The murders of 11 devout Jews at the Tree of Life synagogue building left unimaginable voids, not only in the lives of their families and friends, but also for countless others whom they touched through their individual acts of loving kindness, devotion to Judaism, and community building.
Now, just months after the Oct. 27 massacre that left them overwhelmed with grief, several surviving family members have decided to take up the mantle of tikkun olam in ways that would make their loved ones proud.
For the past 12 years, Marnie Fienberg prepared Passover seders with her mother-in-law, Joyce, a member of Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha.
Facing the grim reality that she would not have Joyce at her side in the kitchen this year, Marnie conceived of a holiday initiative that would honor the values that were important to Joyce: 2 For Seder, a project in which people all across the United States and Canada are committing to hosting two non-Jewish neighbors or friends for seder, with the aim of bridging communities and combatting anti-Semitism.
“Joyce always reached out to strangers for seders,” said Marnie, speaking from her home in Washington, D.C. “Whenever we had a family dinner for any holiday, she would have her husband’s students, her students, co-workers, people from all over the world, all over the country, they would come and join us for whatever the meal was.”
Hosting a group of diverse guests typically led to great discussions, recalled Marnie.
“That’s what Joyce was all about,” she said. “Joyce wanted to make sure whatever your background was, that you were comfortable, that you felt welcome, and at home, and that you could really be who you were, and that came out in the discussion. It was wonderful.”
So far, 400 hosts have registered to participate in the project, which can be found at 2forseder.org. That means that at least 800 non-Jewish guests will also be reading the Haggadah this year.
Once registered, a host receives a 2 For Seder kit that includes some suggested questions for the table; information about anti-Semitism, as well as pro-Semitic events in the U.S. and Canada (Joyce was from Canada); tips from the Anti-Defamation League on how to talk to children about hate; and Joyce’s recipe for Passover popovers.
Marnie is hopeful her initiative will help to “fight the foundation of anti-Semitism,” and encourage further sharing of cultural and religious events.
“It will work in the way I saw Pittsburgh come together during this tragedy,” Marnie said. “In America, we have so many different backgrounds, ethnicities, and faiths, and during times of crisis we all come together. It doesn’t need to wait for that, though.
“For the Jewish folks, by opening our doors and seders to our neighbors of different faiths, it is absolutely opening up people’s minds and dispelling any myths they may have heard. This is their opportunity to learn and grow, and what I am really hoping is as we are building bridges to other faiths, that this will be a two-way kind of thing. If I invite you to my seder, you will maybe invite me to your Easter dinner, or to your Diwali festival. There are all sorts of opportunities here for everyone to grow.”
This initiative, Marnie said, “is absolutely Joyce’s way of building bridges and helping people educate each other. This is what she did.”
Fundraising for worthwhile causes is in Leigh Stein’s blood, having grown up watching the unceasing and committed volunteerism of her parents, Sharyn and Dan Stein. From the time she was a child, Leigh was encouraged to take an active role in making the world a better place, and her parents were always there to assist — from selling Girl Scout Cookies to supporting her through 31 marathons for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation.
When she began collecting money in cans outside Walmart to benefit the Foundation, it was natural that Dan was by her side to help.
“Every time I came home with a container or bags filled with money, my dad was right there to help me count it all, and to roll the change, and to take it to the bank,” Leigh said. “I used to call him my ‘business partner’ because he was right there, all the time, for all these different fundraisers.”
For the past 10 years, Leigh and Dan sold Super Bowl Squares to raise funds for the Foundation — 100-square grids, for which people pay $10 for each randomly assigned square. Half the money raised goes to the nonprofit, and half goes to the payout.
“Once the whole grid of 100 spots was filled out, my dad and I would sit with a deck of cards and pull out the numbers and distribute the grids, which he was very efficient with,” Leigh recalled. “He wanted to make sure everyone had their grid in plenty of time prior to the game. And he did a great job with selling the squares and distributing the grids.”
The father-daughter team usually began the fundraiser in December, about two months prior to the Super Bowl.
“This year, December rolled around, and it just didn’t sit well with me to do this fundraiser without my dad,” Leigh said. “And I decided to take the year off because of everything that happened, and I just felt such a huge void. At the time, it didn’t feel comfortable.”
But as the days passed, “I felt that something was missing, that I needed to do this fundraiser and to pursue what my dad and I had always done,” she said. “It didn’t feel right not doing the Super Bowl Square fundraiser. So I put something on Facebook, and my Facebook just started blowing up with people who wanted squares. There were a lot of squares sold because, I think, people wanted to help and do something to give back and show their support. I felt very supported with this fundraiser and the amount of people that were buying squares. It was extremely emotional for me, and very overwhelming.”
