The landscape of Jewish Pittsburgh might look very different today if it had not been for the decades of untiring stewardship of Dr. Sidney Busis.
Busis, who was a leader of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, Jewish Family and Community Services, the Holocaust Center, Rodef Shalom Congregation, and many other local, national and international Jewish organizations, died on March 22. He was 97.
“To find a person like this so fully dedicated through the decades — who never stops — is very rare,” remarked Rabbi Walter Jacob, Rodef Shalom’s rabbi emeritus and senior scholar, at the March 25 funeral service at Rodef Shalom.
Busis was born in the Hill District and grew up in the East End. His involvement with Jewish communal life began at an early age, and as a teen, he was active in AZA, an offshoot of B’nai B’rith, and an adviser at Emma Kaufmann Camp.
After graduating from Peabody High School, he attended the University of Pittsburgh for his undergraduate degree, and later for medical school. At the urging of his uncle, Dr. Louis Friedman, he decided to become an ENT (ear nose and throat physician).
Friedman’s brother had died young, and told Busis, “When you graduate, you are going to join the practice.” His son, Dr. Neil Busis, recalled, “Family was everything, so my dad said OK and that was it.’”
After a year in medical school, Busis enlisted in the U.S. Army and completed medical school as an Army private. As a lieutenant in the Medical Corps, he attended the School of Aviation Medicine at Randolph Field, Texas, trained to be an aviation medical examiner, and served as a flight surgeon in the Army Air Corps.
Following the directive of his Uncle Lou, he completed an ENT residency at the Eye and Ear Hospital in Pittsburgh, and also attended graduate school for basic science at the University of Pennsylvania.
Early in his career, he worked with the team that treated polio-stricken children as Dr. Jonas Salk was developing the polio vaccine.
Busis had a thriving private practice for more than 50 years, treating thousands of patients, including those with industrial hearing loss. At one point in his career, he maintained four separate offices.
Busis was recognized both nationally and internationally for his work, said Neil Busis. He taught otolaryngology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, and published several scientific articles and book chapters. He also served as president of the American Neurotology Society, a national organization of ear doctors.
His work inspired Neil to not only pursue medicine as a career, but to practice with care and passion.
“He set an example of how to get along with colleagues, how to get along with patients, how to keep up with the field,” Neil Busis said. “And his work ethic is legendary.”
In addition to his busy career as a physician, Busis maintained a “second career” as a volunteer, said his son, Jim Busis, publisher and CEO of the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle. Having grown up against a backdrop of anti-Semitism, he had a deep love for the Jewish community, and an instinct to protect it.
Busis became a “fierce and devoted defender of Israel and endangered Jewish communities around the world,” Jim Busis said. “Some people remember how, in the lead-up to the Six-Day War, he wanted to help Israel but didn’t have funds to make a donation, so he took out a $10,000 loan and donated those funds to Israel.”
Busis and his wife of 71 years, Sylvia, traveled to more than 20 countries on missions with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, an arm of the American Jewish community that helps Jews in need throughout the world.They also participated in many Federation missions to Israel. Photography was a passion for Busis, and Israel was one of his favorite subjects.
One of the most impactful memories Busis had of his lifelong involvement with the Jewish community was taking a group of non-Jewish executives to Israel, he told the Chronicle in an interview a few years ago.
“It was called the ‘Industrialists Mission,’” Sidney Busis recalled. He had assembled a group of local power brokers, including the chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh, the president of Carnegie Mellon University and the CEOs of such giants as Gulf Oil, U.S. Steel and Mellon Bank to the Jewish state during the late 1970s.
“We wanted to educate these people about Israel,” Busis said. “We showed them how narrow it was. People didn’t understand that Israel couldn’t afford to lose one war.”
Busis maintained the relationships he forged on that trip, and when he reached out to those power brokers years later for help in creating an endowment for the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, they were there for him and the Jewish community.
“He picked up the phone and he was able to call virtually every corporate CEO of a Fortune 500 company in Pittsburgh who went on that trip to Israel, and they all met with us,” recalled Howard Rieger, president and CEO of the Federation from 1981 to 2004. “They didn’t turn Sidney down.”
Busis “was totally selfless, he was into whatever he was into only for the good stuff,” Rieger said. “He was an amazing guy, and what a privilege to have known him and worked with him and Sylvia over so many years. He made a lot of impact that will stand as a real memorial to him.”
His many leadership roles in the Pittsburgh Jewish community included president or chairman of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, Jewish Family and Community Services, and Rodef Shalom Congregation. He also served on the boards of the Jewish Association on Aging, United Way of Allegheny County, Jewish Community Center, Jewish Healthcare Foundation and Jewish Education Institute, among others.
His and Sylvia’s enduring support for their community has been an inspiration for the next generation of leaders.
“I’ve been working with both of them for many years and seeing them continue to show up year after year after year as I’ve assumed different roles,” said Meryl Ainsman, current chair of the Federation. “I would look and see them still showing up, and think, ‘If they’re still showing up, I’ve got to show up, too.’
“Watching them as role models really energized me and many, many others in the generations that came after them because they were in there for the long haul.”
Busis set an example of how to live a meaningful life for his four sons through his actions, said Jim Busis.
“It’s not like we would sit down at the dinner table and he would pontificate about why he loved Israel, why Israel was important, or why the Federation was important,” Jim Busis said. “He just did things. You just watched him do things and you saw the time and care he put into them.”
Busis is survived by his wife, Sylvia; sons Neil, Richard (Judy Beck), Jim (Maureen Kelly) and William (Leslie Hall); grandchildren David (Catherine Blauvelt), Anne (z”l), Hillary (Michael Palmieri), Sarah (Matthew Cohen), Deborah (Mathew Levine), Samuel, Ethan, Hannah, Abigail, Adam, Daniel and Molly; great-grandchildren Arthur, Joshua, Noah and Diana; and sister Jean Simon.
Interment was at West View Cemetery of Rodef Shalom Congregation. PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com