Sylvia Busis, a career volunteer whose contributions to Pittsburgh’s Jewish community signaled a singular passion and served as a beacon to proteges, died on Wednesday, May 15. She was 94 and lived most of her life in Pittsburgh’s East End.
Born November 17, 1924, to Samuel and Anna Amdur, Sylvia grew up on Shady Avenue, just north of Fifth Avenue in Shadyside. As a young woman, first at Shakespeare School then at Taylor Allderdice, Sylvia’s penchant for learning and service was recognized. At the University of Pittsburgh, she was active in the Women’s Self Government Association, served on the yearbook’s editorial staff and as student congress president. It was also at Pitt that, prior to completing a degree in English, she met Sidney Busis.
As Sidney recalled in a 1993 recording with National Council of Jewish Women, Pittsburgh Section, “In my view she was the prettiest girl in school and the brightest. She was a straight A student throughout college, and so we got married.”
The ceremony took place in June 1947 at what was then the Schenley Hotel, and officiated by Rabbi Benjamin Lichter of B’nai Israel Congregation. Sylvia and Sidney remained married for 71 years.
During that time, Sidney pursued a career in medicine while Sylvia earned a master’s degree in social work at Pitt. She became a medical social worker at Montefiore Hospital and held the position for a year at the University of Pennsylvania. Sylvia’s trajectory mirrored the era, and like many of her contemporaries her vocational identity was dwarfed by domestic expectations. Although her formal employment ceased with the birth of a child, Neil, in 1951, Sylvia, never bitter, repackaged the acuity and zeal that aided her academic success into an unwavering drive to support her husband, their four sons and the community she held dear.
As Sidney pursued otolaryngology and performed tracheotomies on children with polio at Pittsburgh’s Municipal Hospital, Sylvia raised four rambunctious boys.
After the youngest son, Bill, went off to college, Sylvia could have retired from her domestic duties knowing that her charge had been completed — her husband had become a respected physician in private practice and each of their sons had received an Ivy League education — yet Sylvia forged on, tackling each avocational endeavor as if life offered Phi Beta Kappa.
Among the many positions she held at the United Jewish Federation (now the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh), she oversaw the women’s division and became its campaign chair. She was a board member and president of the sisterhood at Rodef Shalom Congregation, her childhood temple, and served as docent there, explaining in detail the practices and makeup of the historic space.
“She even wrote the docents’ guide book,” recalled son Jim Busis, CEO and publisher of the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle.
She conducted interviews for the National Council of Jewish Women Pittsburgh Section’s Oral History Project, chaired the Disabled Israel Veterans Committee, worked on the boards of School of Advanced Jewish Studies and Montefiore Hospital and later led Hillel Jewish University Center.
“I have no doubt that if she had come along 20 years later she would have reached the top tier of Federation and Rodef Shalom as well,” said Jim Busis.
Howard Rieger agreed, noting that Sylvia and other women of her generation were restricted from holding such positions. “It was a shame because the community lost,” said Rieger, who served as president of Pittsburgh’s Federation from 1981 to 2004 and then went on to head Jewish Federations of North America. “She did great things, but imagine how great the community could have been.”
One of her greatest accomplishments, he added, was her mentorship of the next generation.
“She demonstrated perseverance in her volunteer career and acted as a catalyst for me to keep on going,” said Meryl Ainsman, Federation’s board chair.
Marlene Silverman, who served as campaign chair for the women’s division, chair of the women’s division “and all kinds of other jobs along the way,” called Sylvia “dependable and smart” and said she was a “mentor to me when I was getting started in leadership posts at the Federation.”
Committee meetings with Sylvia gave people of all ages a chance to appreciate her exterior beauty, inner charm and wisdom, recalled Bernice Meyers.
“It was just like things that came out of her mouth were pearls. You could always count on Sylvia when you were going around the room that her words would be very well thought-out and a gem,” said Meyers.
Sylvia recognized the value in early adoption of communal responsibilities and strove to get young people involved, explained Sharon Perelman, Federation’s Foundation associate director. She also recognized autonomy, and at a time when many women could ride on their husband’s coattails, Sylvia did not. Sidney was president or chairman of Federation, Jewish Family and Community Services and Rodef Shalom. “She kind of did her own thing,” added Perelman. “She inspired so many women to give in their own name and be philanthropic in their own right.”
That is not to say that she and Sidney were not extremely close. Rabbi Sharyn Henry, of Rodef Shalom, recalled phoning their home many times and hearing both answer.
They were partners, too, in bettering Pittsburgh’s Jewish community, explained Dan Marcus, who feted the couple in 2017 at Hillel JUC’s Campus Superstar.
“Honoring Sylvia and Sidney provided inspiration and a lesson in how the commitment and actions of dedicated leaders can make a difference to the Jewish and wider community,” said Marcus, Hillel JUC’s executive director.
Of their many committees served, chairmanships and communal undertakings, perhaps none was more memorable than a single gift offered in 1967. Prior to the Six-Day War, as Arab nations declared an intent to eradicate the Jewish State, “My parents took out a $10,000 loan and immediately donated the money to Federation to give to Israel,” said Jim Busis.
“I thought of how completely connected Sid and Sylvia had been, and how beautiful that was, and what unfathomable heartbreak she must have endured when he died,” said Henry.
Sidney Busis died on March 22. Sylvia died seven weeks later.
“We’ve lost a wonderful community leader, a wonderful woman in our Jewish community,” lamented Meyers.
That Sylvia singularly modeled communal stewardship and offered genuine care was recognized decades before her demise. In a poem heralding “Sylvia’s Way,” the late Gertrude Caplan, a fellow Federation volunteer, recited on May 26, 1977:
God gave you eyes, that see beyond,
The safe domain of your existence,
God gave you ears, that hear the cries
Of those in need, of your assistance…
So let your heart, be filled with dreams
That others dream along life’s highway,
We’re glad you care: We’re glad you share
For this is Sylvia’s Way.
Let not your words, remain just words
With noble thought, and good intention,
A passing glance, a fleeting phrase,
Just now and then, to sometimes mention,
For you’ve achieved, what you believe
By fitting deeds to what the words say
We know you give, so others live,
For this is Sylvia’s Way.
Sylvia Busis is survived by her children, Neil, Richard (Judy Beck), Jim (Maureen Kelly) and William (Leslie Hall); her grandchildren, David (Catherine Blauvelt), Anne (z”l), Hillary (Michael Palmieri), Sarah (Matthew Cohen), Deborah (Mathew Levine), Samuel, Ethan, Hannah, Abigail, Adam, Daniel and Molly; and her great-grandchildren, Arthur, Joshua, Noah and Diana. She was the sister of Dorothy Grinberg (z”l) and Miriam Hershman. PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.