Hausman, President of Tree of Life, recited a verse from Alden Solovy’s acrostic entitled “Tree of Life”.

“Oh, Rock of Israel, don’t forget the Jews of Pittsburgh,” Hausman read.

Myers asked participants to place memorial stones next to the building to collect and later incorporate into the new structure. The rabbi then undertook one final act. He asked cantor Laura Berman to sing a popular Hebrew folk song as he and Hausman approached the exterior doors of the building overlooking Shady Avenue. With a screwdriver in his left hand, the rabbi brought his right hand to his mouth. He kissed his fingers and pressed them against the mezuzah.

Berman and the attendees continued to sing “Shalom Chaverim,” a song whose few lyrics describe an elusive meeting between friends. “Shalom” – one of the three words of the folk song – means “hello”, “goodbye” and “peace”.

When used to say goodbye, shalom has “finality,” Myers said. “We do not say shalom.”

The rabbi removed the protective cover and the handwritten Hebrew scroll from the doorpost.

“It’s cleaned, stored and reattached,” he said.

Berman continued singing.

Rose Gerson, a Tree of Life congregant, wept.

“You never know how you’re going to react,” Gerson said of the Mezuzah’s removal.

“It just takes you back to a place you don’t want to be,” community member Ann Levin said. “I know it’s going to be a new building and a beautiful building, but the reason we’re here is just so painful.”

Alan Hausman, President of the Tree of Life Congregation, looks on at the crowd as Rabbi Jeffrey Myers wipes tears from his eyes during the L’hitraot ceremony of the Tree of Life Congregation April 23, 2023, after he removed a mezuzah. (Alexandra Wimley/Union Progress)

Former President Suzanne Schreiber acknowledged that it was difficult to remove an iconic Jewish symbol from a closed place of worship, but encouraged parishioners to look forward.

“It marks the conclusion of a chapter, but I can’t wait to read the rest of the book because the rest of the book hasn’t been written yet,” she said.

Thirty minutes after the ceremony ended, Gerson, a member of Tree of Life for almost 20 years, stayed on site. She strolled up the steps from Zittrain Gardens and stopped at the corner of Shady Avenue and Wilkins Avenue.

With her back to the building, she told the Chronicle her eyes are fixed on the days to come.

“Today it’s done. Tomorrow the next ugly chapter begins,” she said. “The trial starts tomorrow morning but we’ll get through it because you can’t let them win.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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