By Cheryl Moore
When I was a kid and got upset or anxious, my mother would invariably say, “The world won’t end.” “If you don’t get an A/make the team/have a date/go to the party, the world won’t end.” I got the message, but the statement always made me wonder what could, in fact, make the world end. What was real enough, bad enough to make the world end? As an adult, during challenging times, I reminded myself that life would go on. Life would go on because life is big and durable and tenacious.
Growing up in Squirrel Hill, I spent a lot of time at the Jewish Community Center, the locus of our social, athletic and educational activities. It seems that every time I was in the buildings, I saw Cecil Rosenthal, roughly my age, with special needs and imposing physical stature. I have indelible images of Cecil, lumbering down the hall, waiting in the vestibule, sitting on a bench, with a small duffel bag, in a polo or unzipped winter coat. He was coming from the pool or kibitzing with other regulars. I would often hear Cecil warmly tell people, “You should go to shul!!” and I would, in fact, always see Cecil at his shul, when I went to Tree of Life for friends’ bar and bat mizvah services. He was on the move, handing out siddurim and tallitot, and warmly greeting people.
As an adult, anytime that I was at Tree of Life, I would see Cecil, now with gray hair, still working the room. Cecil was a helper, a greeter, a lover of sweet interactions with others. I would also see Cecil on my morning dog-walks, as I passed the bus stop in front of Tree of Life. He would reach out to pet my Golden Retriever, though sometimes he would pull back his hand, saying, “I’m afraid.” I would reassure him and he would reach out again, saying, “Good dog!” As a young person and a middle-aged man, Cecil was the same person. Someone who, by virtue of being always present and eager to interact, was an integral part of the community. Cecil knew everyone and everyone knew Cecil, and that was comforting to us all.
On October 27, 2018, Cecil stood in the lobby of Tree of Life, in a place where he was safe and beloved, important and needed, in a place where he stood every Shabbat, for well over forty years. When the stranger walked through the door, Cecil, I imagine looking forward to greeting someone, was the first person he saw. The stranger raised his military-style weapon, and fired bullets into Cecil’s body. Gentle Cecil, welcomer, helper, sometimes afraid of my Golden Retriever, was murdered because he was a Jew, in a place where Jews can be found. On the day of the slaughter, long before any names were released, I knew that Cecil was dead. I knew where he was on Shabbat mornings and I knew that his life was not big, durable or tenacious enough to survive the firepower.
The killer said that HIAS would kill his people. Cecil wasn’t active with HIAS. The savage ranted that Western Civilization was threatened. Cecil wasn’t threatening to anyone. During his rampage, the murderer screamed that he wanted to kill Jews. Ah, yes. Cecil was thoroughly, actively and proudly Jewish. He loved being in Jewish spaces and with Jewish people. We were his world. Because of that, he is dead. His world goes on, but he doesn’t. He no longer joyfully greets people as they come together as a community. He should have grown old, loved and appreciated by our community, but because his very life was stolen by hatred of Jews, he won’t.
Yet, the world didn’t end. Why not? Why didn’t the world end? Why didn’t the act of murdering Cecil, because he was Jewish, because he was with his people, cause the house to go dark? Killing Cecil is one of millions of horrifying atrocities, things so heinous and evil, that should have tripped the switch that would cause the world to come to a grinding halt.
How are we one year after the worst antisemitic attack in the history of the United States happened in our backyard? We are traumatized. We are scared. We are brave. We are frantic. We are numb. We are deeply grateful to the first responders who rushed to help and to the greater community members who were beside us in horror and grief. We fortify our trenches. We talk about it, about where we were, about memories of the the dead. We can’t find the energy or the words to speak. We are part of a community. We are alone. We hold each other. We hide in our houses. We think of what happened to beautiful people and we cry, even though we might be in public. We grieve with every community that has and will experience what we have, as the killing of innocents continues. We are weary. We are shocked. We feel stupid for being shocked.
Our Governor, on a recent visit to Auschwitz, wrote the names of the eleven innocent souls, murdered in Pittsburgh, on October 27, 2018. How is it possible that, seventy-five years later, Jews are again being demonized and murdered, that names are still being added to the list, for nothing more than being Jewish? How is it that the propaganda and justifications sound the same? I understand that the world goes on. I just don’t understand how it can.
Rest peacefully, Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax, and Irving Younger. The world has not ended, but with the loss of you, it is hollower and dimmer. In your memory, by your example, as long as the world endures, we will love each other and be thoroughly, actively and proudly Jewish.
Cheryl Moore is a nurse and the Clinic Manager at the University of Pittsburgh Student Health Service. She lives in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.