Shirley (Ringelheim) Bleiberg, a woman whose firsts came second only to the laughs she engendered, passed away July 5 in Fort Myers, Fla., of complications from Parkinson’s disease. She was 90.
Despite having left Pittsburgh nearly 40 years ago, Bleiberg remained at the forefront of many locals’ minds.
“I think they really liked Shirley, I think they liked the things she did … she was always adding a little humor to the situation,” said Melvin Bleiberg, her husband of 67 years.
Bleiberg was born on June 10, 1926, in Mt. Lebanon to Pauline and Harry Ringelheim. The Ringelheims were among the first Jews to live in Mt. Lebanon, noted Rabbi Mark Mahler, senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel of South Hills.
After graduating from Mt. Lebanon High School, Bleiberg attended the University of Pittsburgh, where she majored in psychology.
Prior to her 1948 graduation from Pitt, Bleiberg met her future husband twice, said Jeff Remz, Bleiberg’s son-in-law. The couple first met in 1944, before Melvin joined the Navy and then again in September 1946 at a fraternity party at the William Penn Hotel in Pittsburgh.
They wed on Jan. 16, 1949, in Pittsburgh. Shortly after, they settled in Mt. Lebanon and in 1951 were among the first families to form Temple Emanuel.
“I’m quite sure that we were the youngest of all the couples that joined,” said Melvin.
Bleiberg became actively involved in the Temple, assuming duties as a religious school teacher, as well as holding every position on the Temple board. Her leadership ascent culminated with her presidency from 1980 until 1982. With her acceptance of the position, Bleiberg became the first female president at Temple Emanuel.
“It was really a glass ceiling. I used to go to presidents’ meetings and sit with the spouses, and they were all women,” said Melvin. During her tenure, Mahler said, “someone coined the quip that it was Shirley’s Temple.”
The comment reflected Bleiberg’s humor and tenacity.
While she called upon these qualities regularly, they were employed most notably during a Temple Emanuel fundraiser, said her husband.
During a five-year campaign, participating congregants were asked to make an initial down payment and subsequent pledges for the remaining years. After the introductory gift was delivered, donors’ names were depicted in brass letters on the Temple’s walls.
Shortly after the first year, a problem arose.
“During the first payment, after the original [gift], someone told the treasurer, ‘I already give a lot, I’m not giving you anymore,’” recalled Melvin. The treasurer relayed the information to Shirley, who was then president.
Bleiberg contacted the distressed donor and explained the necessity of fulfilling a pledge; however, the gentleman refused to cooperate.
At that point, she strategically and humorously proposed a solution.
“Every month that you don’t make the payment of the pledge you made, I am going to take down one letter of your name,” Bleiberg told the man, according to Melvin.
Ultimately, the donor paid.
Apart from her sense of humor, Bleiberg also had “a serious side, along with being smart, strong, personable and compassionate,” said Mahler.
Such qualities benefited Bleiberg when she later became chief executive officer of Watson Fifth Corp., a commercial real estate business that owned properties in Pittsburgh, Macon, Ga., and Erie, Pa.
Nearing retirement, the Bleibergs began vacationing in Sanibel Island, Fla. After a decade of regular trips, the couple permanently relocated to the area in 1986. However, upon making the Sunshine State their new home, the Bleibergs noticed that they lacked Jewish contact.
“We had always been Temple members. … We said, ‘Why don’t we put an ad in the paper and maybe we can find a few Jews and have a Shabbat dinner,’” said Melvin.
After placing the ad, the Bleibergs arranged with Sanibel Congregational United Church of Christ to host the Friday evening gathering.
As it turned out, said Melvin, “that Friday night it was standing room only, probably 150 people in the room, and they all thought they were the only Jews on the island.”
Shortly thereafter, Bat Yam Temple of the Islands was born. Last January, the congregation celebrated its 25th anniversary.
After being one of the first Jews to grow up in Mt. Lebanon, helping to start two congregations and serving as the first female president of one of them, Shirley Bleiberg saved one last first for the end, said her husband.
Following her passing at Shell Point, a retirement community in Fort Meyers that serves as a nonprofit ministry of the Christian and Missionary Alliance Foundation, Inc., Shell Point administrators turned over one of their parlors to the Bleiberg family.
“It was reserved to me for seven, eight days. They gave us a table, and the whole family could eat together,” said Melvin. “And I’m sure that it was the first shiva that was held there.”
Shirley Bleiberg is survived by her husband Melvin Bleiberg of Fort Meyers, Fla., children Edward Bleiberg and Betty Leigh Hutcheson of Brooklyn, N.Y., Rabbi James and Sue Bleiberg of Wynnewood, Pa., and Judy and Jeffrey Remz of Newton Centre, Mass.; and grandchildren Perry Bleiberg, Josh Bleiberg, Sarah Bleiberg, Yamit (Remz) Friedman and her husband Rabbi Elisha Friedman and Gabi Remz.
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.