Leigh ended up selling six grids, compared to her usual two or three, and many of the winners donated all or part of their winnings back.
“As I said in my Facebook post, ‘My business partner is watching it all, and smiling from ear to ear,’” she said.
Dan was deeply committed as a volunteer to his congregation, New Light. He served as its president, then its Men’s Club president. He organized congregational bus trips, distributed Yom Hashoah candles, organized High Holiday seating, and helped prepare the shul’s weekly Sunday morning breakfast.
“I feel like the synagogue was my dad’s second home,” Leigh said. “He spent Friday nights there, Saturday mornings there, Sunday mornings there. Even during the week he would stop to drop things off or to check the mail.”
Dan’s volunteerism extended beyond New Light, including not only to the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation, but to the Squirrel Hill Food Pantry, where he volunteered one Sunday a month.
Leigh decided to continue that tradition in her father’s memory.
“It was something important to him, and I felt comfort in the thought of going to the Food Pantry and being in a space where he spent time with people he knew,” Leigh said. “I wanted to continue that tradition and that giving of myself like he did.”
Cecil Rosenthal and
Cecil Rosenthal, 59, and David Rosenthal, 54, brothers who were both an integral part of Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha, were commonly known around Squirrel Hill, and to their family, as “the boys” because of their kind and gentle nature.
Both had developmental disabilities, and found a comfortable and welcoming home at their congregation, where they were always willing to help and contribute in whatever way they could.
Now, their family, along with ACHIEVA — a nonprofit that provides services for those with disabilities — have launched #loveliketheboys, an initiative to carry on the generous and unconditional acts of love, and to honor Cecil and David.
People are encouraged to download and print #loveliketheboys cards at achieva.info/loveliketheboys, use those cards to accompany random acts of kindness, and then post their acts on social media.
The Facebook group “Love Like the Boys” has engaged 3,500 members since its February launch.
“Through these two sons, we learned love, compassion and understanding,” said their mother, Joy Rosenthal. “They had no hate in their bodies. We, as their parents, hope and pray that as long as we live, we will continue to show the world how to love, compassion and understanding for everybody who is around.”
ACHIEVA contacted the Rosenthal family during Random Acts of Kindness Week to see if they wanted to do something special in memory of the boys.
“We created the logo, and held a press conference just asking people, if there is something that comes out of this, it’s to love one another and just to do something special,” said Michele Rosenthal, sister to Cecil and David. “It doesn’t have to be monetary. Like the boys — just paying somebody a compliment or holding the door, or volunteering at an organization. There are so many ways to do a random act of kindness.”
Many of Cecil’s and David’s acts of kindness were modest, but they were sincere and prompted by love, according to Joy.
Cecil is often remembered for telling someone, “You look so beautiful,” and David would commonly just say, “It’s so nice to meet you,” their mother recalled. “They were sincere in whatever they tried to convey. They might have been handicapped, but I think they were smarter than you and I.”
The boys “did not know anything from hate,” said their father, Elie Rosenthal. “They were loving, very kind, and always helpful to others and enjoyed doing a good deed.”
For example, their father said, the boys would help at synagogue during the High Holidays by putting out the machzors, and setting up tables along with the custodian.
“The boys helped on the breakfast minyans, helped set up the tables and chairs, and even in the kitchen,” Elie said. “They loved people, and it is a legacy they will always be remembered by.”
After Cecil and David were killed, the family began hearing from scores of people who loved them.
“The thing that was so incredible to our entire family was, we knew Cecil and David got around in Pittsburgh — they both knew how to take public transportation — and we knew they knew a lot of people, but honestly so many people came out of the woodwork, whether they be shop owners or restaurant owners, saying, ‘I know your brother, he’d stop here every Monday and put his hand in the candy dish, or tell me how lovely I looked today,’” said Diane Rosenthal Hirt, sister to Cecil and David. “We were shocked by the outpouring of cards and people saying, ‘Your brothers were so great. We loved them.’ They knew more people than any of us did.”
Judaism was of primary importance to the boys.
“They loved the Jewish holidays,” said their mother. “The most important to them was Shabbos.”
“They would get upset if we didn’t observe,” Diane said. “It was really important for them to go to synagogue on Friday night and Saturday morning. Family was very important to them as well. Family and being Jewish were just probably the biggest part of their lives.”
The boys had a great relationship with their two 16-year-old nieces, Diane’s daughters. To honor their uncles’ legacy, the girls have started lighting candles when they are home on Friday nights.
The boys were beloved by their fellow congregants, Joy said.
“They didn’t love them because they were special. They loved them because they were Cecil and David.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at