PITTSBURGH — As Jean Rosenthal sat in the pews waiting for the beginning of her second funeral in two days, she felt a wave of emotion. It wasn’t just grief. And it wasn’t anger at the man whose shooting rampage was the reason she was here.
It was guilt.
“I should have been there,” she said.
She woke up on Saturday at a quarter to eight, as she always did for Sabbath services. But her neck hurt that day. She didn’t go to synagogue.
But her friends Melvin Wax, Daniel Stein and Richard Gottfried did.
“I feel guilty I wasn’t with my friends,” she said. “None of them deserved this.”
It was Wednesday, the second consecutive day of funerals for Rosenthal, and there was still one more day to go. She was one of many in Pittsburgh’s Jewish community who had lost several friends or family members at the hands of the alleged gunman, Robert Bowers. Authorities say Bowers entered Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on Saturday morning shouting anti-Semitic statements as he fired. He has been charged with 44 counts, including hate crimes, and could face the death penalty.
The community is holding nine funerals for 11 people in four days. The blow of the deaths rippled across Jewish Pittsburgh, where religious congregations intermingle. Some mourners, such as Rosenthal, are attending multiple funerals day after day, trapping them in a cycle of grief.
“It’s a family. We are all close,” said Marilyn Honigsberg, administrative assistant at New Light Congregation, which Rosenthal belongs to and held services at Tree of Life. “We just all know each other and get along with each other.”
On this day, the funeral was for Wax.
Rosenthal rarely missed a Saturday morning service, and Wax usually beat her there.
He was often the first to show up for services, held in the lower level of the synagogue. Often, he’d start the prayers before the rabbi arrived.
Rosenthal, 90, frequently arrived after him. Then came Stein, 71, and finally Gottfried, 65.
They called themselves the “Minyaniers,” early birds who formed a tightknit group within an already familial congregation. A minyan, or gathering of at least 10 people, is required for many traditional prayers, and the Minyaniers were the first to arrive each week to ensure enough people attended.
“It’s like the Holocaust survivors,” Rosenthal said as she waited with more than a hundred others in the Ralph Schugar Chapel for Wax’s funeral to begin. “Their families were wiped out, and they think, ‘Why am I by myself?’”
On Tuesday, Rosenthal was at Rodef Shalom Congregation as her cousins, Tree of Life attendees David and Cecil Rosenthal, were eulogized in a large ceremony attended by Mayor Bill Peduto and a crowd that quickly filled the 1,400-seat sanctuary.
Cecil used to greet her with an ebullient, “Hey, cuz!” each time she entered the synagogue before taking her arm to lead her into the building. Two weeks before the shooting, “he walked me to the door and said, ‘You know, we have to have dinner together.’ I was in a hurry and I said, ‘Okay, we’ll talk.’ ” Their dinner never happened.
On Wednesday she said goodbye to Wax, who would park farther from the synagogue than necessary to leave closer parking spaces available for those who had trouble walking.
“He was so sweet,” Rosenthal said. “He used to tell me jokes, always clean.”
Stein’s family requested a private funeral Tuesday morning, but Wednesday evening she visited his family during shiva, the ritual period of mourning that follows a burial.
On Thursday, she returned to Ralph Schugar Chapel to say goodbye to Gottfried, a dentist and, as Rosenthal delightfully recalled, a roller-coaster aficionado who once showed up to services wearing a roller-coaster-patterned tie.
“He was so passionate and so excited about what he knows about roller coasters. When he was telling me about this, his eyes were lit up,” she said.
Rosenthal had attended New Light Congregation since 2002. Even when her husband, Meyer, was in a wheelchair before his death two years ago, the couple attended services weekly.
At Wax’s funeral, people wove their way across the pews to grip her hand and offer introductions or condolences. Although it was the fourth loved one who had been buried in two days, Rosenthal greeted each person warmly, making animated conversation. During Wax’s eulogy, she sat stoically, occasionally looking down at her hands but never erupting with grief.
As Rosenthal departed the funeral, she could not walk more than a couple of feet without someone saying hello or stopping to offer words of comfort. They would grip her hand as a show of support, but with each interaction it became clear that they were leaning on her just as much as she was leaning on them.
“She’s so strong and resilient. She’s like a rock,” said her granddaughter Jamie Keafer, who accompanied her to each of the funerals. “I’m trying to be strong for her. But at the same time, I think she’s doing the same thing. She’s trying to be strong for all of us.”