That so many came to honor a dentist who regularly provided pro bono work made sense. That so many were moved by the life and tragic death of Dr. Richard Gottfried that when the pews and spaces of Ralph Schugar Chapel were filled, they were forced to stand outside in the rain remained, made sense. That Gottfried, who served as head gabbai and past president of New Light Congregation, shared a 38-year marriage defined by tolerance, love, admiration and respect with a woman who did not share his faith also made sense.
“Family and faith were the foundation of his life,” said Gottfried’s sister, Debi Salvin. “For 38 years, he was completely dedicated to his wife, [Margaret “Peg” Durachko]. They were true partners in everything they did. … The importance of their faiths and respect for each other was evident.”
Gottfried, one of the 11 victims of the Oct. 27 attack on congregants at the Tree of Life building in Squirrel Hill, was eulogized by family and friends in a 50-minute service on Nov. 1 in Shadyside.
By celebrating one another’s holidays, filling their home with each other’s religious items and encouraging the pursuit of divergent religious paths, the Jewish Gottlieb and the Catholic Durachko — both dentists — forged a path that was praised by clergy who officiated at the funeral.
“In this world you will meet few people like Dr. Richard Gottfried,” said Rabbi Stanley Savage of Beth Hamedrash Hagodol Beth Jacob Congregation.
At New Light Congregation, Gottfried helped me “roll the [Torah] to the right portion of the week, that was one of his jobs,” said Rabbi Jonathan Perlman. Because Gottfried prepared the Torah scroll in such a way, “all I had to do was read the story.”
He was a “trailblazer” and the “wind beneath my wings,” noted Gottfried’s sister, Carol Black. His commitment to faith inspired Black to return to the synagogue, where the siblings eventually became a “brother sister team of gabbaim.”
Whether it was through cooking eggs for the congregation’s breakfast, reading the haftarah “at the drop of a hat” or carrying the Torah scroll across Squirrel Hill when New Light relocated last November to the Tree of Life building, Gottfried eagerly served his fellow worshippers.
“Wherever Rich walked in this world, he walked as God’s servant,” said Perlman.
In dentistry, much of Gottfried’s work was about delivering his patients beautiful and healthy smiles. He brought smiles to his friends, as well.
“Richard sat behind me at shul, downtown at the Beth Hamedrash Hagadol Beth Jacob, and always reminded me that I was the rabbi, and not a hazzan and please not to sing in public,” remarked Savage.
“The family asked me to say a word about Rich’s spiritual journey in this world, and if there ever was a soul who could touch other souls in this world I imagine it would be a dentist,” said Perlman to the laughter of hundreds. “Because to work as a dentist in this world one has to be comfortable with being up close and personal, you are right in their faces, in the mouths of other people.
“Peg, I’ve often wondered about how you fit into Rich’s spiritual journey. You are a passionate pious Catholic, he is a renewed Conservative Jew, but I think I figured it out,” the rabbi added, addressing Gottfried’s widow. “I used to believe Christians and Jews don’t have the language to talk together, but the two of you proved me wrong.” Neither “compromised your religion one bit. He was proud of your Catholicism and you were proud of his Judaism, and you worked alongside one another in your chosen profession and you shared a home as a loving husband and as a loving wife.”
The Rev. Christopher Mannerino read a letter sent from Bishop David Zubik that struck a similar chord.
“Richard was a man for you Peg,” the letter said. “He respected the beauty in each and every person. … Thank you for the powerful example of your and Richard’s marriage. May your marriage be a consolation to you in the days, the weeks and the months ahead as it is an inspiration to us all today. Grateful for our belief that nothing is impossible with God. I am your brother in faith.”
In her remarks, Durachko described her deceased husband as her “soulmate.” “We were planning to retire next year,” she said. “We used to love spending time together on our deck drinking a glass of wine and enjoying fine cigars. We had many conversations about our faith, our families, our dental cases, our hopes and our dreams. … It took us 38 years, but I think we got this acceptance and tolerance thing down pretty well.
“We tried our best to share it with others. Evil has stolen him away from us but we can keep his spirit alive. May his memory be for a blessing.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.
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