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Mourners gather at first funerals for victims in Pittsburgh synagogue shooting

People wait outside of the Rodef Shalom synagogue in Pittsburgh for the funeral of brothers David Rosenthal and Cecil Rosenthal, who were killed at the mass shooting at Tree of Life synagogue. CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Salwan Georges
People wait outside of the Rodef Shalom synagogue in Pittsburgh for the funeral of brothers David Rosenthal and Cecil Rosenthal, who were killed at the mass shooting at Tree of Life synagogue. CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Salwan Georges
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PITTSBURGH — Residents of this shocked city gathered Tuesday for the first funerals of the 11 Jewish worshipers gunned down in their synagogue Saturday. Mourners overwhelmed the capacity of a temple and a theater to bid goodbye to victims who were fixtures of a tightknit Jewish community.

The long lines to enter the day’s services included many in wheelchairs and walkers, doctors still in scrubs, Jews and non-Jews who greeted each other in the fellowship of grief. Mourners overflowed the 1,400-seat Rodef Shalom temple, filling balconies and standing between pews for the combined services of David Rosenthal and Cecil Rosenthal, brothers who lay side by side in wooden caskets.

The pair, lifelong members of Tree of Life synagogue 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 insults. 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.”

In an adjacent room, the Rosenthal brothers’ close family sat in a row of chairs - customary for Jewish funerals - and greeted a line of mourners one by one. The room was sparse, with a box of tissues under each seat and a table with flowers and jugs of water. As mourners walked in, they passed three portraits suspended on easels: one of Cecil Rosenthal with a warm and open-mouthed smile, another of David Rosenthal, grinning, and another of the two brothers standing side by side.

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.

Before and after the 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.

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Ellen Surloff, president of Rabinowitz’s Dor Hadash congregation, recalled Rabinowitz’s inevitable 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.”

At the Rosenthal funeral, 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 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. The gift was taken from us way to soon, but how richer our lives have been because you gave us Cecil and David.”

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 in their beloved synagogue, greeting strangers at the door.

A third victim, 71-year-old grandfather Daniel Stein, was scheduled to be buried at Beth Shalom on Tuesday afternoon.

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Hendrix reported from Washington.

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