Grief Doesn’t End When the TV Cameras Go Away: Bringing Sweet Potato Comfort Pie to Pittsburgh

Grief Doesn’t End When the TV Cameras Go Away: Bringing Sweet Potato Comfort Pie to Pittsburgh

By Wendy Goldberg

I first met Rose McGee when Citibank had foreclosed on her home in Golden Valley, Minnesota. Her husband had died, and she was laid off from work, and she requested some extensions on her mortgage payments, which the bank agreed to. While she was reorganizing her finances, the bank sold the house to itself for $10 and said she had to leave it. Shir Tikvah Congregation member Dave Snyder, who was working on foreclosures at Jewish Community Action, recruited many of us to stand with Rose through her non-violent actions to save her home, which she won. Dave and Rose went on to challenge predatory lending practices and succeeded in changing the laws in Minnesota.

When the massacre at Mother Emanuel AME Church happened in Charleston, South Carolina, Rose responded by bringing sweet potato pies to the church, and her non-profit, Sweet Potato Comfort Pies, was born. She called the church to arrange a good time for her to visit, asking to speak to the pastor. “You don’t get it, do you?” was the response. “All our pastors are dead.” Rose visited Charleston twice with her pies.

Rose then organized people to bake more pies which she drove to Ferguson, Missouri, Standing Rock, North Dakota, and to the Fourth Precinct in Minneapolis. She and Shep Harris, mayor of Golden Valley and Heilicher Minneapolis Jewish Day School parent, decided to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday by hosting an annual MLK event where people bake pies in the number Dr. King would be alive and participate in sharing circles. At the event, each table decides who should bring pies home with them to deliver to people who were in need of comfort. This year, Rose and her crew baked 90 pies! My acapella group, Shir Harmony, which includes Heilicher alumni parents Laurie Goldsmith and Dori Weinstein, has sung at this event for the past two years.

Pies for the Tree of Life Synagogue
When the Tree of Life Synagogue was attacked in October, Rose called me immediately. She wanted to bring pies to Pittsburgh and was looking for a kosher kitchen and connections to the Jewish community of Pittsburgh. We approached Heilicher Chef Liz Kaplan to see if we could use the kitchen. Despite the already-busy school lunch preparation and the Sabes JCC’s Inclusion Program’s weekly challah baking program, she graciously agreed and helped us order ingredients. It happens that my chevruta (study partner) Cantor Julie Newman lives in Pittsburgh and has a monthly Shabbat service at Rodef Shalom, the synagogue that now hosts two of the impacted congregations, Dor Chadash and Tree of Life. She and her co-leader, Sara Stock Mayo, sister of Cantor Rachel Stock Spilker of Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul, were happy to coordinate our visit to all of the congregations and to the families of the shooting victims. Heilicher Head of School Yoni Binus and Harold and Mickey Smith Jewish Life and Hebrew Director Etan Weiss supported sending me with Rose as an ambassador from the school, and we began planning the execution of this mission.

Next came coordinating baking. There were so many questions. How many students could bake with Rose? Which grades should bake? What would the educational component entail? How many pies should we bake? How could we get the pies to Pittsburgh in time for Shabbat? Who would pay for the ingredients and shipping?  

Heilicher teachers and team leads Steve Mintz and Ilena Marron organized a rotation for our classes. We recruited volunteers via Facebook and in The Roar, Heilicher’s weekly e-newsletter. Donations came in from near and far, enough to cover our expenses. Development Associate Amanda Scherer procured pie crusts donated by Cub Foods. Someone handed me $60 to make sure volunteers had snacks and to buy odds and ends as needed. Stuart Borken, who baked with Rose for the first time this MLK weekend, because of publicity he saw about Rose in the Star Tribune, saw our publicity and signed up to make sure all of the sweet potatoes were boiled on Tuesday in preparation for our baking with students on Wednesday, since we would not have students around boiling pots of water. Many others from Heilicher and unconnected to Heilicher volunteered.

