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Second gentleman Doug Emhoff and Gov. Josh Shapiro attend groundbreaking ceremony for Pittsburgh's new Tree of Life campus and museum

Groundbreaking ceremony takes place for new Tree of Life campus in Squirrel Hill
Groundbreaking ceremony takes place for new Tree of Life campus in Squirrel Hill 03:44

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- After months of demolition, the site of the Tree of Life synagogue is ready for construction. 

Sunday at a groundbreaking ceremony, families and community members reflected, remembered, and looked forward. It was a day more than five years in the making; one filled with emotion, resilience, and hope, as the synagogue broke ground on a new space and a new chapter in its history.

The Tree of Life broke ground and glass, as is done at the end of a Jewish wedding. It's glass that will be recreated into mezuzahs and affixed to the doors of the redesigned building.

Carole Zawatsky is the CEO of the new institution.

"The mezuzot will forever be a reminder of our obligation to try to pick up the shards of our broken world," Zawatsky said.

During the moment, families of the 11 victims and survivors were joined by first responders and other major players who helped get the community at Shady and Wilkins to the place they are today, one of healing and resolve, as they look to restore the vibrant Jewish life to the congregation that's remained there for 160 years.

Diane Rosenthal is the sister of victims Cecil and David and a Tree of Life board member.

"I can feel their presence, even today," Diane said. "We want them to be remembered for how they lived their beautiful lives."

Since the horrific shooting on Oct. 27, 2018, the building has remained vacant until now, as construction starts on the site of the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history.

The main sanctuary will remain for worship, but the new building, what's being called a 'reimagined' Tree of Life, will memorialize and celebrate the lives of those tragically killed.

"When we say, 'May their memory be for a blessing,' we do all in our power to make it true," Zawatsky said.

It will also create the country's first museum dedicated to teaching the story of antisemitism and how to uproot it, a problem that's drastically rising with people experiencing it like never before.

Second gentleman of the United States, Doug Emhoff, and Pennsylvania Governor, Josh Shapiro, spoke on the issue.

"Let me be very clear. When Jews are targeted because of their beliefs or identity, or when Israel is singled out because of anti-Jewish hatred, that is antisemitism, plain and simple," Emhoff said.

"Here on this sacred ground, we should learn the lessons of the past and develop the tools to speak up and build safer communities for all," Shapiro said.

They hope to bring folks of all ages and backgrounds together, just as Pittsburgh rallied around the Jewish community after that day five years ago.

"We wouldn't have made it to this day without the individuals, groups, and communities who showed up to stand by our side and help us break out of the darkness," congregation president Alan Hausman said.

"Our hope is that the Tree of Life becomes a beacon of hope, a symbol of the resilience of this community, and a call not only to take bold action against extreme forms of bias but a beckoning to all of us to do one extra good deed each day in honor of each of the 11 who were taken from us," board vice chair Jeffrey Solomon said.

They'll stand strong as one and persevere as Jews, as they've always done.

"We announce loudly and clearly to the entire world that evil did not win," Rabbi Jeffrey Myers said.

Construction is expected to be completed in a couple of years.

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