Rabbi Yisroel Meir Altein, an educator, administrator and spiritual mentor in the local Lubavitch community for more than 60 years, passed away on Saturday, Aug. 22.
He was 86.
Altein came to Pittsburgh in the mid-1940s. As one of the oldest and longest serving emissaries, or shluchim, of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Altein watched the Lubavitch movement grow from a small outpost in the East End of Pittsburgh to a large school with a vast, regional presence in the community.
Around 1 p.m. on Sunday afternoon, more than 200 people gathered outside of the Lubavitch Center on Wightman Street in Squirrel Hill to read psalms as the hearse stopped in front of the synagogue Altein helped build. Then, a 30-car procession drove up Murray Avenue and on to the Homewood Cemetery, where Altein was buried.
Born in Manhattan in 1923, Altein attended Yeshiva Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin, among the oldest yeshivas in Brooklyn, as a young student. When Schneersohn left Europe in 1940 and brought the Lubavitch movement to America, Altein transferred to the new yeshiva set up at 770 Eastern Parkway in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn.
“He was one of the top students there (at Yeshiva Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin). … When he left to go to Lubavitch, they mourned,” said his son, Rabbi Mendel Altein.
During the 1940s, the Lubavitch movement worried about a loss of Jewish traditions resulting from assimilation into American society. Schneersohn sent Altein to Pittsburgh around 1945 to help Rabbi Sholom Posner run a new Jewish day school on Dawson Street in Oakland, the forerunner to the two Yeshiva Schools in Squirrel Hill.
At the time, many Jewish students in Pittsburgh attended public school during the day followed by Jewish afterschool programs. Altein understood that Jewish students needed an inviting environment in order to take any interest in a full-time Jewish education.
“He was very careful how he talked with these students,” said Rabbi Hershel Pfeffer, Altein’s childhood classmate, fellow teacher and lifelong friend. “He talked in a very respectful manner. … We had to make it very interest and very sustaining.”
Altein knew how to talk to students on their level, showing as great an understanding for the world outside the doors of the yeshiva as he did for the world of holy books, according to Marshal Strahl, one of his elementary students during the late 1940s and early 1950s.
After an article ran in the local papers challenging circumcision, Strahl remembered being impressed a few days later by a letter to the editor from Altein rebutting the assertion in an articulate manner using both religious and secular sources.
“He had a very brilliant and sharp mind, very incisive,” Strahl said.
Altein’s kindness and respectfulness in the classroom extended to his home, said his son Mendel, who also had his father as a teacher in third and fourth grades. Altein said his father worked hard to prevent arguments and discord at home and in the community.
“He never called anyone a name of any kind, except as a compliment,” Altein said.
Altein remembers his father as a deliberate man. Whenever he bought a new book, he would make a point of looking through it for a little while before putting it on the shelf.
“My father was very handy,” Mendel Altein said. His father taught his son how to use tools, and the two worked together on household projects like plumbing, electricity, carpentry and flooring. Altein picked up these skills without traditional training.
In the 1960s, Altein became assistant to the dean, the second in command position to Posner. The job took him out of the classroom and into the community as a fundraiser.
Altein said his father struggled at first with the transition.
“It was not easy on him. He didn’t like going around to collect money. He was not a hustler. He did it because it needed to be done. Rabbi Posner needed the help,” he said.
Eventually, though, the older Altein saw an opportunity to meld the necessary requests for money with a larger effort at community building. He grew to enjoy spending time with Jews around the city, and established thousands of contacts as a result, his son said.
“That was what he felt was really the reason to collect,” he said.
Altein continued to raise money in his later years, but he also assumed a more intimate role in the community, becoming the mashpia, or spiritual mentor, of the local Lubavitch congregations, offering spiritual and moral advice and teaching groups and individuals.
“Anyone who had questions about morals or spirituality would go to him for these problems,” Pfeffer said.
Altein is survived by his wife, Ethel; and by his children, Chana Stein of Oak Park, Mich., Tzerel Backman of Pittsburgh, Mendel Altein of Montreal, Yossi Altein of Crown Heights, Perl Namdar of Crown Heights and Malya Teitelbaum of Montreal.
(Eric Lidji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)