Pie Making with Heilicher Students and Volunteers
Operation Sweet Potato Pittsburgh Pie was executed beautifully, despite the wild snowstorm on Tuesday, causing Rose to arrive two and a half hours after she left her East St. Paul office. Several people stuck around on Tuesday to get the sweet potatoes peeled and ready for the students. The students were focused and respectful during the baking sessions. Some students were lucky enough to mix the batter with “Miss Rose” in the kitchen, which meant tasting it, too. Each of the classes had an orientation with Rose and Kate Towles, who led them through a short “pie-dentity” workshop about Black culture and an introduction to her grandmother’s cooking style, which is not to measure but to pour ingredients. We shared with the students that fact that even though the tragedy occurred four months ago, the community’s grief did not end when the TV cameras went away. We asked them to think about what messages they wanted to write to people who are still hurting in the aftermath of this tragic event.

Heilicher students with Rose McGee baking
Heilicher students and faculty baked with Rose McGee (orange hat) and Wendy Goldberg (white cap).

Our last groups wrapped the cooled pies carefully and tucked the students’ handmade notes into the boxes. Fifth grade focused on creating beautiful and personal cards for the pies, as did Karen Dworsky, and volunteers Raina and Sage Hartman. They were so beautiful that I’ve kept copies (ask me if you want to see them). Several volunteers came for the last shift of cleaning, packing, and loading the pies into Rose’s jeep. Kudos to Jenna Anderson, new parent, who works for UPS and saw our updates on the Heilicher parent Facebook group. She was able to send the pies overnight instead of in a two-day journey, and got us a huge discount. She was in touch with us and UPS throughout the day on Wednesday to make sure everything went smoothly. Students and faculty tasted the pies on Thursday and Friday.

Pie Delivery in Pittsburgh: An Extraordinary Experience
With the pies on their way to Pittsburgh, Rose and I packed and headed out in the -26 F air early Friday morning. We arrived at Rodef Shalom around 2 p.m. and a 48-hour whirlwind of delivering pies began. The following is what I posted upon my return on Monday, February 11, 2019:

My heart and mind are full. I just spent the last 48 hours with Rose McGee, hosted by Julie Newman and Sara Stock Mayo, in Pittsburgh. We brought 50 Sweet Potato Comfort Pies, baked by the students, parents, and other volunteers at Heilicher Jewish Day School last week. We heard the stories of survivors of the Tree of Life, Dor Chadash, and New Light congregations. Below is a recounting of what we experienced and the note I wrote to our school community. To all of you who helped with this project, from near and far, many many thanks.

Dear Heilicher Community,

Thank you so much for encouraging and supporting our trip to Pittsburgh. The 50th pie was delivered on Monday, to the family of Jonathan Freeman. We met many of the survivors of the Tree of Life tragedy, listened to their stories, shared tears with them, some in their shuls, and some in their homes. At Rabbi Jonathan Perlman’s insistance, we sang Adon Olam to the tune of the Minnesota Rouser with the members of New Light Congregation, which lost three members, including its Torah reader. With Dor Chadash and Tree of Life congregations, we taught them Minnesotan John Orenstein's Mi Chamocha, and hosted a huge standing-room only Oneg Shabbat, featuring 25 of the pies. Over 150 people heard about how we baked the pies and tasted the pies. People LOVED the pies. Many people had never tasted sweet potato pies and had no inkling why some strangers from Minnesota were making a special trip to serve them, but they had anticipated the visit for several weeks. Each had a story. Each had different connections to those who died, those who were injured, and those working so hard to heal their physical wounds along with their emotional wounds. Amidst the sadness in the community, which was ever-present, our visit and the pies offered an oasis of curiosity and comfort.

During the weekend, we also toured the Squirrel Hill neighborhood, which is a lot like our Fern Hill Eruv neighborhood, only urban, so with shops and eateries. We passed the fenced-in Tree of Life Synagogue, and heard accounts of neighbors hearing the shooting and the emergency vehicles. Many talked about how they were late for shul or at a baby naming at another place or they would have been present during this event. Laminated Jewish stars hang from trees around the neighborhood. The Starbucks is decorated with illustrations of hearts and words of our middot, our values. Kindness, Hope, Love. חסד תקווה אהבה.ץ.

