Saralouise Reis, a lifelong Jewish communal servant and longtime administrator of Congregation Beth Shalom and Temple Emanuel of South Hills who inspired generations of Pittsburghers, passed away July 9 at the age of 61.
Born Saralouise Elfenbein in Oneonta, N.Y., Reis married Rabbi Paul S. Reis when she was 20 and moved to West Virginia. It was there that Saralouise began her first Jewish professional endeavor.
“She was a rebettzin the first 20 years of her career,” said Ezra Reis of Kennedy Township, the oldest of the Reises’ three sons.
After a few years in West Virginia and North Carolina, the Reis family moved to Pittsburgh, where Reis’ husband became assistant rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom. After five years of service to the Squirrel Hill Congregation, he
accepted the positions of chief rabbi at New Light Congregation and director of Jewish services at Community Day School. During this time, Reis continued serving as a rebettzin and began teaching classes for toddlers at the Jewish Community Center.
In 1983, the Reis family moved to Flint, Mich., where Reis added to her duties as a rebbetzin in becoming a nutritionist at GCCARD Head Start. Chris Vondran, a former colleague at Head Start, said, “She was beloved by everyone.”
In 1997, Reis’ husband passed away.
A widow with three sons wishing to rebuild her life, Reis returned to Pittsburgh a year later at the urging of friends.
“There were always a lot of great relationships built in Pittsburgh, and she wanted to return to that,” said Rabbi Efram Reis of Teaneck, N.J., the youngest of Reis’ three sons.
Reis purchased a home in Squirrel Hill on Beechwood Boulevard and, although previously accepting a position as a French teacher with the Pittsburgh public school system, she took a job as an assistant administrator at Congregation Beth Shalom. Eventually, she became an administrator at the congregation.
Larry Landis of Squirrel Hill noted, “I knew Sara during my decade plus at Beth Shalom. I remember her always being very friendly and involved in all aspects of the congregation.”
In August 2005, Reis became the executive director of Temple Emanuel of South Hills. In that position, she worked closely with the congregation’s professional and lay leaders.
Among her many contributions to Temple Emanuel, Rabbi Mark Mahler praised Reis’ grant-writing abilities.
“She was an excellent communicator and listener,” he said. “She opened up a new dimension of service to the congregation.”
Mahler noted that prior to Reis’ arrival, he did not recall the congregation applying for grants. With her help, Temple Emanuel secured a Homeland Security grant for improving the building’s security system as well as another grant for optimizing the kitchen’s facilities.
Through her work in the office, with congregants and the board of trustees, Reis became the face of Temple Emanuel for many.
“At our Shabbat and holy day services she was the chief friendly face and greeter of the congregation,” said Mahler. “There was Sara to greet them and wish them a Shabbat Shalom or good Yom Tov.”
Dr. Eric Bernstein, Temple Emanuel’s immediate past president, stated that Reis was “in the midst of every aspect of temple. She and I worked hand and hand, and she deserves more credit than I can give.”
Ari Reis of Brattleboro, Vt., the second of Reis’ three sons, described his mother by stating, “Her finest quality was that she put other people’s feelings before her own.”
Donna Trust, who called Reis “the glue that held everything together,” recalled that she “would always ask about my family or have us over for a holiday and make sure my family was taken care of. Small things like that, people wouldn’t know about.”
Reis, who dedicated time to Hadassah, Na’amat and the Beth Shalom Sisterhood, was also an avid mahjong player.
“She played mahjong just about every week since I can remember, maybe for the last 40 years just about,” said Ezra Reis. “We would go on vacation, and she taught everyone she knew how to play. She was a pretty good ambassador of the game.”
Apart from her caring personality and professional undertakings, Reis was noted for a particular possession.
“Her favorite thing was rubber duckies,” said Trust.
Displayed throughout her house were different examples of the rubber toys. There was one dressed as a cheerleader, another as a librarian, others as a Cheshire cat, mother hen or brown reindeer. Depending upon the season, a different series of ducks would be exhibited: patriotic ones for the Fourth of July, red ones for Valentine’s Day, others for Passover.
When Efrem Reis was getting married, appropriately styled bride and groom rubber duckies appeared in the shower.
“She liked the humor and flavor of it,” said the son, “and as she had more grandchildren, she liked collecting something that the kids would play with.”
Saralouise (Elfenbein) Reis is survived by sons Ezra (Sonja) Reis, Ari Reis and Rabbi Efrem (Lauren) Reis; grandchildren Noah, Gabriel, Ella, Leba and Silas Reis and Jonas and Elise Brobeck; mother Esther K. Elfenbein; sister Lisa “Punk” Elfenbein; brothers Adam and Seth Elfenbein and longtime companion and family friend Chester Spatt. She is predeceased by her father, Josef A. Elfenbein; sister Jill L. Elfenbein and husband Rabbi Paul S. Reis. A memorial service is scheduled for Aug. 17 at 4:30 p.m. at Temple Emanuel of South Hills.
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.