Lives of 11 Tree of Life Victims Celebrated

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By Toby Tabachnick and Adam Reinherz

PITTSBURGH — 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.

That included 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 Oct. 30 — for Jerry Rabinowitz and brothers Cecil and David Rosenthal — and the final service took place on 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 under heavy police protection.

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 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.”

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

“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.”

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,” Dayan said. “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.”

Myers remarked that Mallinger possessed a “singular responsibility on Shabbat morning.”

She led the congregation in the prayer for peace each week.

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

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.”

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.”

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.

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. 

Toby Tabachnick and Adam Reinherz are staff writers with the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, an affiliated publication of the Jewish Exponent.

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