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Ceremony marks start of rebuilding for Pittsburgh synagogue targeted in antisemitic mass shooting

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Second gentleman Douglas Emhoff and Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro were among the dignitaries marking the groundbreaking Sunday of a new structure replacing the Tree of Life synagogue, where 11 worshippers were murdered in 2018 in the deadliest act of antisemitism in U.S. history.

Plans for the new complex include a cultural center, sanctuary, educational center and museum along with a memorial to the worshipers from three congregations who were murdered on the Sabbath morning of Oct. 27, 2018. The new design is by renowned architect Daniel Libeskind, whose previous works include Jewish museums, Holocaust memorials and the master plan for the redevelopment of the World Trade Center after 9/11.

Emhoff, the first Jewish spouse of an American president or vice president, said his purpose on Sunday was to "send a message to the Jewish community of Pittsburgh, to the country, and to the world, that we must never forget what the poison of antisemitism can do."

"We are turning what was once a tragic crime scene into a place of hope and inspiration -- a place that is full of light," said Emhoff, who has met previously with Tree of Life family members and survivors of the attack.

Survivors were among the speakers at the groundbreaking, including Tree of Life's rabbi, Jeffrey Meyers.

"Today we announce, loudly and clearly, to the entire world that evil did not win — that it did not chase us from our home, and it never, ever will," Myers said.

Much of the original synagogue complex, which had been unused since the shootings, was demolished earlier this year. The reconstruction is being overseen by a new non-profit organization, named Tree of Life. The building will include worship space for the historic congregation of the same name along with space for other activities.

The attack claimed the lives of 11 worshippers from Dor Hadash, New Light and Tree of Life congregations, which shared space in the synagogue in Squirrel Hill, the heart of Pittsburgh's Jewish community. Two worshippers and five responding police officers were also injured in the attack.

The attacker was sentenced to death in 2023 after being convicted on 63 counts, including hate crimes resulting in death.

"The end of our story is not victimhood, it's about how we as Jewish people define ourselves and, out of the worst moments, our capacity to be resilient, to get up and to rebuild," said Carole Zawatsky, chief executive officer of the Tree of Life non-profit organization overseeing the project in tandem with the congregation of the same name.

Organizers aim to have the project completed by the end of 2026, she said in an interview,

She said the project aims to honour the memories of the 11 who were killed and to combat the hatred behind such attacks.

"What we're truly doing is looking at the root of all identity-based hate," she said. "In a society where antisemitism is allowed to flourish, all forms of hate are allowed to flourish. It is an American problem."

Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP's collaboration with The Conversation U.S., with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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