Tree of Life – Or L'Simcha Congregation

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Tree of Life – Or L'Simcha Congregation
עֵץ חַיִּים – אוֹר לְשִׂמְחָה
Tree of Life - Or L'Simcha logo.png
Affiliation Conservative Judaism
LeadershipRabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers
Location5898 Wilkins Avenue
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, US
Pittsburgh locator map 2018.png
Red pog.svg
Shown within Pittsburgh
Geographic coordinates 40°26′37″N79°55′17″W / 40.44361°N 79.92139°W / 40.44361; -79.92139 Coordinates: 40°26′37″N79°55′17″W / 40.44361°N 79.92139°W / 40.44361; -79.92139
Completed1953 (1953)

Tree of Life – Or L'Simcha Congregation (Hebrew : עֵץ חַיִּים – אוֹר לְשִׂמְחָה) [1] is a Conservative Jewish synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The congregation moved into its present synagogue building in 1953. It merged with Congregation Or L'Simcha in 2010, bringing its membership to 530 families.

Hebrew language Semitic language native to Israel

Hebrew is a Northwest Semitic language native to Israel; the modern version of which is spoken by over 9 million people worldwide. Historically, it is regarded as the language of the Israelites and their ancestors, although the language was not referred to by the name Hebrew in the Tanakh. The earliest examples of written Paleo-Hebrew date from the 10th century BCE. Hebrew belongs to the West Semitic branch of the Afroasiatic language family. Hebrew is the only living Canaanite language left, and the only truly successful example of a revived dead language.

Conservative Judaism denomination of Judaism

Conservative Judaism is a major Jewish denomination which views Jewish law, or Halakha, as both binding and subject to historical development. It regards the authority of Jewish law and tradition as emanating primarily from the assent of the people and the community through the generations, more than from divine revelation. The Conservative rabbinate therefore employs modern historical-critical research, rather than only traditional methods and sources, and lends great weight to its constituency when determining its stance on matters of practice. The movement considers its approach as the authentic and most appropriate continuation of halakhic discourse, maintaining both fealty to received forms and flexibility in their interpretation. It also eschews strict theological definitions, lacking a consensus in matters of faith and allowing great pluralism.

Squirrel Hill (Pittsburgh) Neighborhood of Pittsburgh in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, United States

Squirrel Hill is a residential neighborhood in the East End of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States. The city officially divides it into two neighborhoods, Squirrel Hill North and Squirrel Hill South, but it is almost universally treated as a single neighborhood.


Originally founded as an Orthodox Jewish congregation in 1864, it gradually moved closer to Conservativism. In 1886, it affiliated with the Jewish Theological Seminary Association (JTS), at the time an Orthodox institution, but which developed the Conservative ideology in the early 1900s. Tree of Life joined with JTS offshoot United Synagogue of America about 1916, formally connecting to the nascent Conservative movement.

Orthodox Judaism Traditionalist branches of Judaism

Orthodox Judaism is a collective term for the traditionalist branches of contemporary Judaism. Theologically, it is chiefly defined by regarding the Torah, both Written and Oral, as literally revealed by God on Mount Sinai and faithfully transmitted ever since. Orthodox Judaism therefore advocates a strict observance of Jewish Law, or Halakha, which is to be interpreted and determined only according to traditional methods and in adherence to the continuum of received precedent through the ages. It regards the entire halakhic system as ultimately grounded in immutable revelation, essentially beyond external and historical influence. More than any theoretical issue, obeying the dietary, purity, ethical, and other laws of Halakha is the hallmark of Orthodoxy. Other key doctrines include belief in a future resurrection of the dead, divine reward and punishment for the righteous and the sinners, the Election of Israel, and an eventual restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem under the Messiah.

Jewish Theological Seminary of America religious education organization located in New York, New York

The Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) is a Conservative Jewish education organization in New York City, New York. It is one of the academic and spiritual centers of Conservative Judaism and a major center for academic scholarship in Jewish studies.

United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism Conservative jewish organization.

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) is the major congregational organization of Conservative Judaism in North America, and the largest Conservative Jewish communal body in the world. USCJ closely works with the Rabbinical Assembly, the international body of Conservative rabbis. It coordinates and assists the activities of its member communities on all levels.

In 2018, the synagogue was the target of a mass shooting in which eleven people were killed and seven injured. It was the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the United States. [2] [3]

Pittsburgh synagogue shooting mass shooting

The Pittsburgh synagogue shooting was a mass shooting that occurred at the Tree of Life – Or L'Simcha Congregation in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on October 27, 2018, while Shabbat morning services were being held. Eleven people were killed and seven were injured. It was the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the United States.

American Jews Ethnic group

American Jews, or Jewish Americans, are Americans who are Jews, whether by religion, ethnicity or nationality. The current Jewish community in the United States consists primarily of Ashkenazi Jews, who descend from diaspora Jewish populations of Central and Eastern Europe and comprise about 90-95% of the American Jewish population. Most American Ashkenazim are US-born, with a dwindling number of now elderly earlier immigrants, as well as some more recent foreign-born immigrants.


