Sunday, October 27, 2019

Photo of the Day: Tree of Life Synagogue, Pittsburgh PA—One Year Later

It was only a little over a week ago that, while being driven in an SUV through the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, I saw out the window the Tree of Life Synagogue. 

I wasn’t struck simply by the way the building (designed by architects Alfred Marks and Elkan Avner and dedicated in 1963) wraps around the corner of Wilkins and Shady Avenues, or by the modern stained-glass windows. 

No, it was all the items left on one side of the religious site—a grim reminder of the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history that occurred exactly a year ago today.

I took this photo to remind myself what I saw on my brief visit, and how my heart sank in that moment.
In these past 12 months, Americans have had to ask some very hard questions about how a gunman (I refuse to dignify him by providing a name) slaughtered 11 people on the site. The social media have managed to provide a forum for a hatred that, while perhaps no longer as casual and widespread as before WWII in the United States, is perhaps more insidious, virulent and murderous.

As described by Mahita Gajanan in this Time Magazine article, the congregation of Tree of Life is now considering the nature of the synagogue after its anticipated reopening. But, while the structure can take a new form, the atmosphere in American society requires a longer, more intense detoxification. 

This came home to me in unmistakable fashion a few weeks ago, when a friend, describing a recent day supervising a small after-school library, explained how she came upon a nine-year-old accessing hate messages via the computer. The child had not happened upon it on his own or through friends, she explained, but had been directed to it through his parents. Seventy years after Rodgers and Hammerstein explained the nature of prejudice, it remains the case that the young must be “carefully taught” to hate and fear.

Part of this detoxification, I’m convinced, must involve preserving memory—an effort that now includes, among others, Eric Lidji, who, as director of the director and only permanent staff member of the Rauh Jewish History Program and Archives, has been gathering programs, artwork, and stones left outside the Tree of Life. (See a description of his work in this fine article in The Atlantic by Emma Green.)

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