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Community gathers at funerals for Tree of Life synagogue shooting victims

Funeral services were held Tuesday for some of the 11 victims of Saturday's mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue.

Pallbearers carry the caskets of Cecil and David Rosenthal following the funeral at Rodef Shalom Congregation on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2018, in Shadyside.
Pallbearers carry the caskets of Cecil and David Rosenthal following the funeral at Rodef Shalom Congregation on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2018, in Shadyside.Read moreNate Guidry / Post-Gazette

Funeral services were held Tuesday for some of the victims of Saturday's mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue.

Mourners found long lines at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill and at Congregation Rodef Shalom in Shadyside where services are being held for Jerry Rabinowitz, 66, of Edgewood, and brothers Cecil, 59, and David Rosenthal, 54, of Squirrel Hill, respectively.

The services for Dr. Rabinowitz and the Rosenthals are the first of the funerals for the 11 worshipers slain at the Tree of Life/Or L'Simcha congregation while they and two other congregations were sharing the Squirrel Hill building.

Here are reports from two of the services on Tuesday (a third service in the evening for Daniel Stein was private):

Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, Pittsburgh Jewish Community Center, Squirrel Hill

One did not need to be inside the Pittsburgh Jewish Community Center to know a funeral service was about to begin.

The grief literally overflowed from the brick building and stretched more than a block down Darlington Road, and then onto Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill. People were queued up outside more than half an hour before the 11 a.m. service was to start.

No doubt, the turnout topping 1,000 was owed in part to the shocking magnitude of the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue several blocks away.

But it also was plain from the grieving faces waiting in the morning chill that it was Dr. Rabinowitz himself, and what he meant to his community, that drove how many people left work on a weekday to attend.

mong them was UPMC-affiliated cardiologist Saul Silver, still wearing a white lab coat he had donned for work that day.

He had tried to keep his attention focused on this job in the lab, but could not.

"I couldn't go on. I couldn't concentrate on my work. It wasn't fair to my patients," he said. "I had to be here."

He said he had known Dr. Rabinowitz, a physician from Edgewood, since the late 1980s. He recalled the man's character and compassion for people and for their diseases, even if the world itself was not ready to extend the same empathy.

That was true of HIV patients, shunned by many at the time.

"He would give 'em a hug and shake their hand without gloves," Dr. Silver said. "That was Jerry."

The scene outside the community center complex Tuesday was a peaceful contrast in sunshine to the violence that unfolded Saturday morning at the synagogue in one of the worst anti-Semitic killings in U.S. history.

Dr. Rabinowitz, 66, was among those attending a morning service when a gunman barged in and sprayed gunfire.

Pittsburgh police officers stood silent watch outside, near a parked hearse and the growing line. Four fellow officers were wounded Saturday before the suspect, Robert Bowers, 46 — a high school dropout and trucker who had espoused anti-Semitic views — was shot and apprehended.

Inside the center, mourners filled up the main-floor Katz Theater and an adjacent gymnasium, with others standing on stairs leading to the second floor.

Some wore bow ties, no doubt in honor of the man who in life had a penchant for them. "He liked to be called 'Doc,' " said funeral director Daniel D'Alessandro.

He expected an overflow crowd Tuesday and was not disappointed. "He deserved it," Mr. D'Alessandro said.

To some who shared memories, Dr. Rabinowitz was the family doctor who treated them or a loved one, or the person they knew from some form of community service, or just from around the neighborhood.

But others who never met the UPMC-affiliated doctor showed up, too, said Myriam Gumerman, 68.

"They felt they had to be there," she said.

Ms. Gumerman, whose late husband Lewis was a physician like Dr. Rabinowitz, said she got to know him through worship after moving to Pittsburgh. She recalled how fond her husband and Dr. Rabinowitz were of each other, sharing both a profession and their love for Torah study, she said.

"I'm numb," she said after the service concluded. "We're dumbfounded by the fact that we could be praying and somebody would do that."

Ms. Gumerman said her family had to leave Morocco during a period of persecution of Jews. And while she never imagined something so frightening would happen in America, she was heartened by the city's reaction.

"We are strong," she said.

W. Duff McCrady, a member of the board of UMPC, said he and Dr. Rabinowitz served the Shadyside Hospital Foundation together, and he recalled how Dr. Rabinowitz was the doctor for his daughter and son-in-law.

He said what he will most remember "is his humor. He always had a smile."

Reporters and photographers, who were asked to stay outside the center, captured the scene from a block away.

The main celebrant for the hour-long service was Rabbi Cheryl Klein from Dor Hadash, one of three congregations that share the Tree of Life synagogue. And the message delivered to mourners?

""It was to make sure we all love each other. I think it was to show more compassion for our neighbors," said Mr. McCrady. "What was said made sense, and I think everybody in that room was brought together."