Tree of Life Congregation was formed in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1864 as a breakaway group from Rodef Shalom, an Orthodox synagogue founded in 1854 which began adopting Reform practices following the visit of Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise to the city. [4] [5] The initial group of 16 members met in the home of Gustavus Grafner. [4] Then called by its Hebrew name, Etz Chayyim (Hebrew : עץ חיים, transl. 'Tree of Life'), the congregation was chartered in 1865 and acquired land in Sharpsburg for use as a cemetery. [6] The congregation met in temporary locations in the downtown area over the coming years, [7] until in 1883 it bought a former Lutheran church property downtown. [6] [8] At that point, it became known by its English name, Tree of Life. [6]

Pennsylvania State of the United States of America

Pennsylvania, officially the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, is a state located in the northeastern and Mid-Atlantic regions of the United States. The Appalachian Mountains run through its middle. The Commonwealth is bordered by Delaware to the southeast, Maryland to the south, West Virginia to the southwest, Ohio to the west, Lake Erie and the Canadian province of Ontario to the northwest, New York to the north, and New Jersey to the east.

Rodef Shalom Congregation

Rodef Shalom Congregation is a National Register of Historic Places landmark in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, designed by architect Henry Hornbostel.

Synagogue Jewish or Samaritan house of prayer

A synagogue, is a Jewish or Samaritan house of worship.

In its early years, Tree of Life was the city's center for Orthodox Judaism, and attracted Orthodox Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. [5] In 1883, it shortened the traditional Orthodox prayer service, [8] and in 1886 became affiliated with the Jewish Theological Seminary Association, [6] [9] a rabbinical training institute which was at the time an Orthodox institution [10] but which developed the Conservative ideology in the early 1900s. [11] Around 1916, Tree of Life joined the national Conservative network, the United Synagogue of America. [8]

Eastern Europe eastern part of the European continent

Eastern Europe is the eastern part of the European continent. There is no consensus on the precise area it covers, partly because the term has a wide range of geopolitical, geographical, cultural, and socioeconomic connotations. There are "almost as many definitions of Eastern Europe as there are scholars of the region". A related United Nations paper adds that "every assessment of spatial identities is essentially a social and cultural construct".

In 1906, the congregation began constructing a permanent home on Craft Avenue in the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh. [7] The synagogue opened in 1907 with sanctuary seating for 750. [6] [12] [lower-alpha 1] English-language prayers were introduced the same year. [8]

Oakland (Pittsburgh) Place in Pennsylvania, United States

Oakland is the academic and healthcare center of Pittsburgh and one of the city's major cultural centers. The neighborhood is home to three universities, museums, and hospitals, as well as an abundance of shopping, restaurants, and recreational activities. Oakland is home to the Schenley Farms National Historic District which encompasses two city designated historic districts: the mostly residential Schenley Farms Historic District and the predominantly institutional Oakland Civic Center Historic District. It is also home to the locally designated Oakland Square Historic District. The Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire has Fire Station No. 14 on McKee Place and Fire Station No. 10 on Allequippa Street in Oakland.

Beginning in the 1920s, Tree of Life shifted further toward left-wing Conservatism under the direction of Rabbi Herman Hailperin, who led the congregation for 45 years. [8] Among the practices Hailperin instituted were organ music during the prayer services, the elimination of the rabbinically-mandated second day of festival observance, the election of women to the temple's board of trustees, the calling of women to the Torah reading, and counting women as part of the minyan. [13] [8]

Synagogue facade Tree of Life - Or L'Simcha synagogue facade.jpg
Synagogue facade

In 1953, Tree of Life moved into its present building in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. [8] The land for the new structure was gifted by then-synagogue president Charles J. Rosenbloom. [6] The synagogue symbolically showed its ties to Israel with a cornerstone hewn from limestone quarried in Jerusalem. [14] The structure initially opened with a library, kitchen, an arts and crafts store, a stage, and vestry rooms. [15] In 1959 the congregation broke ground on a 1,400-seat sanctuary fronted by "rows of swirling, modernistic stained-glass windows illustrating the story of creation, the acceptance of God's law, the 'life cycle' and 'how human-beings should care for the earth and one another". [15] [16] In 1995, membership numbered 850 families. [8]

Tenants and merger

In the 2000s, an aging membership and the migration of the Jewish community to suburban neighborhoods led to decreasing synagogue membership. [6] Tree of Life began renting space in its building to other congregations. [6] In 2008, Congregation Or L'Simcha (Hebrew : אור לשמחה, transl. 'Light of Joy'), founded by Rabbi Chuck Diamond in 2005, began holding services in the Tree of Life building. [17] In 2010, the two congregations voted to merge and became known as Tree of Life – Or L'Simcha Congregation. [18] The merger added 120 congregants to Tree of Life's membership rolls, [17] bringing the combined membership to 530 families. [18]

