Most members of the Pittsburgh Jewish community have been comforted at one time or another by Gail Ryave. In fact, Ryave, whose office was situated by the front door of the Ralph Schugar Funeral Chapel, was often the first person a mourner would meet upon entering the building, offering a hug and a kind word.
Ryave, 73, who owned and operated the Jewish funeral home for 30 years, died on Oct. 30 after a brief battle against glioblastoma.
“Gail was there for generations of community members,” said Rabbi Aaron Bisno, spiritual leader Rodef Shalom Congregation. “Quick with a hug, or a squeeze, or knowing silence, she comforted and supported all of us.”
Ryave was born in Pittsburgh to the late Celia and Seymour Perlut, and lived her entire life here. After graduating from Taylor Allderdice High School, she married and started a family. Her husband, the late Arnold H. Ryave, was the owner of the Ralph Schugar Funeral Chapel, a business owned by his family since the early 1970s. When Arnold Ryave died in 1985, the late David Ryave, Gail and Arnold’s son, took the helm of Ralph Schugar’s. David Ryave was only 21 at the time.
“My brother called my mother the day after shiva was over and told her he needed her to help,” recalled Ryave’s daughter, Sharon Ryave Brody.
Gail Ryave heeded the call, and stayed for three decades.
But it wasn’t the work that Ryave loved, said her daughter. It was the people.
“Gail was oozing with compassion and she really had a heart of gold,” said her friend Joel Don Goldstein, who first met Ryave 21 years ago in his capacity as executive director of Tree of Life Congregation. “She helped people through and provided guidance for so many of us in the Jewish community. She had this enormous ability to demonstrate compassion to people with no strings attached. She was just a good soul.”
Following the death of her husband, leaving her a widow at the age of 40, Ryave was devastated, her daughter recalled. She eventually found her own consolation in music with the help of her friend, the late Shirley Friedman. Friedman regularly played piano at More’ Restaurant in Oakland, and encouraged Ryave to accompany her on gigs. After sitting alongside Friedman on the piano bench for some time, Ryave ultimately picked up the mike and began to sing, changing her life.
“My mom had an incredible voice,” Ryave Brody said. “She sounded like Barbra Streisand.”
Bringing people together through song took Ryave “from devastation and isolation to having a life again,” Ryave Brody said.
Ryave’s performances caught the attention of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which in 1993 featured an article about Friedman and Ryave, the “singing funeral director.”
Ryave ultimately took her passion for singing to other venues. She performed in various productions staged by the former Jewish Theater of Pittsburgh, including “Fiddler on the Roof,” in which her daughter and her grandson Ben also played.
Ryave was a supporter of Pittsburgh’s theater and arts, and was also wholly dedicated to many organizations in the Jewish community.
“She was a life member of every Jewish organization she could be — Hadassah, NA’AMAT, the National Council of Jewish Women,” said Ryave Brody, adding that her mother served for many years on the board of the Hebrew Free Loan Association of Pittsburgh. Last year Ryave was honored, along with her daughter, by NA’AMAT in recognition of their dedicated leadership and support to the group, Israel and the Pittsburgh community.
Ryave worked to instill the values of kindness and compassion in her family, Ryave Brody said.
“I am going to continue her traditions and our traditions [at Ralph Schugar’s],” she added.
In addition to Ryave Brody (Rose Stophel), survivors include stepchildren Steven and James Ryave; a sister, Roni Perlut; her “soul sister” Zola Munter Pober; and five grandchildren. She is also survived by many nieces, nephews, and cousins.
Services were held at Ralph Schugar Chapel on Nov. 1, with interment at Beth Shalom Cemetery.
Donations may be made to the Jewish Association on Aging, the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, or the National Council of Jewish Women.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.