One woman crossing Darlington before the service appeared surprised when she looked up and saw how large the line had become. "Wow," she said.

At the conclusion of the service, the hearse carrying the body of Dr. Rabinowitz left the JCC passing a movie house as it turned onto Murray. The building's marquee read: "Pgh is Stronger than Hate."

Behind the hearse, mourners on foot marched toward Homewood Cemetery, followed by a long procession of cars.

— Bill Schackner

Cecil and David Rosenthal, Congregation Rodef Shalom, Shadyside

The service for the Rosenthal brothers was held in Rodef Shalom's large ornate sanctuary. The congregation offered the space due to its large capacity and the anticipated attendance. Hundreds of mourners were on hand for the noon funeral, as visitors filled the 1,000-seat sanctuary and many more lined the side walls. Outside before the service began, numerous police officers and vehicles were visible outside, offering a sense of security following the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history.

Two wooden caskets were placed in the front of the sanctuary and beneath a soaring arch displaying the Jewish profession of faith: "Hear O Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is One."

Rabbi Jeffrey Myers chanted a poignant funeral prayer in Hebrew and paid tribute to the brothers.

They could illustrate a dictionary definition for "pure souls," he told the packed service.

They had "not an ounce of hate in them, something we're terribly missing in society today," said Rabbi Myers, himself a survivor of the attack.

To their parents, he said: "You gave us this beautiful gift of Cecil and David. We thank you for sharing that gift with us. The gift was taken way too soon, but how rich our lives have been" for them.

There were only a couple of references to how they died. But throughout the service, people paying tributes to the brothers described their warm, innocent and welcoming spirit, the exact opposite of the malevolence that claimed theirs and nine other lives.

Speakers paid tribute to the brothers, who lived together at a community home for adults with developmental disabilities, as "gentle giants" who had distinct personalities and had a shared spirit of welcome and impish senses of humor.

Rabbi Jonathan Berkun of Florida, who grew up with the Rosenthal brothers at Tree of Life as the son of now Rabbi-Emeritus Alvin Berkun, recited the 23rd Psalm in Hebrew in a high tenor chant before reading it in English, beginning with, "The Lord is my Shepherd."

And the elder Rabbi Berkun said the brothers were faithful attendees at synagogue services every week for 35 years.

"No stranger would walk into our shul (synagogue)" without the brothers providing a greeting and a prayer book, he said.

He said if he were to ask the brothers where they would want to spend their last moments, he's certain they would want to be at Tree of Life.

"Our brothers, Cecil and David, were men, but as most people here know, we referred to them as 'the boys,'" said one of their sisters, Diane Rosenthal. "Maybe this was because they were in a sense like boys, not hardened like men oftentimes become with age and experience."

They would embrace "joy and love and happiness, without any judgment or resenting people or hate. "

Michael Hirt, their brother-in-law, said David was an "intensely hard worker" at every job, whether cleaning at work or at helping in his mother's kitchen. "He was fanatical about keeping things clean," he said.

He loved to carry a police scanner with him. "David loved anything relating to the Police or the Fire Department," he said.

He said their phone conversations often began with David saying, "Michael, the police are looking for you," with the reply, "No, David, they're looking for you."

"Cecil Rosenthal was the "consummate politician," said Mr. Hirt. "He knew everyone's business. He knew if your mother was sick or if your grandmother had died."

Under other circumstances, he said, David might have been a movie star, Cecil the "mayor of Squirrel Hill," he said.

Mr. Hirt said in his last phone conversation he had with the brothers, they were looking forward to the annual family Thanksgiving in Florida.

"Thanksgiving will never be the same for me," Mr. Hirt said. "We were much more enriched by them than they were by us."

The service drew mourners from near and far, and some in the congregation were Christian ministers wearing clerical collars.

"We're from all walks of life, and we need to stand together," said the Rev. Jack Lolla, a local Presbyterian minister.

Tomer Hillel traveled here on a bus with about 35 people from Beth Sholom, a congregation in Potomac, Md.

The group came to show "solidarity," said Mr. Hillel, who wore an Israeli flag on his shoulders and is an Israeli representative to the Jewish community in the Washington area.

At the end of the service, pallbearers brought the caskets up the two center aisles of the sanctuary. A funeral procession then left to the Tree of Life Memorial Park in the North Hills.

Rabbi Aaron Bisno of Tree of Life read a letter of condolence from Roman Catholic Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh, a friend of the Rosenthal family who has been to their home for Shabbat dinner.

He told David and Cecil's parents, Joy and Eliezer Rosenthal: "There are not enough words for me to express my heartfelt pain with you. … Thank God, we can share with each other at this tender time the language of the heart, which contains within it the power of God's consoling love."

— Peter Smith

Bill Schackner:, 412-263-1977 and on Twitter: @Bschackner. Peter Smith: or 412-263-1416; Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.