What stuck out to me most were the conversations with the security guards and the custodians, most of them African American, which is relevant in the sense that they greeted us with great anticipation, saying, "I haven't had sweet potato pie since my mom passed." And then they proceeded to tell us about the impact of the shootings on what they referred to as, "our congregants." They have been the witnesses to how the people are moving through the grief. Keith said he works seven days a week, because he knows his congregants need the consistency of seeing him each day. He also spoke about being a martial arts expert, and knowing that his hands and quick action would be more crucial than his gun if he had to defend anyone, and that he's willing to put his life on the line for these people. He also said he wears a bright neon green security vest, and a baseball hat that says "Security" in big yellow letters, and t-shirts that say security, because he knows that out on the street, he's a target due to the color of his skin.

The families of those who died were meeting on Sunday, and they took two of our pies to share, at their third gathering since "October 27," which is how people refer to that day.

We also visited with Michelle Kenney, mother of Antwon Rose II, who died by gunfire from an East Pittsburgh policeman in June. She made shirts that say, "I am Antwon's mom" for people to wear, to show that we are all Antwon's mom. That this can happen to anyone. That anyone can feel the loss of a child. She talked and talked, and was meeting with some neighborhood activists to discuss the upcoming trials in March. The activists are 17 years old and started their efforts at age 14. Rose spoke with Julie, Sara, and me, about the hurt in the African-American community.

Another pie went to the family of Jonathan Freeman, classmate of our host, Sara Stock Mayo's, son. He was playing video games at his friend's home and gunshot was fired into the den and he died.  No confrontation, no hoodie, no hands in his pockets. He wasn’t even outside.

We ended our visit with Rabbi Jonathan Perlman and Beth Kisselef who used to live in St. Louis Park. Their children, Tova, Yael, and Ada, attended MJDS and many of our teachers remember them well. Jonathan is the rabbi of New Light Congregation, where we davened on Shabbat morning. They say hello and Beth will be at Beth El the weekend of March 2. Avital Krebs got a call from them on Sunday. She and her sisters go to camp with the Perlman kids. Of all fifty pie boxes, the card in their box was the one Avital made. Bashert! (Destiny!)

Wendy Goldberg is Assistant Director of Jewish Education at the Heilicher Minneapolis Jewish Day School and musical collaborator with Sweet Potato Comfort Pies.

In case you missed it, Heilicher’s collaboration with Sweet Potato Comfort Pies was on the local news:

CCX Channel 12 coverage

Kare 11 coverage

Shabbat dinner in Pittsburgh
Late afternoon Shabbat dinner with our hosts, Sara Stock Mayo, Celia Stock (mother of Cantor Rachel Stock Spilker), Cantor Julie Newman, Ziv and Elana Mayo (seated) and Rose McGee (far left).

Dessert in Pittsburgh
Rose McGee (far left) and Wendy Goldberg (far right) enjoying late night dessert with Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, Beth Kisselef, and Cantor Julie Newman.

Sound check for Shabbat Services three musicians
Sound check for Shabbat services. Wendy Goldberg (center) with Cantor Julie Newman and Greg Siegel of Chavurat Shira.

Delivering pie
Home delivery of Sweet Potato Comfort Pie.

Rose with security guards and pies
Rose with two synagogue security guards, who tried to refuse the pies. Rose was pretty persuasive.

Sara Stock Mayo and Rose McGee talking
Sara Stock Mayo and Rose McGee talked intensely about the events of October 27.

Antwon Rose
Rose visiting with Michelle Kenney, mother of Antwon Rose II. His friend gifted this banner of him which hangs outside Michelle's home.

Pie flyer
Advanced publicity in Pittsburgh. People had anticipated our arrival for a few weeks.

Students baking
Students really got into baking the pies.

Students baking pies
Students filled more than 50 pies.

Happy kids with pies
Almost done!

Finished product
Finished product!


  • Jewish values
  • Pittsburgh
  • comfort pies
  • middot

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