PITTSBURGH – The Jewish community in Pittsburgh began on Tuesday to bury the victims of Saturday’s terror attack against the Tree of Life congregation. The first funeral, for brothers David and Cecil Rosenthal, took place Tuesday morning, starting with a visitation at Rodef Shalom, a famous Reform synagogue in the city.
The brothers, both in their 50s, coped with mental disabilities and had lived for years in a community home. They were beloved members of the congregation for decades, according to a number of current members who spoke with Haaretz. Their connection with the synagogue, one congregant said, began when their late grandmother brought them to Shabbat services.
“They became an integral part of our community,” said Ben Forman, a former president of the congregation. “Everybody knew and loved them. They came on every Shabbat to pray. There isn’t a person in the congregation who didn’t like them. Both of them were always smiling.”
Forman’s wife, Joan, also said that the two brothers “made everyone smile. Cecil would always ask people how their family members were doing; he was such a sweet guy. David was the more quiet brother. They were both at home in the synagogue. I can’t imagine this community without them.”
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Outside of Rodef Shalom, the line for the visitation was “unusually long,” in the words of one local police officer who helped secure the event. Hundreds waited in the streets, standing for more than an hour. Residents who spoke with Haaretz while waiting in line, said that the large number of people who came to pay respects to the deceased brothers, was a sign of how united the city and the Jewish community are following the attack.
Over the next days, nine more funerals will take place in the city.
Also on Tuesday morning, the local Jewish day school held a memorial ceremony organized by 7th- and 8th- grade students. The students asked the school to put together a ceremony after returning to their studies on Monday. “We couldn’t focus on studying, we had to do something about this,” said Owen, one of the students who was involved in organizing the ceremony. “We proposed it to the teachers and they supported us.”
During the ceremony, over a hundred people – students, parents, teachers and neighbors – sang the American and Israeli anthems, and also Arik Einstein’s song “Ani Ve Ata”, which speaks of the possibility of creating a better world by joining forces with others. “We had a group that was in charge of choosing the songs,” one student explained to Haaretz.
Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, who leads the Tree of Life congregation, told the students that they made him feel optimistic, a difficult thing to do in light of this weekend’s tragedy. The school has close to 300 students and it is open to students from all denominations.
Robert Bowers, 46, is accused of storming into the synagogue yelling "All Jews must die" and opening fire on members of three congregations holding Sabbath prayer services there.
Bowers was ordered held without bail in a federal court on Monday.
The attack has heightened a national debate over Trump's political rhetoric, which his critics say has contributed to a surge in right-wing extremism in the United States.
The Trump administration has rejected the notion he has encouraged white nationalists and neo-Nazis who have embraced him.
Trump said he would visit hospitalized police officers and other people wounded in the mass shooting.
Ahead of his arrival, local officials and residents have urged him to either delay his visit or at the very least change his rhetoric of political division and anger.
Pittsburgh’s mayor, Bill Peduto, urged Trump to meet with the families of the 11 victims who were murdered at Tree of Life, before making plans to visit the city during their funerals.
“I would ask that White House staff contact the families and ask them if they want the president to be here. That’s not my call to make. That really comes from the victims’ families themselves,” Peduto said.
Members of Pittsburgh's Jewish community said they would protest against Trump. In an announcement for a protest to be held on Tuesday afternoon, organizers said, "President Trump, words have consequences."
"The gunman who tore apart our neighborhood believed your lies about the immigrant caravan in Mexico," the announcement read, referring to a group of migrants who are trekking through Mexico toward the United States. "He believed antisemitic lies that Jews were funding the caravan"
'You are not welcome'
The announcement also echoed an open letter from a group of local Jewish leaders who told Trump: "You are not welcome in Pittsburgh until you fully denounce white nationalism."
More than 43,000 people have signed the letter, organized and posted online by the Pittsburgh chapter of Bend the Arc, a Jewish organization opposed to what it calls "the immoral agenda of the Trump administration and the Republican Party."
On Monday, a U.S. magistrate judge ordered the suspect, Bowers, to be held without bond. The one-time truck driver, who frequently posted anti-Semitic material online and was described by neighbors as a loner, was charged with 29 federal felony counts. He could face the death penalty if convicted.
Prosecutors have said they are treating the mass shooting as a hate crime.
In addition to the 11 mostly elderly worshipers who were killed, six people, including four police officers, were wounded before the suspect was shot by police and surrendered. Two of the surviving victims remained hospitalized in critical condition.
Reuters contributed to this report.