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In death, may the Rosenthal brothers become bigger than the lives they led | Ronnie Polaneczky

In a world that too often sees a person's disability before it sees the person, the Rosenthals were seen for all of who they were. Through the words of those who loved the brothers, the world has gotten to see that, too.

Brothers David (left) and Cecil Rosenthal
Brothers David (left) and Cecil Rosenthal

The Rosenthal brothers were murdered in a Pittsburgh synagogue only five days ago, but they've already left a legacy, which is this:

No one in their community thought, at first, to tell the national and international reporters who descended on the town last weekend that the men were developmentally disabled.

They were just Cecil, 54, and David, 59, people said, who worshipped at Tree of Life synagogue every Saturday for services.  Cecil greeted members at the door, David set out the prayer books.

The fact that both were born with Fragile X syndrome – which can cause lifelong learning, movement, and intellectual impairments – was mentioned only after friends and loved ones in their Squirrel Hill neighborhood described everything else about the men.

We've learned how the sociable Cecil was nicknamed "the Mayor of Squirrel Hill." And that David was reserved, immaculate in dress and manner, and emanated a quiet joy. And that the brothers were so gentle, folks referred to them as "the boys" – not to deny their adulthood but to honor their innocence.

In a world that too often sees a person's disability before it sees the person, the Rosenthals were seen for all of who they were. Through the words of those who loved the brothers, the world has gotten to see that, too.

"We will never be the same," says Nicole D'Amico, lead employment specialist at Achieva, the Pittsburgh agency that provided disability services to the Rosenthal brothers for 25 years. She worked closely with the men and is reeling with grief. "We loved them and they will be deeply missed."

Until the Rosenthals were killed with nine others inside Tree Of Life by a gunman who detested the Judaism the brothers cherished, few beyond Squirrel Hill would have considered the brothers' lives extraordinary.

But parents of children with intellectual and developmental disabilities know better. As their kids age into adulthood and beyond, it can be rare for them to know lives in which they're truly seen, heard, and known by those outside of the disability community. I learned as much while writing "Falling Off the Cliff," last year's four-part series about adults with IDD and the families who care for them.

Behaviors regarded as quirky or cute in childhood can be seen as weird or frightening in adults. Public outings can become stressful as strangers point, frown, and sometimes even ask, "What's wrong with him, anyway?"

This is the downside of a community-inclusion movement that has brought so many people with disabilities out of their homes or institutions and into the public square. Not everyone in the square is ready for what they will see and hear.

"Where we once pursued integration, we now talk about promoting inclusion," writes Vanderbilt University special-education professor Erik Carter, author of Including People With Disabilities in Faith Communities.

"But my sense is that both terms fall short of what really matters most. People want to be more than integrated or included. They want to experience true belonging."

In the days since the synagogue murders, story after story has been shared in the national press and on social media about the many ways in which the Rosenthals belonged not just in Squirrel Hill, but to Squirrel Hill.

"You can feel what is good in the world when you talk to them, because they only talk to you about good things," Tree of Life member Jeffrey Solomon told the New York Times, unconsciously using the present tense as he spoke of the brothers. "They were … my introduction to the fact that there are people like that, and they are just like the rest of us."

Their friend Tara Czekaj took to Facebook the day after the shooting to share a memory of Cecil, whom she knew from the local Jewish Community Center. "I remember the day after September 11, 2001, Cecil sat at the front desk with me and said,  'Don't worry, Tara, I'll always protect you,'" she wrote. "It pains me to know they both needed protection yesterday."

And an emotional Ronna Wedner told Time about Cecil's daily visits to her flower shop in Squirrel Hill.

"Every day, it was, 'Good afternoon, ladies.' He would tell you how beautiful you were. Everyone was beautiful to him," said Wedner. "He was the happiest guy I knew."

When Jewish people offer condolences, they say, "May their memory be for a blessing."

My hope is that the memories shared so widely of these ordinary yet exceptional brothers will bless the world with curiosity about people with IDD who live, love, work and dream among us.

Maybe curiosity will lead to conversation, then to friendship, then to belonging.

What a beautiful legacy that would be for the Rosenthal brothers, whose community will miss them forever.