First Jewish Squirrel Hill COVID-19 casualty
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COVID-19Virus Related Death

First Jewish Squirrel Hill COVID-19 casualty

Howard Reisner was a community fixture

Howard Reisner is the first casualty of COVID-19 in the Squirrel Hill 
Jewish community. 
Photo provided by Shalom Reisner.
Howard Reisner is the first casualty of COVID-19 in the Squirrel Hill Jewish community. Photo provided by Shalom Reisner.

Howard (Chaim) Reisner, a man passionate “about making the world a better place through acts of goodness and kindness,” died Monday, April 6 from COVID-19, according to his son, Shalom. The 78-year-old was the first member of the Squirrel Hill Jewish community to succumb to the virus.

Reisner was focused and driven, partially because he lost his father at a young age, Shalom said. “He rose to do things on his own and learn. If he did something, he was going to do it every day and he was going to do it to the nth degree. That was one of the biggest takeaways of his life, to actively live. Do what you love and enjoy it. Oh, and by the way, help other people so they enjoy their lives, too.”

Reisner’s passion for life and drive to control his own destiny was evident at an early age. In 1959, the then-16-year-old started a car club that began attracting members from Roselle, New Jersey, where he grew up. Eventually, Reisner bought a 1931 Model A Ford.

It was only when he and other members of the club began traveling around New Jersey, blocking off quarter-mile sections of road, that Reisner decided to get his driver’s license.

“That kicked off a long list of things he did to live life,” Shalom said. “My dad was a liver of life who actively pursued his dreams.”

Those dreams included proposing to his then-girlfriend, Leah. But first, he had to raise some money. So Reisner ditched the open road for the pool hall.

“He did it with a friend almost professionally to raise enough money to buy my mother her engagement ring,” said Shalom.
The pair married and settled in Morristown, New Jersey, raising a family that would grow to include six children.

To support his brood, Reisner began designing office furniture, working first for the Brenner Desk Company before starting his own business.

Throughout the 1970s, Reisner, then a secular Jew, began to explore Chasidic Judaism, taking classes at the largest Lubavitch yeshiva in the world, the Rabbinical College of America.

Despite the growing interest of their patriarch, it was several years before his family joined him in embracing the Chasidic lifestyle and religion.

“When he first started, he would be walking on Saturdays and holidays, and my mom would drive past him with the kids in the car going grocery shopping,” Shalom recalled.

By 1979, though, the family was ingrained in the Chabad community as well.

“He and my mom were one of the first couples that became Orthodox through Chabad,” Shalom said. “They were basically one of the founding pillars of the community.”

Reisner’s love of both art and religion coalesced when was offered the chance to design several pieces of furniture for the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. One piece, the green felt table that Schneerson used to distribute dollars, became so associated with the Rebbe that when he died it was taken apart and used in the construction of his coffin.

When Reisner and his wife decided to move from their New Jersey home, they sought the advice of the Rebbe. His response was, “My blessing to you is that you will make the right choice at the right time.”

Not content with the answer, Reisner reached out again and got the same response.

The couple had a family friend living in Pittsburgh and, in 1994, decided to settle in Squirrel Hill. Reisner opened a furniture restoration business on Murray Avenue that became a popular destination for people in the community.

“His business was fixing chairs,” recalled Rabbi Yisroel Rosenfeld, executive director of Yeshiva Schools and of Chabad of Western Pennsylvania, “but he spent all day talking to people. They ended up walking out a different person, the way he affected them, their look on the world about caring and sharing with one another.”

Reisner often invited people to his home for Shabbat meals. Shalom remembered his father walking around the synagogue looking for faces he didn’t recognize. When he encountered a stranger, Reisner would invite them back to his home to eat.
Reisner “just had a way of helping people,” Shalom said.

That concern for people extended outside of the Jewish community. With encouragement from the Rebbe, Reisner founded the website asknoah.org. The site has information about the Seven Noahide Laws, which were given not only to Jews but the entire human race after the flood.

Reisner believed the website helped to “create lasting world peace through spiritual enlightenment and the belief that random acts of kindness and goodness will bring everyone together,” said Shalom.

The Reisner family would often take trips to Lake Erie. Reisner would walk the beach there, dictating ideas for the website and its associated books into a tape recorder, Shalom recalled.

One of the passions Reisner cultivated later in life was cooking. He authored several kosher cookbooks including “Happy Kosher.”

In November, 2019, Reisner’s wife, Leah, passed away.

On March 26, 2020, Reisner was told that he had tested positive for COVID-19. Despite having a host of medical conditions, including diabetes, issues with his heart and a history of smoking, Shalom said his father reacted to the news with the same optimism he had throughout his life.

“He was a fighter, perhaps the strongest fighter I knew,” Shalom said. “None of us thought he was going to lose this battle.”

The Friday before his death, Shalom spoke with his father by phone and was concerned when he heard heavy, labored breathing at the other end. Saturday, paramedics were summoned, but they had to convince Reisner through a video call with a doctor to leave his home for the hospital.

Reisner died April 6. A small group attended his funeral in their cars. Mourners were allowed to leave their vehicles only when Shalom recited Kaddish and could only stand a distance from the grave.

Reisner’s religious life was about “being the best person he could be so that he could do what God wanted him to do, make the world a better place,” Shalom said. “In his interpersonal life, friendships and families, he always tried to do the right thing. He tried to be the best husband because that’s what he loved to do. He loved to make other people happy.” PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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