Trish Adlesic happened to be in Pittsburgh on Oct. 27, 2018. She had arrived in town two days earlier from upstate New York to celebrate her father’s birthday at her childhood home in the North Hills. Two days later, she found herself at the epicenter of the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history when 11 worshipers were gunned down at the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill.
“It was overwhelming, the thought of this happening and the agony being inflicted on these beautiful families,” Adlesic told the Post-Gazette. “I was in a state of shock. It was heart-wrenching on every level, and I wanted to respond.”
Adlesic is an entertainment industry veteran and co-director of the 2017 documentary “I Am Evidence,” which focuses on how police departments nationwide handle sexual assault cases. Within days of the shooting, Adlesic had already assembled a local team and begun filming the aftermath of the tragedy and how it was impacting her hometown.
Her efforts culminated in the documentary “A Tree of Life: The Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting,” premiering at 9 p.m. ET Oct. 26 on HBO and HBO Max. Adlesic directed “A Tree of Life,” which counts Western Pennsylvania natives Michael Keaton, Billy Porter and Mark Cuban among its executive producers.
The documentary "Repairing the World: Stories from the Tree of Life" will make its world premiere during Film Pittsburgh's JFilm Festival.
The documentary is largely composed of interviews with survivors and victims’ family members with an additional focus on the city’s many displays of unity in the wake of the shooting. Adlesic had completed trauma training while making “I Am Evidence” and made a point to take a “trauma-informed approach” to this extremely sensitive subject matter.
“I really thought that if I applied those principles to this story, it might present an opportunity to shed light and provide a safe space where participants could be given agency,” she said. “Those who lived it should tell it. They determine how the story gets told, and it should be told in their voice.”
A private screening of “A Tree of Life” was held last month at The Manor Theatre in Squirrel Hill for survivors, families and other community members. Michael Bernstein, chair of the congregation’s Interim Governance Committee, said in a statement to the Post-Gazette that he believes Adlesic’s film is “a powerful, honest and heart-rending telling of the story.”
Eliezer “Elie” and Joy Rosenthal, parents of Tree of Life victims David and Cecil Rosenthal, said in a joint statement that “A Tree of Life” “gave us the opportunity to share our personal feelings about ‘the boys.’” The documentary contains interviews with their daughters, Michele and Diane Rosenthal, as well as testimonials from others about how the Rosenthal brothers never failed to brighten any space they entered.
“With all the bad things going on in the world, we wanted to share the good that the boys embodied,” they said. “Cecil and David touched many lives in a unique and positive way. Trish allowed us to share our story about the boys from our hearts and memories, and allowed us to both laugh and cry during the process.”
Anthony Fienberg, the son of Tree of Life victim Joyce Fienberg, said that he “wanted our perspective to be heard on how we approached life in the aftermath” of that day. Audrey Glickman, a Tree of Life member and shooting survivor, appreciated that Adlesic “asked us questions that no other interviewers had posed” and allowed everyone to “collectively shine our individual lights on the truth.”
These stuffed animals were collected as part of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh and 10.27 Healing Partnership's "Build a Hug" initiative to be donated to the Herby Ham Activity Center in Uvalde, Texas.
“Talking with Trish was like writing a diary for all to read,” Glickman said. “It felt like the catharsis that comes from putting something into the record so you can stop rolling it around in your head. And yes, it gave us a vehicle from which to speak out publicly and say that we are humans, just like all others, and that prejudice, hatred and killing are wrong.
“I can't think of a better purpose for a documentary, or a better way to further the healing of a community and the world.”
Having famous Pittsburghers like Keaton, Porter and Cuban involved in the documentary was “remarkably special” for Adlesic, as was enlisting Broadway legend Idina Menzel to perform an original song that plays over the film’s end credits. “A Tree of Life” was mostly funded via grants and private donations; Cuban provided a grant that helped pay for the film’s editing.
“Being Jewish in Pittsburgh and knowing people who went to Tree of Life made it personal to me,” Cuban said in a email to the Post-Gazette. “So I was happy to help.”
Adlesic was adamant that her documentary provide a platform for those most affected by the synagogue shooting to tell their own stories rather than relying on experts and talking heads. She was blown away by their “courage, grace and kindness,” she said.
Though Adlesic tried to be “cautious politically” with “A Tree of Life,” there is a short section that dives into former President Donald Trump’s visit to Pittsburgh soon after the massacre and the increase in hateful rhetoric nationwide that may have inspired the shooter. She felt it “wouldn’t be telling the truth of what happened” to leave that part out entirely.
The director would much rather that HBO audiences see “A Tree of Life” as a portrait of the “intimacy that we share in this city” and how it was clear that no matter how fractured American society can feel sometimes, “our intentions really are to come together” in times of crisis.
“The only way we’re going to make progress is if we hold each other up, stand together and acknowledge one another,” she said. “The demonization of the other is tragic and really dangerous. Showing the humanity and honoring those who were so wrongfully taken shows that people have a voice and their voices should be heard.”
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