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Mourners gather at first funerals for victims in Pittsburgh synagogue shooting

Mourners gather at first funerals for victims in Pittsburgh synagogue shooting

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PITTSBURGH -- This city of three rivers struggled with a confluence of grief, anger and frustration Tuesday as mourners began burying their dead from Saturday's synagogue massacre and protesters decried a presidential visit that they denounced as untimely and unwelcome.

Mourners gathered early for the day's two funerals, one at a synagogue and the other at a theater, with both struggling to accommodate the turnout. The lines included many in wheelchairs and walkers, doctors still in scrubs, Jews and non-Jews who greeted each other in the fellowship of grief.

The crowd quickly overflowed the 1,400-seat Rodef Shalom temple, leaving many to stand between pews for the combined service of David Rosenthal and Cecil Rosenthal, brothers who lay side by side in wooden caskets. The pair, lifelong members of Tree of Life synagogue who were known to greet strangers at the sanctuary door, were shot by a gunman, alleged to be Robert Bowers, when he burst into Shabbat services shouting anti-Semitic slurs.

Those who came to say goodbye to the brothers passed beneath words chiseled into the facade that read: "My house shall be called a house for all people."

"He'd be the first person to greet me when I walked in with a 'Good Shabbas,' " Tree of Life Rabbi Jeffrey Myers said of Cecil Rosenthal, whom he described as the unofficial "mayor" of the Tree of Life community, inviting a wave of tears and laughter that rippled over the audience. "No matter how early you got there," he said, "Cecil was always there."

Mourners came from around the corner and around the country. At least two bus loads traveled from synagogues in Washington, D.C. About 100 members of the Pittsburgh Steelers organization attended, including quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Coach Mike Tomlin, who lives near Tree of Life. A relative of the brothers used to work for the team.

Michael Hirt, their brother-in-law, tearfully recalled Cecil Rosenthal as a shy man with a lifelong fascination with police and firefighters.

"Michael, the police are looking for you!" Rosenthal would say mischievously upon answering the phone, Hirt said.

Hirt described David Rosenthal as an incorrigible socialite whose great pleasure was unearthing and sharing gossip from the community. He would have "loved" seeing his picture in the papers, Hirt said.

At the funeral of Jerry Rabinowitz, an ebullient, bow-tie-loving physician, those who couldn't squeeze into the Jewish Community Center's Henry Kaufman theater filled an overflow area equipped with a video feed. That section filled up, too, with some attendees sitting on stairs, craning for a view of Rabinowitz's pine coffin flanked by U.S. and Israeli flags.

Ellen Surloff, president of Rabinowitz's Dor Hadash congregation, recalled the doctor's inviolable early arrival at Saturday morning Bible study, taking the same seat, filling paper cups with wine for the kiddush blessing. "I never saw somebody look so happy filling Dixie cups," Surloff said. "That there is always, always a smile on Jerry's face . . . even when Jerry was being soundly beaten at the Dor Hadash poker game."

Sondra Krimmel and Barbara Krimmel, twin 72-year-old sisters, remembered Rabinowitz as a both a jolly presence and caring doctor who had treated Barbara for more than 20 years. They said he healed not just the patient but her family.

"He took care of me during the time my sister was suffering," Sondra Krimmel said. "Jerry treated the whole person, the physical body and the emotional body."

They mourned for both their friend and their neighborhood.

"For this to happen here in this community, it just makes no sense," she said. "Because this is the most loving, welcoming community within Pittsburgh."

After the service, a procession with Rabinowitz's body traveled through the Squirrel Hill area, the center of Pittsburgh's Jewish community. Pedestrians came to a silent halt as the motorcade rolled by, led by a hearse and trailed, on foot, by a group of Orthodox men, elderly couples with linked arms, couples pushing strollers and teenagers in yarmulkes, and finally two Lincoln limousines. One man walked in a dark suit and Pittsburgh Pirates cap.

It was a bubble of serene respect just blocks from one of several protests that sprang up in the city in response to President Donald Trump's visit. The first couple arrived soon after the funerals ended, despite requests by local officials that they delay the trip.

"All attention should be on the victims," the city's Democratic mayor, Bill Peduto, said Monday. "We do not have enough public safety officials to provide enough protection at the funerals and . . . at the same time draw attention to a potential presidential visit."

But at the funerals, the focus was squarely on the lives lost, with no mention of the president or the political finger-pointing that raged outside. The family of one victim, 71-year-old new grandfather Daniel Stein, declined the president's offer to come pay his respects, objecting to Trump's suggestion after the shooting that armed guards could have prevented it.

Stein was buried at Beth Shalom on Tuesday afternoon. Seven more funerals for the Tree of Life victims will be held this week, the final on Friday, nearly a week after the attack.

Jewish leaders in the city have struggled to maintain their ritual obligations to the dead, which typically dictate that they be buried quickly, that even the smallest traces of blood and remains be gathered for interment and that the bodies are never left alone.

All three have proved difficult in the midst of the ongoing criminal investigation. Taking a page from Israeli groups accustomed to working in mass casualty scenes, an organization called ZAKA Search and Rescue deployed soon after the shooting, negotiating with police, the FBI and medical examiners to gain access to the crime scene.

Volunteers were allowed into the synagogue early on to accompany the bodies at all times, according to Rabbi Daniel Wasserman, who helped coordinate the burial efforts. They then took shifts attending to them at the morgue, a ritual that typically includes reciting psalms.

"The FBI has been wonderful, really sensitive and working with us," Wasserman said.

Beginning Tuesday, a small group was allowed back into the temple "to begin the arduous, meticulous ritual cleaning of the site, ensuring that all human remains and spilled blood are removed and prepared for burial, in accordance with Jewish law," said ZAKA President Edward Mermelstein.

Finally being able to say goodbye was a relief for many. Before and after services that blended the pain of loss and joy of remembering, the gatherings were defiantly upbeat, with hugs and greetings not unlike the ordinary Shabbat morning that had been lifelong rituals for the victims.

Before the funeral, before the burial where the Rosenthal brothers would be interred by shovels wielded by friends and family, there was a crowded visitation at the temple. The Rosenthal family sat in a row of chairs in an adjacent room greeting mourners one by one. Visitors filed past three portraits of the two, known within the family as "the boys": Cecil Rosenthal with a warm smile; David Rosenthal grinning; and the two of them, who both had developmental disabilities, standing as they lived, side by side.

The brothers' parents, Joy and Elie Rosenthal, entered shortly before the service, their mother wearing pearl earrings and using a walker, the father in a black yarmulke.

Myers, the rabbi, addressed the couple directly during the funeral as they sat in the front row, holding each other at points.

"So what do you say to two parents - parents aren't supposed to bury their own children? We say to you, you gave us this beautiful gift of Cecil and David," he said. "We thank you for sharing this gift with us."

They could take comfort, he told them, in knowing that if their sons could have chosen a place to spend their last moments, it would have been just where it was: together in their beloved synagogue, greeting strangers at the door.


Hendrix reported from Washington. The Washington Post's Kyle Swenson in Pittsburgh contributed to this report.


Video: In Pittsburgh, Trump and first lady pay respects to victims. (The Washington Post)


Mourners gathered at Rodef Shalom Congregation in Pittsburgh on Oct. 30 for the funeral services for brothers Cecil and David Rosenthal, two of 11 worshippers killed at the Tree of Life synagogue on Oct. 27.(The Washington Post)

President Trump and first lady Melania Trump on Oct. 30 put stones and flowers on crosses to honor the victims of the Oct. 27 mass shooting inside a synagogue.(The Washington Post)


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