By Laurie Zittrain Eisenberg
This piece is part of the second installment of Speaking Justice to Power: Local Pittsburgh Scholars Respond to the Tree of Life Shooting, a series edited by Heath Cabot and Michal Rose Friedman.
Tree of Life synagogue has been my family’s shul for three generations and I am currently a Board member. I went to Hebrew school, celebrated holidays and was married there. As a teen driver, I was in a car accident at the Wilkins and Shady intersection in front of the synagogue and called my father from the phone in the Tree of Life office. I hadn’t seen the other car coming, just as surely as I hadn’t foreseen the massacre of horrific, historic proportions that occurred there on October 27, 2018. Like many others in the Jewish community, I spent that first awful week moving numbly from funeral to funeral, with shiva calls in between. While Jewish Pittsburgh devoted itself to the overwhelming task of eulogizing and burying its dead, our fellow Pittsburghers swung into support-mode, trekking to the corner of Wilkins and Shady, spontaneously creating a make-shift memorial and point of pilgrimage. It was there that I found my place in this terrible saga, a sense of purpose, and something resembling a sense of peace.
An historian by profession, I have great appreciation for the primary sources upon which scholars rely in understanding and analyzing significant past events. As the first post-shooting week wore on, my attention was increasingly drawn to the pile of flowers and mementoes accumulating on the sidewalk. I still couldn’t believe that the worst attack on American Jews in the history of the United States had occurred in my synagogue, but in my mind I could already hear the furious typing of graduate students drafting doctoral dissertation prospectuses and researchers preparing book proposals focusing on a myriad of aspects of the Tree of Life massacre. The compassionate response of the non-Jewish community, of City government and of individuals and communities across the country and around the world would surely be a facet of the event worthy of scholarly examination. I became obsessed with the necessity of documenting and preserving this evidence of Pittsburgh’s overwhelming decency and its immediate impulse to support and comfort its suffering citizens.
Within a day of the shooting, eleven white, wooden stars of David mysteriously appeared at the site, each bearing the name of a victim. Closer inspection revealed that the stars had been affixed to white wooden crosses, the horizontal beams of which provided the perfect place to pile small stones, a traditional Jewish mourning custom. Heaps of flowers around the stars quickly grew three feet deep and three feet high. Eleven large glass flowers on tall metal stems looked so at home that people wondered, were they always there? A metal cut-out of an angel, four feet tall and holding a lantern, assumed a position nearby. Candles proliferated, small tea lights in groups of eleven, and tall pillars in glass, some emblazoned with doves or Jewish stars, a few with pictures of Jesus. Fabric offerings included banners, Israeli and American flags, t-shirts with the Steeler logo incorporating a Jewish star, “terrible towels” for waving at Steeler games, and stuffed animals. A finisher’s medal from the 2018 New York City marathon, a guitar, a hockey stick, an impossibly tiny wooden crucifix. People were offering up things near and dear to their hearts.
Wielding markers, paint, chalk, crayons and a carving knife, visitors put words and images on stones, poster board, wood, paper, clothing, sidewalks and a jack-o’lantern. Common themes emerged: we love you, we are sorry for your loss, your loss is our loss, we are better than this, you are not alone. The Jewish community marveled at these unequivocal expressions of compassion and drew strength from them.
The visually evocative name of the synagogue building and our congregation – Tree of Life – inspired artistic renderings of trees and life in a myriad of mediums, left in frames, envelopes and plastic wrap at the corner among the bouquets. Although the media referred only to “Tree of Life,” we tried to draw attention to Congregations “Dor Hadash” and “New Light,” as well, co-residents within our building who also lost members in the attack.
Sprinkled throughout the leaves and petals were subtle reminders that this particular attack, aimed at Jews, was part of an historical continuum: a picture of Anne Frank; a painted stone with the number 6,000,011; and eleven tiny frames, each holding a leaf from a tree along the Avenue of the Righteous Among the Nations—a walkway commemorating non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust—at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem.
But Pittsburghers and well-wishers beyond did not perceive this tragedy as an exclusively Jewish affair. While fully recognizing the anti-Semitic nature of the attack and the Jewish identity of the victims, their response was clearly an interfaith, international outpouring: Tibetan prayer flags, dozens of rosary beads, a hand-lettered sign proclaiming “Your Christian neighbors love you,” and an unlikely pair of gold glittery high-top basketball shoes, with “salaam aleikum” (Arabic) and “shalom aleichem” (Hebrew) written on their white rubber toes, nestled peaceably together among the flowers with placards and notes bearing Hebrew prayers and messages. Items arrived from Britain, Israel and Canada; the Irish Embassy in Washington, D.C. sent a wreath, one among many delivered by local florists directly to the floral heap stretching along the sidewalk. Most offerings were anonymous, some bore the names of individuals or families, and many items were signed by groups: students, parishioners, nuns, athletes. First responders, veterans and military personnel paid their respects.
