Lives of Tree of Life victims celebrated during week of funerals
Stronger than Hate

Lives of Tree of Life victims celebrated during week of funerals

Jewish Pittsburgh mourned as a community — remembering those whose lives were extinguished by a suspected anti-Semite while congregants were in the midst of Shabbat prayers.

People comfort one another during a vigil for the Tree of Life victims at the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall on Sunday, Oct. 28, 2018. (Photo by Joshua Franzos)
People comfort one another during a vigil for the Tree of Life victims at the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall on Sunday, Oct. 28, 2018. (Photo by Joshua Franzos)

The 11 people murdered at the Tree of Life building on Oct. 27 all were laid to rest last week, and Jewish Pittsburgh mourned as a community — attending funerals, making shiva calls and remembering those whose lives were extinguished by a suspected anti-Semite wielding an assault rifle and three handguns while congregants were in the midst of Shabbat prayers.

The first funerals were held on Tuesday, Oct. 30 — for Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz and brothers Cecil and David Rosenthal — and the final service took place on Friday, Nov. 2, for the massacre’s oldest victim, Rose Mallinger, 97.

The Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, Rodef Shalom Congregation, the Ralph Schugar Chapel and Congregation Beth Shalom housed standing room only crowds at the funerals, which drew local, national and international dignitaries. The buildings were all under heavy police protection while the funerals were being conducted.

As friends, family members and rabbis eulogized the 11 who were killed, it became apparent that all the victims shared at least two attributes: They were dedicated to their faith and devoted to doing good deeds. These were the congregants who came early to shul, to get things set up and to ensure there was a minyan, who embraced opportunities to help others.

The Ralph Schugar Chapel was the site for several of the funerals. (Photo by Adam Reinherz)

The pews and aisles of Rodef Shalom Congregation’s 1,200-seat sanctuary were overflowing at the funeral of Cecil Rosenthal, 59, and David Rosenthal, 54. The brothers, both of whom had developmental disabilities, “were extraordinary people,” said Rabbi Alvin Berkun, rabbi emeritus at Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha. “They found a home with us, and we found a home with them.”

“They were two of the sweetest human beings you could ever meet,” said Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, spiritual leader of TOL*OLS. “God broke the mold after Cecil and David.”

Each brother was described as being a fixture at the congregation, always eager to lend a helping hand and arriving for services even before the rabbi to make sure all was in order.

“They were kind, thoughtful and innocent,” said their brother-in-law, Michael Hirt. “They were pure souls that carried no ill-will toward anyone.”

In attendance at the service were Mayor Bill Peduto, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Pittsburgh Steelers’ Coach Mike Tomlin. The Rosenthals’ sister, Michele Rosenthal, formerly worked for the Steelers as its community relations manager. Many other Steelers players were also in attendance, including quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

God broke the mold after Cecil and David.

Dani Dayan, consul general of Israel in New York, paid tribute at the Thursday funeral for Bernice and Sylvan Simon, 84 and 86, respectively, as well as Friday’s service for Rose Mallinger.

“I think we are entitled this week to be silent, to bow our heads … and yes, to shed tears,” Dayan said at the Simons’ service. He also implored the room to “speak up against the atrocity of anti-Semitism and its ugly head that’s been raised.”

Marc Simon, the oldest son of the Simons, who were members of TOL*OLS, noted that his parents were “longtime and deeply rooted Pittsburgh residents,” and were married 62 years ago in the same chapel where they were killed.

“What my mother and father witnessed and endured is utterly unspeakable,” Marc Simon said. “There are no words in the English language or any other that could adequately describe my feelings since the horrific events. … Everyone here today, and the families of the other nine victims, share in my indescribable shock, grief and pain of this great tragedy.”

A memorial outside the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha synagogue. (Photo by Jim Busis)

The Simons “were regulars at morning minyan services several days a week, as well as never missing a Saturday Shabbat service,” their son said.

Sylvan was described by various family members as having a great sense of humor, and despite his “tough guy” demeaner, was a “big Teddy bear.”

Bernice was praised for her cooking and baking, her patience and her focus on family.

“With time comes healing,” Simon said. “We as a caring community will only become closer, grow stronger and hopefully discover and implement protocols that will forever eliminate the possibility of a repetition of this senseless tragedy so that others do not have to suffer.”

We just cannot understand how a 97-year-old woman who led the prayer for peace can meet such a violent death.

