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Tree of Life exhibit sparks talk of guns and hate in Senate rotunda

Jason and Andrea Fackler of Louisville arrived in Washington this week on summer vacation to show their three young children “how the country works,” including a tour of Capitol Hill.

But in the marble rotunda of the Russell Senate Office Building on Wednesday, the Facklers encountered a somber reminder of one way in which the nation is broken — an exhibit marking the mass killing at the Tree of Life synagogue in 2018 in which an antisemitic gunman slaughtered 11 congregants.

Andrea, 39, pushing a stroller that her younger child was not using at that moment, moved her hand across a glass case containing a siddur — a Jewish prayer book — ripped by a bullet. Her 11-year-old daughter Kelsey took a look, too, before turning to read one of 18 panels narrating the attack and its aftermath.

“When do you expose them to this? Do I really want to spend time talking about the sadness of this?” said Jason Fackler, 39, pointing to Kelsey, 9-year-old Kennedy and 5-year old Kaden.

“There’s so much hatred going on in the world — this is like an everyday thing now,” he said. “It’s not just anti-Jewish or anti-this-or-that. We’re struggling to meet in the middle and see common ground on things. It just goes to the extreme, one way or the other.”

The exhibit, open to the public through Friday, comes two weeks before synagogue leaders break ground on a multiyear project in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh to create a new sanctuary and museum dedicated to telling the Tree of Life’s story to help combat antisemitism.

The traveling road show version in the nation’s capital represents the first, modest step toward doing so, placing the horrors of Oct. 27, 2018, directly in the center of political power — at a time when anti-Jewish attacks have spiked again, along with threats and violence against Muslims, amid the Israel-Gaza war.

The display, conceived by freelance museum designer Carlo Maggiora, is not overtly political. The panels that circle the rotunda floor recount in straightforward prose the shooting, the heroism of the first responders and the plans for the new synagogue.

Although Tree of Life leaders have preserved dozens of artifacts damaged in the attack, including bloodstained carpets and the wooden Torah ark punctured by bullets, the siddur was the only one included in the Senate exhibit. Another glass case contains mementos left at the synagogue by mourners, including embroidered prayer squares and a cross-stitch emblem bearing the words, “You will be remembered” with a gold Star of David.

Carole Zawatsky, chief executive of the Tree of Life organization overseeing the synagogue renovation, acknowledged that the context of the group’s work cannot be divorced from the broader political debate over the Middle East conflagration that began last October when Hamas militants killed about 1,200 Israelis, many of whom were attending a music festival, and took more than 200 hostages.

The point of bringing the display to Washington, she said, was not to cast blame, but rather to demonstrate solidarity with lawmakers in both parties.

“We don’t stand alone: This exhibit is here in the halls of the highest level of American government,” she said. “Antisemitism is not a Jewish problem, it’s an American problem. We see it all around us, coming from the right and coming from the left — coming from extremists on both sides.”

On Wednesday morning, visitors who wandered through the rotunda stopped to take in the display. Some read every panel, while others paused for a quick look before moving on. One woman posed for a photo in the middle of the room, without appearing to recognize the significance of the damaged prayer book in the case next to her.

Meagan Fuscaldo, who works for a health care company in Northern Virginia and was at the Russell building for a meeting with Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), said she didn’t recall the Tree of Life attack before looking at the exhibit.

“There’s so much happening in the world, certainly with antisemitism and gun control and so much more, so I love that we find ways to highlight and remind people what’s happening,” Fuscaldo said. “On one hand, I feel embarrassed that I didn’t remember, but then again, when you think about how many shootings we have in a year, how can I stay in-the-know about every single one?”

Steve Ashby, 64, director of the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, was holding a folder filled with papers for his meeting with lawmakers, but he took the time to read each of the 18 panels.

“I certainly remember reading about the massacre, but I’d lost track of the story,” he said. “Seeing the list of victims’ names on one of the posters, you just want to say a short prayer for them, and it reminds us we still have a lot of hate in the country.”

Lawmakers, he said, should “turn down some of the rhetoric and turn up some of the bipartisan cooperation to solve some of our problems. We can have political arguments about how to solve problems, that’s fine. But let’s not make it personal, and certainly let’s not blame groups of people.”

Organizers said the idea for the Senate display originated during conversations with Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) to secure a $1 million funding appropriation for an educational program that will be part of the Tree of Life’s new museum. It took months to work out details with the Senate Rules Committee and gain approval from the Architect of the Capitol, they said, including reviewing drafts of the language used on the display panels.

On Wednesday, Casey and Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) took separate tours of the exhibit. Fetterman has been a particularly vocal supporter of Israel, engendering political blowback from progressive activists who have denounced Israel’s military response, which has resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Palestinian civilians. Last week, Fetterman denounced his alma mater, Harvard University, for what he said was its failure to stand up against anti-Israeli protesters on campus.

Shortly after lunch, the senator arrived in the rotunda, where he was greeted by Zawatsky and others involved in the Tree of Life renewal project, including Scott Miller, a former historian at the U.S. Holocaust Museum, and Howard Fienberg, whose mother, Joyce Fienberg, was killed in the 2018 attack.

“No one would have wanted that tragedy, but the way you responded was a triumph,” Fetterman told them, citing a “convergence” between the attack on American Jews at the Tree of Life and on Israelis at the music festival last year.

Fetterman showed the group a replica bracelet from the festival that is intended to be worn as a symbolic demand for the release of the Israeli hostages. Zawatsky then guided the senator to the display case containing the prayer book.

“If we lose this, people someday would say this didn’t happen or that it wasn’t so bad,” she said. “So we’re saving everything.”

This post appeared first on The Washington Post
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