Commemorating death, the memorial was alive, growing larger with each day’s contributions of flowers, messages and artifacts. People from all walks of life arrived at all hours of the day and night, rain or shine. It was alternatively a place of quiet reverence and tears, and a site of much activity and sound. A violinist played one morning; an African American church choir emerged from a van and performed one afternoon. People returned every few days to see the new tokens among the fresh flowers. Someone remarked aloud that they wished they could sit and reflect, and overnight six camp chairs materialized. Buses pulled up and spilled out youth groups and delegations from various houses of worship. High school and university teams in town for competitions left behind signed jerseys. Notes on hotel stationery indicated that visitors to the city were including the memorial in their itinerary of Pittsburgh activities. Photographers spent hours documenting the colorful, ever-changing collection. In the spirit of meeting hatred with music, beauty and light, the synagogue began illuminating its spectacular stained glass windows from within every night, bathing the memorial in rich, warm hues.
Scrambling to speak with someone in synagogue leadership, the Director of the local Rauh Jewish History Archives at the Heinz History Center reached me, en route to a funeral. Rain showers were expected, he said, would it be alright if he arranged for a tent for the sidewalk memorial? Within a week we had formed an ad hoc committee of local archivists, historians, a photographer and representatives from the three congregations and were considering how best to manage the constantly evolving memorial. Personally, I had become quite preoccupied with it, frequently stopping by, noting new additions, worrying about the condition of the more fragile components. We struggled with two, contradictory impulses. One was to preserve the artifacts intact and undamaged, so they could be properly photographed, documented and preserved in an archive. That many of the items were paper and already decomposing in the rain, combined with the possibility of vandalism, made the case for quickly dismantling the memorial. But the undiminished crowds and the stream of fresh flowers and keepsakes made it clear that the site itself, and the act of visiting it, were still very important to the general population. We agreed it would be heartless to rush the items away to preserve them for future historians and researchers, when so many people, all traumatized to varying degrees, were presently finding strength and solace in them.
The memorial had long since outgrown its tent when forecasts of significant snow finally forced the issue, two and a half weeks after the massacre. We put up a sign advising that the memorial would be dismantled on a Monday, giving people one last weekend to interact with it. On “D” day, our intrepid little band of mournful historians and archivists, assisted by a crew of student, neighborhood and congregational volunteers, spent an entire day lovingly deconstructing the memorial, sending mountains of flowers to be composted and retrieving every note, flag, candle, stuffed animal, painted stone, popsicle stick star and other non-organic offering. We arranged the items inside to dry and several weeks later used them to construct a new memorial in the lobby, against the synagogue’s long line of glass doors, through which visitors outside could observe it. When reconstruction begins inside the synagogue in the vicinity of the glass doors, almost everything in the memorial will be moved, at least temporarily, to the local archives.
The few things inappropriate for archival preservation may yet find homes. Hundreds of ordinary stones seem somehow sacred by virtue of their careful placement among the wooden stars; perhaps they can be shared with the educational and religious institutions that reached out immediately after the shooting. In a year, the thousands of bouquets will return as compost, perhaps to be similarly shared for use in memorial and peace gardens around the city. Ideally, all documentation of the event will be available online one day.
This tragic mass shooting violently and unwillingly inducted Tree of Life, New Light and Dor Hadash into a dreadful club in which no one wants membership. Beyond the anti-Semitic nature of the attack and the ecumenical response, the memorial was also a mass response to yet another mass shooting by a gunman consumed with hate, of the kind currently terrorizing this nation and occasionally others. People recognized that on another day the victims, a group of people gunned down while performing a cherished shared activity, could have been any of them. The roster of these predominantly American gun massacres includes houses of prayer, schools, bars, nightclubs, concert venues, movie theaters, airports and places of employment. Unbidden, some of their survivors flew in to stand side by side with Pittsburgh’s Jews, who were deeply touched by their presence. Communal note to self: as we heal, we must remember to be similarly supportive of the victims of killings which we knew would surely come after ours.
The Tree of Life massacre was a devastating moment in the history of the three congregations housed in the Tree of Life building, of the City of Pittsburgh and of American Jewry. The spontaneous memorial that arose in response was a comforting antidote to hatred and a vigorous rejection of the many prejudices currently roiling US society. Investigators will determine how this particular killer became radicalized such that he chose to murder eleven innocent Jews at prayer, but the glorious make-shift memorial, in its contemporaneous, online and archival guises, will ensure that history also remembers how the neighborhood, the city, its faith communities, and the world, responded with decency and love.
 The March 16, 2019 murders of some fifty Muslims at prayer in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, also by a white supremacist, occurred after the completion of this essay. Even as our own harrowing memories surged to mind, we recalled the immediate love and support we had received from the Pittsburgh Muslim community and reached out to them to express our deepest condolences. Tree of Life has established a GoFundMe account for their stricken brethren half a world away and I encourage readers to contribute to it: https://www.gofundme.com/tree-of-life-stands-with-christchurch-mosques. We see a familial resemblance between the makeshift memorials rapidly expanding near the afflicted mosques, and the one outside our synagogue, which brought us so much comfort in the days immediately after our own tragedy. May the jumble of flowers, notes and artifacts in Christchurch be a comfort to the mourners there.
Prof. Laurie Zittrain Eisenberg is on faculty in the History Department at Carnegie Mellon University, where she teaches historical research methods and modern Middle East history. For more about her teaching and research, see her faculty page here.
A recent story about photographer Brian Cohen’s work is available here.