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The congregation of Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue was nearly 100 years old when it relocated to its current site and assumed a new identity in 1952. A neoclassical building was traded in for a “jet-propelled era” design by Charles and Edward Stotz with Alexander Shargrove as “new and beautiful giants of steel and aluminum and concrete [rose] to dizzying heights” in postwar downtown Pittsburgh. [1] Then came a prominent, expanded sanctuary built in 1959 by Alfred M. Marks and Elkan A. Avener. [2] Compared to other synagogues in the neighborhood, many with stepped entrances, arched windows, and religious symbolism, Tree of Life’s new stoic, limestone walls seem guarded, protective of its tribe. 
 
Set back from the corner of two busy streets, the sanctuary is buffered by greenery on all sides. Unadorned limestone columns frame monochromatic stained glass windows on two of the synagogue’s facades. Visitors enter the synagogue through an understated main entrance, a dark row of doors recessed in a low burgundy volume abutting the imposing limestone structure. The seemingly impenetrable facade is now the symbol of anti-Semitism in the US, its image endlessly reprinted alongside headlines about a shooting that killed eleven worshippers inside. 
 
I grew up a block from the synagogue. What horror to see this building catapult from my peripheral vision into the international news cycle. On the hazy Monday following the weekend’s tearful vigils, Beatriz Colomina spoke in Pittsburgh about architecture as “shock absorber” and psychological device. Like Loos’s sanatoriums and the Eames’s homes, it occurred to me that in 1959 the new Tree of Life sanctuary had been built to heal the trauma of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community. As young soldiers returned from Europe and a new wave of refugees began to trickle in, this synagogue was a forceful image of modern American Jewishness. After the atrocities of World War II, the Tree of Life synagogue towers at the top of a hill.
While the angular addition assimilates into its progressive city by shedding traditional architectural motifs, it still presents a hard face to the outside, and reserves the sublime experience for its own within. In the main sanctuary, the heavy limestone walls dematerialize between vibrant stained glass windows that frame the main altar, awash in color. The Portinari-esque compositions by Helen Carew Hickman convey “how human beings should care for the earth and one another.” Colorless from the outside, they offer congregants a richness that inspires healing and spiritual connection.
 
“Every age has its own signature affliction, its own nightmares,” Colomina said in her talk. The insular building belies the connectivity of the Tree of Life congregation. That Saturday morning, the eleven victims came to the synagogue from different neighborhoods across the city. The synagogue – a place of familiarity, community, and routine for many – was targeted in part for extending its support to refugee and immigrant aid organizations. Now the community is again grappling with the challenge of how to provide shelter in a threatening world. 

NOTES ▓ ▓ ▓ ▓ ▓ ▓ ▓ ▓ ▓ ▓ ▓ ▓ ▓ ▓

[1] “Progress: In Our Synagogue, In Our City,” in Progress, Tree of Life Congregation, 1864–1952 (Pittsburgh: Tree of Life Congregation, 1952), 7. 

[2] “A New ‘Branch’,” Pittsburgh Press, September 18, 1959: 8.

Image: Tree of Life Congregation Records, University of Pittsburgh Library System.

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