Mallinger was remembered at her Nov. 2 service as a woman of kindness, commitment and spirit. Nearly 1,000 people attended her funeral at Rodef Shalom Congregation.

“I read every single word that was written about her in the last days and I feel like I know her so well,” said Dayan. “She is a perfect reflection of this whole community, the Jewish community of Pittsburgh and maybe the entire Pittsburgh community: old but young, [perseverant and filled with] a joy of life.”

Berkun knew Mallinger for 35 years. He recalled her dedication to the congregation, saying, “How poignant that she has to die in a place that she loved so thoroughly and was so much a part of her being.”

“Rose had spunk,” said Myers. “She insisted on being on time, so she was ready early. There was no such thing as Jewish standard time.”

Prior to concluding the service, Myers remarked that Mallinger possessed a “singular responsibility on Shabbat morning.”

At a designated time each week, she led the congregation in the prayer for peace.

“We just cannot understand how a 97-year-old woman who led the prayer for peace can meet such a violent death,” said Myers.

Dr. Richard Gottfried, 65, head gabbai and past president of New Light Congregation, was praised at his Nov. 1 service for sharing a 38-year marriage defined by tolerance, love, admiration and respect with a woman who did not share his faith.

“Family and faith were the foundation of his life,” said Gottfried’s sister, Debi Salvin. “For 38 years, he was completely dedicated to his wife, [Margaret ‘Peg’ Durachko]. They were true partners in everything they did. … The importance of their faiths and respect for each other was evident.”

The Rev. Christopher Mannerino read a letter sent from Bishop David Zubik that struck a similar chord.

“Richard was a man for you Peg,” the letter said. “He respected the beauty in each and every person. … Thank you for the powerful example of your and Richard’s marriage. May your marriage be a consolation to you in the days, the weeks and the months ahead as it is an inspiration to us all today. Grateful for our belief that nothing is impossible with God. I am your brother in faith.”

A memorial outside Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha synagogue. (Photo by Jim Busis)

Family and friends of Joyce Fienberg, 75, eulogized the TOL*OLS member as a woman endearingly characterized by her preparedness and consideration. Speaking at her Oct. 31 funeral service at Congregation Beth Shalom, they painted the picture of someone who brightened the world around her.

“I knew Joyce and Stephen for 30 years,” said Berkun, referring to Fienberg’s late husband. Although Stephen Fienberg, a professor emeritus at Carnegie Mellon University, was an internationally celebrated statistician, his wife was truly his “helpmate.”

Similarly, “she brought a joy to those she met.”

Fienberg’s manner was unobtrusive and unmistakable, explained her brother, Robert Lipman, of Toronto. “She was not the person who would be the life of the party, but the type of person who would give life to the party.”

Whether volunteering at the synagogue or working with families in need, Fienberg invested herself in honorable pursuits.

“Tradition teaches when a tzaddik dies we should examine our own lives, because maybe we can do better,” Lipman said. “We need to measure up. … Joyce is still my role model and always will be, she is a role model to us all.”

Another role model, Melvin Wax, was remembered at a service on Oct. 31. Mourners were told that every Friday night, Wax would show up for services at the New Light Congregation in a jacket and tie. And early the next morning he would be back to pray again.

“Mel would pray from the heart,” Rabbi Harvey Brotsky, Wax’s cousin and a former rabbi at New Light, said in a passionate eulogy. “He wouldn’t just be going through the motions. And he prayed every single Shabbat that I was at New Light Congregation, unless he was ill, and he came early on Saturday. It cost him his life.”

Tradition teaches when a tzaddik dies we should examine our own lives, because maybe we can do better…We need to measure up.

On the morning of the attack, Wax, 88, was leading services at New Light. He and several other New Light congregants were hiding in a storage closet when Wax opened the door and was shot.

At a funeral that drew some 200 mourners, Wax was remembered as a hardworking, kind man who was devoted to his family and community.

“If you look in the dictionary under the word unselfish, you’ll see the name Melvin Wax because he was one of the most unselfish people I’ve known in my entire life,” Brotsky said. “If anyone on this earth walked humbly with their God, it was Mel Wax. He did not have a conceited bone in his body.”

Wax also never stopped helping people. A month ago he learned how to register people to vote, and set up a registration booth in his apartment building’s lobby. PJC

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at Adam Reinherz can be reached at JTA contributed to this report.

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