January 15, 2019

To Honor Cecil and David

Screenshot from Twitter.

I never met Cecil and David Rosenthal, may their memories always be a blessing, but I knew them. I can see Cecil, described as a “gentle giant” by his family and many, many friends, standing at the front door of the Tree of Life sanctuary, greeting everyone who arrived there with a broad smile and a strong handshake. I can hear him offering every person who came through those doors a warm word of welcome – “Shabbat shalom!,” “Good morning!” His brother-in-law, Michael Hirt, said in his eulogy that Cecil could have been the mayor of Pittsburgh, if not for his developmental challenges, challenges he triumphantly overcame to be the most beloved person in the community.

His brother David, quieter by nature, was no less beloved, admired for his fastidiousness, taking care to hand out siddurim (prayer books) to those arriving and ensuring the tallitot (prayer shawls) were lovingly cared for. They were the “greeters,” the “ambassadors,” the m’kablei panim, the “face” of the sacred community.

How sadly ironic that these warm souls were murdered in cold blood by a stranger with anti-Semitism flowing through his veins on the very Shabbat when we read the Torah portion Vayeira. We learn the story of Abraham and Sarah’s tent, the classic text teaching us the deep Jewish value of hachnasat orchim, welcoming guests. Sitting in the heat of the day at the entrance of his tent, three strangers appear to Abraham. He runs to greet them – “My lords, if it please you, do not go past your servant.” Did Abraham know who these men were? In that split second of recognition, did Abraham wonder if there was malice in their hearts or were they just wanderers in search of a morsel of bread and a drink of water? It did not matter to Abraham. He ran to greet the strangers, as, undoubtedly, so did Cecil and David, who cared not whether those entering the synagogue were members or guests, rich or poor, gay or straight, Republican or Democrat. What they never imagined was that a stranger filled with hate for Jews would enter a welcoming sanctuary intent on massacre.

I am devastated by the loss of these two sweet men who were so deeply valued by a community who appreciated their greetings. And I am heartbroken that we will once again consider the awful necessity of  “hardening the targets” – our synagogues, schools, centers, campuses and organizations. There will be those who assert that we must do this, no matter the cost both economically and spiritually, in order to protect our people against those who seek to do us harm. There will be others who will say that security guards with pistols would have no chance against a crazed assassin wielding an AR-15.

I wonder what Cecil and David would have us do. Somehow, I believe they would understand the need for security measures on the perimeter of the building, but they would teach the guards how to say “Shabbat Shalom” or “Shana Tova” to everyone, even as they search purses and tallit bags, as many of our wonderful security personnel already do. I know they would never want us to stop greeting each other. They would likely tell us how wonderful it would be if all of us knew each other like they did, for building a community of relationships begins by telling each other our stories, by knowing each other’s names, by being there for each other in good times…and bad.

This Friday night and Saturday morning, tens of thousands of us will stream into our synagogues for Solidarity Shabbat services to stand with the Pittsburgh Jewish community. There will be beautiful prayers and words of comfort. There will be “regulars” and many guests. There will be heightened security, likely causing delays to enter our buildings, and crowded pews filled with those we know and those we don’t.

Let us honor the memory of Cecil and David by practicing their art of hospitality and welcome each other with a smile, a handshake, and a warm embrace. As we join together to grieve and remember, let us resolve that “the Rosenthal boys” would want us to never allow hate to trump love.


Dr. Ron Wolfson is Fingerhut Professor of Education at American Jewish University and the co-author of Relational Judaism Handbook.