In the days after 11 worshipers were murdered at the Tree of Life synagogue, there was an outpouring of grief and support along the building’s Shady Avenue sidewalk. Thousands of people came to the site, creating a makeshift memorial by leaving flowers, cards, posters, rocks and gifts.
Laurie Zittrain Eisenberg, a professor of history at Carnegie Mellon University, knew that the items left there will be important to the historians. But, she says, historians’ needs had to be balanced with the present-day need of the public to be able to view the items that were placed there.
Eisenberg says it’s “a really Jewish way to honor the memory of the 11 friends we lost, which is by studying.”
After the shooting in 2018, Eisenberg says at first, she thought the crowds of people coming to the synagogue would have died down in a few days. People kept coming and kept bringing flowers and items for the memorial for weeks.
Those who came weren’t just Jews — the majority were Christians who wanted to express their sorrow.
While “Tree of Life synagogue” has become the shorthand for the mass shooting, Eisenberg says all of the people who came to the synagogue were there to pay their respects for all of the victims from all three congregations: Dor Hadash, New Light Congregation and Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha.
“All three lost members and all of the items, the prayers, the flowers, the gifts, everything that was left … was meant equally for the three congregations,” she says.
Over the four years since the shooting, Eisenberg says she has learned that people process events differently, depending on the tools in their emotional tool kits — her tool kit is that of a historian. It was the historian in her that knew the future generations looking back on this mass shooting would want to see the things left at the memorial.
“There are graduate students proposing dissertation topics based on this attack; there
are book proposals going to publishers,” she says.
And while she has done a lot of historical research in archives, she was always the consumer, not the archivist.
But that changed after Oct. 27, 2018.
“When I saw the incredible outpouring of love and support manifest in that sidewalk memorial, part of me kind of understood that this was the evidence.”
In the future, while some researchers will look at how the shooter became so radicalized that he would carry out such an attack, “I wanted to make sure that this heartwarming response that we got from the community, the non-Jewish community, you know the city, the state, the country and even internationally, I wanted to make sure that that was remembered,” she says.
Another motivation to save the items was to say thank you to the people who left the notes, flowers and objects so they would know how every note was read and all of the artwork was appreciated.
As the memorial grew on the sidewalk, Eisenberg says there were two conflicting impulses, one was to gather up the items that had been left so that they would be protected from the elements and not ruined in a rainstorm. But at the same time, she adds, the memorial that kept growing was important for people to come and see.
The best advice on balancing those priorities came from parishioners of the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, which had experienced a mass shooting three years before.
Eisenberg says the people there advised against clearing away the memorial too early because the community needed it as a place to grieve. But then, the weather started to turn. The congregation placed signs that said the memorial would be removed and the items were placed inside the synagogue, with a portion of it displayed so that people would still have a place to come.
In Squirrel Hill, the centerpiece of the makeshift sidewalk memorial, 11 white Stars of David, each with one of the victim’s names on it, remains visible inside the glass doors of the synagogue. The Stars of David were made and delivered by Greg Zanis, of Aurora, Illinois, less than 24 hours after the shooting. Zanis started a nonprofit called Crosses for Losses and would deliver crosses, or in this case Stars of David, to the sites where people had been killed in a mass shooting. Zanis died in May 2020 of cancer.
The other distinctive items at the memorial were the flowers that had been constructed from copper pipes and glass plates and bowls and placed right behind the hedges near the memorial. Those glass flowers were so perfect there, Eisenberg says, that when people who knew the synagogue well saw them, they couldn’t remember if they had been there before the shooting. But then, when they counted them, there were 11 flowers, one for each victim.
The flowers were placed there by Roy Penner, who had started sculpting them to remember his wife, Barbara Cohen Penner, who died 10 months before the shooting.
After the shooting, he brought 11 to the site. One Ellwood City couple who had been
in another mass shooting in Las Vegas at the country music festival brought 11 wreaths
of orange and blue, which were the colors of the festival. Eisenberg says at
first the couple wanted to bring crosses to the site because they are Christian but decided on wreaths so as not to offend the Jewish community.
While Eisenberg does not have hard numbers, the majority of the items were left by Christians.
As the memorial was taken apart, volunteers reached inside every bouquet to remove
the cards which were read and preserved. All of the rocks that had been placed at the site, some painted, others not, were laid on brown paper inside the synagogue and all of the gifts were saved.
When Penner’s glass flowers fell apart because the glue failed, he made new flowers using a technique to drill through the plates and bolt them together. In every set of flowers, there are two that match, for the brothers who were killed: Cecil and David Rosenthal.