In April 2010, Dor Hadash, a Reconstructionist congregation, began renting space in the Tree of Life building. [18] New Light, a Conservative congregation, left its home of 60 years in 2017 and carried its Torah scrolls in a procession to Tree of Life, where it also began renting space. [19] [20]

Mass shooting

Memorials for victims outside the synagogue Tree of Life Synagogue Memorials 10-30-2018 01.jpg
Memorials for victims outside the synagogue

A mass shooting occurred in the Tree of Life synagogue during Shabbat morning services on October 27, 2018. A gunman entered the building shouting antisemitic statements and opened fire, killing eleven and injuring seven, including four police officers. The sole suspect, Robert Bowers, was apprehended at the scene. [21]


The congregation elected its first spiritual leader, Rabbi Michael Fried, a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary, in 1898. [8] The longest-tenured rabbi of the congregation was Rabbi Herman Hailperin, who acceded to the position in 1922 while in his early twenties, the same year he was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary; he actively served for the next 45 years, being named rabbi emeritus in 1968. [13] The synagogue did not have a spiritual leader for several years after Rabbi Alvin K. Berkun's departure, until the merger with Or L'Simcha. Following is the rabbinical leadership of the Tree of Life Congregation: [8] [17] [22]

The synagogue's lay leadership established a tradition of volunteering and support for Jewish social service activities. [6] Alexander Fink, the synagogue president from 1873 to 1892, was also a founder of the city's Hebrew Benevolent Society and later served as president of the United Hebrew Relief Association. [6] When the synagogue established its new home in Squirrel Hill, facilities were given over for meetings of junior and senior Hadassah, the Women's League for Traditional Judaism, Young Judaea clubs, and Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts troops. [15]


  1. Designed by architect Daniel A. Crone, the structure was later sold to the Pittsburgh Playhouse, which continues to use it as a performance venue. [6]

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  1. "Synagogue Life". Tree of Life – Or L'Simcha Congregation. Retrieved October 27, 2018.
  2. Selk, Avi; Craig, Tim; Boburg, Shawn; Ba Tran, Andrew (October 28, 2018). "'They showed his photo, and my stomach just dropped': Neighbors recall synagogue massacre suspect as a loner". The Washington Post . Retrieved November 22, 2018. The attack, the deadliest on Jews in U.S. history, targeted a congregation that is an anchor of Pittsburgh’s large and close-knit Jewish community, a synagogue about a 25-minute drive from Bowers’s home.
  3. Gardner, Timothy; Mason, Jeff; Brunnstrom, David (October 27, 2018). "Trump says Pittsburgh shooting has little to do with gun laws". Reuters. Retrieved November 22, 2018.
  4. 1 2 Olitzky & Raphael 1988, pp. 317–8.
  5. 1 2 Heineman 2010, p. 82.
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 "1864: Tree of Life Congregation". Heinz History Center . Retrieved October 28, 2018.
  7. 1 2 Squirrel Hill Historical Society 2005, p. 110.
  8. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Olitzky & Raphael 1996, p. 318.
  9. Olitzky & Raphael 1996, pp. 317–8.
  10. Adler, Cyrus; Jacobs, Joseph (1906). "Jewish Theological Seminary of America". Jewish Encyclopedia .
  11. Gurock 1996, p. 63.
  12. "Dedication of Tree of Life Synagogue" (PDF). Jewish Criterion . March 29, 1907. p. 1. Retrieved October 28, 2018.
  13. 1 2 Nadell & Raphael 1988, pp. 130–1.
  14. "New Tree of Life Building Will Have Double Link With Palestine" (PDF). Jewish Criterion. September 13, 1946. Retrieved October 28, 2018.
  15. 1 2 3 Pitz, Marylynne (November 5, 2018). "Pittsburgh's Tree of Life was founded when the Civil War divided the nation". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette . Retrieved November 5, 2018.
  16. Associated Press (October 28, 2018). "Thousands in Pittsburgh gather for vigil after synagogue massacre". The Times of Israel . Retrieved October 28, 2018.
  17. 1 2 3 Tabachnick, Toby (September 15, 2016). "Tree of Life*Or L'Simcha, rabbi are parting ways". Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle . Retrieved October 27, 2018.
  18. 1 2 3 Chottiner, Lee (June 30, 2010). "Tree of Life, Or L'Simcha vote to merge into 1 congregation". Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle. Retrieved October 27, 2018.
  19. "New Light Marches Torah From Old Synagogue To New Home (video)". CBS Pittsburgh. November 13, 2017. Retrieved October 28, 2018.
  20. CNN (October 27, 2018). "Pittsburgh synagogue shooting leaves 11 dead, 6 injured" . Retrieved October 28, 2018.
  21. "11 people killed in Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, official says". CNN. October 27, 2018. Retrieved October 27, 2018.
  22. Tabachnick, Toby (August 16, 2017). "TOL*OLS welcomes Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers". Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle. Retrieved October 27, 2018.


Further reading