By Deb Silverthorn
If home is where the heart is, then since Oct. 27, the Squirrel Hill neighborhood in Pittsburgh has become home to most of the world. For Cheryl Weitz; her mother, Florence Kramer; and her brother, Jeffrey Kramer, going home was true, heartbreaking and heart-filling all at once. A 48-hour blink, to hold close to memories, and people of their past, will never be forgotten.
While the world awaited news of the safety of those inside Tree of Life Congregation, so did the families. Texting with lifelong friend Diane Hirt, one of two sisters of Cecil and David Rosenthal, Pittsburgh native Cheryl held her breath, hoping for good news. “Thinking of you my dear, dear old friend, thinking of you and your family, I love you,” she wrote.
Back from Diane, “Love you too — I am so sick.” Moments later Diane replied that they’d heard both of her brothers had been shot and died immediately. Then came the wait for the FBI to complete their investigation, for her brothers’ bodies, and the other nine, to be released.
And then they were. And then the next long days ensued.
“When I spoke to my mom, she said, ‘We’re going home,’” Weitz said. “We had so many connections and years of love and being a community of a family, that watching from here was impossible.”
Weitz and Florence Kramer flew out on Oct. 29, meeting New York resident Jeffrey and staying with Florence’s brother and sister-in-law, Louis and Sandy Kushner, and their son, Jason, and his family. They are all members of Tree of Life, safe that day except for broken hearts. That night, they went to the home of Michele Rosenthal, Cecil and David Rosenthal’s younger sister, consoling the family and themselves with memories and good thoughts — the only kind possible.
While they were at the house, the Squirrel Hill Fire Department arrived, the chief and three firemen in formal dress. They were there to let the family know that Cecil and David would always be part of their team, and to deliver two badges, uniform hats and siddurim.
On Oct. 30, the family arrived early to Temple Rodef Shalom, site of the funeral, where there were already lines of mourners — 2,000-plus by the time services began.
Diane and her husband, Michael, both provided eulogies, with Tree of Life Emeritus Rabbi Alvin Berkun; his son, Rabbi Jonathan Berkun, now of Aventura, Florida; and Tree of Life Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers also participating in the service. At the end of services, it was announced that donations in Cecil’s and David’s names would be appreciated to Tree of Life Congregation, “which was their home, and to ACHIEVA, the group home where they slept,” said the rabbi.
The Kramer family — Florence and the late Larry, with children Cheryl and Jeffrey — lived just doors away from the Rosenthals — Joy and Elie, with children Cecil, David, Diane and Michele. Florence’s parents, Mildred and Morris Kushner, and Joy’s parents, Becky and Herman Fineberg, also had been best friends.
“We spent lots of time at each other’s home, and even when we were young, we knew to take care of Cecil and David,” said Weitz, who moved to Dallas with her family when she was 12. “My mom was a special ed teacher, and she was great with them and they loved being with her. I learned a lot, even when I was young, about how every person should be treated, and those are lessons I still live today and they helped teach me that.”
Memories flood for Weitz, just one of many in Dallas’ Jewish community with direct ties to Squirrel Hill. The grandparents had left the cold for warmer winters, buying condos next door to each other in their retirement. She recalls her parents putting her and her brother on a plane and the Rosenthal parents doing the same with their children, the six traveling to Florida each winter break, vacations extending in the summer through Cheryl’s college years.
“We’d go to the pool and the boys would wait for us on the balcony. Cecil’s and David’s grandfather had a special relationship with them, and they’d spend time with him,” said Weitz. “We’d go to dinner and we’d all laugh because ‘dinner’ meant getting ready at 3:30 to make the earlybird specials.”
Weitz said Cecil was the friendliest person ever. Once he met you, forever after he’d greet you by your name and ask how was your family. David was somewhat quieter, but you always felt his love and his absolute goodness.
“I absolutely feel a responsibility to share how these beautiful men were the best. They were happy. They were loving. They knew everyone and everyone knew them and it was always that way,” said Weitz, who lit a memorial candle in honor of her friends at Congregation Anshai Torah’s #SolidarityShabbat service on Nov. 2. “I can’t believe their smiles and hugs are something no one will ever share again.”
Perhaps not in the touch of arms, but with the stories of their lives, and those of Joyce Fienberg, Dr. Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, Bernice and Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax, and Irving Younger, their smiles and hugs, and lessons of friendship toward everyone, will indeed be shared over and over — and their names, and their lives, will indeed always be for a memory.