Tree of Life–Or L'Simcha Congregation held a ceremony on Sunday, April 23, to mark the removal of the mezuzah. Photo by Ann Belser.

Tree of Life Congregation prepared their synagogue for the partial demolition and rebuilding of the landmark building with a ceremony on Sunday, April 23, to say they will see it again.

It has been four and a half years since a gunman entered the building, killing 11 congregants, wounding two others and injuring four police officers.

The l’hitraot ceremony marked the removal of the mezuzah — a small container with a piece of parchment with a verse of the Torah written on it — from the doorway to the building where it had been placed in 1952.

The ceremony was held the day before jury selection begins in the trial of the man accused of the mass shooting on Oct. 27, 2018.

But the day was not to mark sadness; no mention was made of the impending trial.

The intent, instead, was to look to the future with hope and to remember the joy of the events that occurred before the antisemitic attack.

Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers called it a “special and unique ceremony: Special because this building is special to all of us assembled here. Unique because, as all of us know, this has never happened before in the United States.”

Daniel Libeskind’s design for the Tree of Life retains the iconic limestone facade. Rendering by Lifang Vision Technology.

Rabbi Myers called on the 75 people assembled to remember their happiest days in the building, asking the gathering to raise their hands if they had celebrated their bar or bat mitzvah, their wedding or someone else’s joyous event in the building.

“We’ve had innumerable joyous celebrations here spanning 71 years that the center core has been in existence and we cannot, we must not permit one day out of 25,993 days to define us, nor outweigh all the good,” he said.

He mentioned the “thousands of blessings that have passed through these doors.”

“We have fulfilled the tripartite ideal endorsed in the Talmud to be a house of prayer, a house of study and a house of gathering,” he said.

While the original building on the site was constructed 71 years ago, the congregation was established in Pittsburgh 159 years ago, the Rabbi noted.

The only part of the building that will remain will be the limestone addition at the corner of Shady and Wilkins Avenue. The rest of the current building will be demolished.

The new space is being designed by Studio Libeskind, in collaboration with Rothschild Doyno Collaborative of Pittsburgh.

Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers removes the mezuzah from the doorway at Tree of Life–Or L’Simcha Congregation on Sunday, April 23, 2023. Photo by Ann Belser.

Rabbi Myers called it the third iteration of the congregation’s home. And, he said, when it is completed, it will sport the same mezuzah that was removed on April 23.

“We are not saying shalom because there is a finality to that word,” he said. “This is not a final moment, but a pause to the next chapter to the next 159 years of Tree of Life until we see you again in even greater glory.”

Then, as cantor Laura Berman sang “Shalom Chaverim,” Rabbi Myers loosened the screws of the mezuzah and removed it from the doorway where it had been for the past 71 years.

Ann Belser is the owner of Print, a newspaper covering Pittsburgh's East End communities. After receiving a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, she moved to Squirrel Hill and was a staff writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for 20 years where she covered local communities, county government, courts and business.