How Pittsburgh is saving Tree of Life’s massive, community-built sidewalk memorial

Rain, temperature and vandalism threaten the tribute, which will be moved inside and back on display soon.

The flowers outside Tree of Life on Wed. Nov. 14

The flowers outside Tree of Life on Wed. Nov. 14

mj slaby / the incline
MJ Slaby

Updated, 1:02 p.m. Thursday

They started on the edge. First, they gathered a flag and a banner. Then a shadowbox and posters, followed by a glass lantern with a candle inside and white flowers on top.

Volunteers looked at each item, one by one.

It’s been 18 days since a gunman entered Tree of Life and killed 11 people and injured six others. In the days that followed, a memorial grew there.

The flowers were feet deep, and the top layer was still fragrant. Mourners left statues, painted rocks, candles, artwork, notes, and even wind chimes with angel wings.

This morning, with the blessing of the victims’ families, a group of volunteers from all three congregations inside the building that day — Tree of Life, New Light and Dor Hadash — along with history faculty from Carnegie Mellon University and staff of the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives at the Heinz History Center started deconstructing the memorial outside the Squirrel Hill synagogue so it can be preserved.

“Because it is outside, there are concerns about rain, temperature, and vandalism, which suggests that we should deconstruct it and get inside ASAP,” said Laurie Zittrain Eisenberg, a history professor at CMU with a longstanding family connection to Tree of Life.

Over the next few weeks, the memorial will be rebuilt inside Tree of Life against a long row of glass doors, so items will be protected but still on view, without people having to enter the still-closed building.

Eisenberg stressed that everything will be kept. “Please, no one think that we are callously disposing of people’s thoughtful contributions to the memorial.”

Going forward, she said she “would gently discourage” people from leaving more items outside of Tree of Life and recommends donating to the synagogue instead as it rebuilds.

Eisenberg said a lot of factors went into the decision to preserve the memorial, marking what Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto called “the darkest day of Pittsburgh’s history.”

“I’m sensitive to the idea that in five years, 75 years and beyond, this is something that researchers and scholars will want to study,” she said, adding in the long run, it’s important to have things saved, cataloged and accessible.

But it’s been less than a month since the tragedy, and people are still going to the memorial. Several visitors stopped by as volunteers started their work today.

“It seems silly to whisk everything away from people now, so it will be pristine for a researcher in a few decades,” Eisenberg said.

Laurie Zittrain Eisenberg reads notes and cards as she removes them for preservation.

Laurie Zittrain Eisenberg reads notes and cards as she removes them for preservation.

MJ slaby / the incline

Preservation process

As they continued, volunteers sifted through the flowers. The freshest ones were put in buckets and some will stay outside, Eisenberg said. Others were moved into new stacks.

Once everything is inside Tree of Life, the items will be cataloged and photographed, she said. Plus, the memorial was photographed as it was before work began.

With the wet, rainy weather, there is potential for items to have moisture in them so moving them inside means they can dry out and be saved, added Eric Lidji, director of the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives, who is helping with the process.

Once the items are organized, Eisenberg said, the new memorial will be built and ready for display in about a month. That display will be temporary until construction inside Tree of Life gets underway. Then at a later date, items will move to the to the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives in the Strip District, where they will be available to researchers, historians and the public.

Lidji stressed that the program will help as long as needed, but the memorial belongs to the victims’ families and the congregations. Reconstruction plans also include a memorial inside Tree of Life to the 11 people killed and could include some of the memorial items, Eisenberg added.

Tree of Life
mj slaby / the incline

History in real time

The first week after the shooting, Lidji said he and others from the program at the history center tried to be everywhere to collect items — event programs, copies of speeches and remarks, protest and vigil signs, the “I voted” sticker with Stronger Than Hate added to it.

They also set up a web portal where people, mostly Pittsburghers, could send items from photos to social media posts of remembrance to poetry. That portal will stay open indefinitely, he said.

While the program adds to its archives regularly, this is the first time Lidji said he’s done it in real time. With the past, there’s an understanding that comes with context and it helps archivists decide what’s important to keep, he said.

But with this, it’s real-time so everything feels relevant, and that context is still happening, he said.

The goal, however, is to create a collection of how a community responds to a tragic incident, emotionally, politically, in religious life. That way, whoever views it in the future will understand the aftermath and it isn’t glossed over as a large period of mourning but has humanity, he said.