Richard Gottfried, one of the 11 congregants who were killed in a shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue on Saturday, was remembered by his family and those who knew him for his religious devotion and his work treating refugees and immigrants at a health clinic where he worked as a dentist.
It wasn’t too shocking that Gottfried was at the synagogue for services when the shooting occurred, says Susan Friedberg Kalson, the CEO of Squirrel Hill Health Center, a non-profit organization that counts immigrants and refugees among half its patients, where Gottfried worked part-time, one or two days a week.
“He was very religious,” she tells TIME of the 65-year-old dentist, who was a regular at services at Tree of Life’s New Light Congregation. “Once I realized what was going on and heard he had not been heard from, I was not at all surprised. He was really devoted to his congregation.”
That strong faith led Gottfried and his wife, Margaret Durachko, to start working part-time at the Squirrel Hill Health Center after it launched a dental practice in 2010. Gottfried was drawn to service and wanted to help anyone in need, Kalson says. The couple frequently volunteered at the free dental clinic through Catholic Charities and opened their own dental practice in 1984. The couple was just retiring from their private practice when the call to work at Squirrel Hill Medical Center came, Kalson says.
“As Jews, we work to heal the world,” she says. “He lived that.”
Durachko, in a message sent through Kalson, said, “We have to face evil with love in response.”
“Do not let his death be in vain,” her message continued. “Drive out evil from your own life and help another drive it out of their life. The only way to combat evil is with love.”
He was a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, with a bachelor’s in English literature in 1974 and a dental medicine degree in 1980. The Post-Gazette reports his hobbies included reading and golfing, and that he completed 28 of Pittsburgh’s Great Races, an annual community run. Gottfried worked in the New Light congregation’s leadership, even serving as president of the congregation, according to the Post-Gazette. The congregation website lists Gottfried as a contact for people who had questions about religion. Gottfried married Durachko, a practicing Roman Catholic, in 1980, the Pittsburgh Post Gazette reports.
“I thought it was so cool that he was so strongly Jewish and she was very strongly Catholic and they were able to make it work based on the love they had for each other,” Gottfried’s great-nephew, Jacob Gottfried, says.
For Jacob, a 16-year-old high school junior in Boca Raton, Fla., Richard Gottfried was so much more than the devoted dentist and husband — he was like a father.
Jacob says his great uncle stepped in to help after Jacob lost his father about seven years ago.
“My dad never had siblings so he was kind of like my only uncle on my dad’s side,” Jacob tells TIME. “When my dad passed away, he was really supportive in that time and he was just an awesome person to talk to and be around.”
Around this time, Richard Gottfried started saying the Jewish mourner’s prayer, or kaddish, every day to honor Jacob’s father’s memory. “In Judaism, when a person dies, if you chant a prayer one time every day for nine months, they receive a better position in heaven. That was one of the things that he did for my dad that really touched me.”
Gottfried last saw his great-uncle the night before the shooting took place on Saturday, during a visit to Pittsburgh with his family. He says they found out that Richard Gottfried died in the mass shooting around 9 p.m. Saturday. The rest of the family is still in shock, he says.
“I was with my grandmother all day. We were checking our phones constantly,” he says. “There was a lot of tears and screaming when we found out.”
Kalson said everyone who worked with Gottfried at the health center is “just devastated.” “He really was a father figure to many on the dental staff, especially to the younger people.”
But Kalson added, the health center, “will keep doing this work with renewed dedication. That’s what Rich’s life was all about and the lives of everybody who perished.”
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