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'They were sweethearts': Slain brothers remembered as pillars of their community

With the initial blistering shock of an act of anti-Semitic massacre beginning to ebb in Squirrel Hill, an aching sadness has replaced it as funeral rites began on Tuesday, including for Cecil and David Rosenthal, two brothers who were seen as ambassadors at the Tree of Life synagogue.

Cecil and David Rosenthal, intellectually disabled brothers, among 11 killed in attack at synagogue

David Rosenthal, left, and his older brother, Cecil Rosenthal, were among the 11 people killed in Saturday's shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. (Submitted by Jason Bertocchi)

Even if worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue in the tight-knit Pittsburgh neighbourhood of Squirrel Hill didn't know the Rosenthal brothers, they probably saw them.

Sometimes, they might have heard them. Cecil Rosenthal had a boisterous laugh that bellowed when he played a practical joke on a friend. Some remembered David Rosenthal complimenting members of the congregation, flattering older women as he distributed prayer books.

Cecil, 59, and David, 54, were among the 11 people killed last weekend when a gunman entered Tree of Life and opened fire at worshippers while yelling, "All Jews must die." Six other people were wounded.

While the initial shock of the anti-Semitic massacre is beginning to ebb, it's being replaced by an aching sadness over the lives this community has lost. Funeral rites began on Tuesday, including those for the brothers.

'These guys were always happy'

Few people at the synagogue were as well-known, or as publicly welcoming, as Cecil and David Rosenthal — both of whom lived with intellectual disabilities and flashed gregarious smiles to all visitors at the Tree of Life. They shared an apartment managed by an organization that supports people with disabilities.

"These guys were always happy. Always personable. Always doing what they can to make everybody feel comfortable," said Jason Bertocchi, who met Cecil nine years ago as a student at Duquesne University through Best Buddies, a program that pairs up college students with people living with developmental disabilities.

Cecil Rosenthal, 59, was known as the 'mayor of Squirrel Hill' due to his outgoing personality. He and his brother, David, 54, were intellectually disabled and lived together in an apartment managed by the group Achieva, which assisted with their day-to-day living. (Submitted by Jason Bertocchi)

Cecil was already in his 50s when he arrived seeking a one-on-one friendship through the non-profit. Bertocchi remembers him shyly stepping off a shuttle bus in a suit and tie to attend a mixer with a crowd decades his junior.

"Big, big guy," Bertocchi said, estimating Cecil was six-feet-four-inches tall. "He shakes your hand, and it's a firm handshake."

'But they're all my friends'

Cecil was reserved at first, but eventually became one of the most social members of the group. His generosity of spirit shone through during an annual "red versus blue" basketball tournament organized with Best Buddies members and varsity players on the Duquesne team. Cecil insisted on coaching the red team and showed up looking the part in a suit, pacing courtside as he thwacked a rolled-up paper against his palm.

"Then I hear him, and he's cheering for both teams! I said to him at halftime, 'Cecil, what are you doing?'"

A person pauses in front of Stars of David with the names of those killed in a deadly shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. (Matt Rourke/Associated Press)

Bertocchi explained that coaches usually only encourage their own team.

"But they're all my friends," Cecil replied.

'I've found my Buddy!'

That was the way he was — he loved being around people, said David DeFelice, 21, a senior at Duquesne who soon matched up with Cecil through the Best Buddies program. They bonded over their shared faith when DeFelice noticed Cecil's calendar was in Hebrew.

"I asked if he was Jewish, and he said, 'Yes.' And I said, 'So am I.'"

David DeFelice, left, met Cecil Rosenthal through the Best Buddies program at Duquesne University, which pairs up developmentally disabled people with college students. (Submitted by David DeFelice)

Cecil was elated. He hugged DeFelice.

"I've found my Buddy!" he announced.

'I saw how involved, how natural he was'

Cecil invited his new friend to Tree of Life for a Shabbat service. DeFelice witnessed Cecil carry the Torah around the room so members of the congregation could kiss it.

"He was a tall, big guy who was able to support the weight of it. Because it's very, very heavy to do. And I saw how involved, how natural he was during the service."

Mourners attend a memorial service at the Sailors and Soldiers Memorial Hall at the University of Pittsburgh on Sunday, a day after the shooting. (Cathal McNaughton/Reuters)

DeFelice attends a different synagogue regularly, but it was clear to him that Cecil's life orbited around his brother and parents, the Best Buddies community and synagogue.

Cecil's younger brother, David, was more serious. He was quieter, but also endeared himself to those who knew him. He worked on the janitorial staff at Goodwill and took pride in his work.

'He was a bright spot'

Kathy McQuillan, an employee who saw him every morning, would often hear him smiling and complimenting office staff as he made his rounds, a twinkle in his eye.

"He would call us all, 'Lady.' He would say, 'Hey lady, you should get your husband to take you for a nice dinner.' He was just a sweet, kind, wonderful man."

Kathy McQuillan worked in the same office as David Rosenthal. She says he was a 'bright spot' who often stopped by her desk to chat and ask how her family was doing. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

McQuillan said she feels "gutted" to lose him.

"He was a bright spot," she said.

'They were nice boys'

The brothers found belonging and comfort at their synagogue, said Betty Jean Mervis, who also belongs to the Tree of Life congregation and watched the Rosenthals grow up as children when she worked selling Israeli-made crafts for their parents.

"They were nice boys. Everybody knew them," she said.

Betty Jean Mervis, a member of the congregation at the Tree of Life synagogue, says Cecil and David Rosenthal were polar opposites in personality but were protective of each other. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

The brothers were protective of one another, too. Cecil would bring David into his circle of friends at Best Buddies functions.

Mervis had heard from a fellow congregant that David was concerned for his brother's well-being when the gunman opened fire. She and a friend have wondered whether David may have refused to hide so he could find his older brother.

'It's just so sad'

As greeters, the two were often among the first faces any visitors or newcomers would see, sitting near the back of the synagogue. It was the way they wanted it to be. Ironically, their welcoming personalities may have placed them in the line of fire of an anti-Semitic gunman.

"It's hard to believe this could happen. It's just so sad," Mervis said.

"I lost my husband and Cecil knew him very well. And Cecil would say to me, 'Oh, I miss Abe.' And David would say to me, 'You look beautiful.' You know? They were sweethearts."

Funeral services for the Rosenthal brothers began Tuesday at noon ET at a memorial park. The family had requested that in lieu of flowers, contributions be made to Tree of Life.

About the Author

Matt Kwong

Reporter

Matt Kwong is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong

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