NEW YORK – (CHABAD.org) – Rabbi Mordechai Dov Altein, a long-serving Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi who was instrumental in the establishment of yeshivahs and other Jewish educational institutions in post-war America, passed away on Sunday. He was 100 years old.
Born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1919, Altein would later recall that life in New York during that time was not an easy one, especially for an observant Jew. His father was a peddler, buying and selling various odds and ends. As his father was self-employed, he was able to keep Shabbat, which was virtually impossible for almost anyone who worked for a business, or in a factory or a shop.
In the 1920s, Altein attended Yeshivah Chaim Berlin, one of the only yeshivahs in New York, with an enrollment 700 to 800 students; in the 1930s, he attended high school at Yeshivah Torah Vodaath in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y. While a high school student, he met Rabbi Yisrael Jacobson, who was sent by the Sixth Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory, in the 1920s to strengthen Judaism in America. Altein and some high school friends began studying with Jacobson, taking classes in the Tanya, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi’s seminal work of Chabad Chassidic philosophy, and various other Chassidic texts.
“It opened our eyes and was like a breath of fresh air for us,” Altein once told an interviewer. “One can’t imagine how difficult it was to remain a religious Jew at the time. Everyone was trying to assimilate so as to gain entry into American culture. Very few sent their children to yeshivot—perhaps one out of every hundred children went to learn in a Jewish school. It was very hard to fight the tide, to have the courage to stand out and be different. Most of my friends from school ended up attending secular high schools and universities. Thank G‑d, though, what we learned gave us the courage to keep fighting, and remain religious. Without Chassidut, we wouldn’t have made it.”
Jacobson encouraged the teens to correspond with the Sixth Rebbe, who suggested that the young men travel to Poland to learn in the main Chabad Yeshivah in Otwock.
“Keep in mind that this was the summer of 1939, the eve of Second World War,” said Altein. “But the Rebbe told us to come, so we went. When we first arrived, I was allowed to pray in the Rebbe’s minyan that Shabbat. The regular yeshivah students had their own prayer services in the yeshivah, so joining the Rebbe was a very special honor.”
After returning to America, Altein married Rochel Jacobson, the daughter of his teacher. The Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—and Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka Schneerson, of righteous memory, attended the couple’s engagement celebration, and the Rebbe was the mesader kidushin, officiating at their wedding. It was a marriage that would last for 76 years.
Following the wedding, the Sixth Rebbe sent Rabbi Altein to establish yeshivahs in Pittsburgh; New Haven, Conn.; and the Bronx. He also served for many years as a member of the Vaad Raboinei Lubavitch and other leading rabbinical organizations.
Rabbi Altein is survived by his wife, Rebbetzin Rochel, and their children: Malka Cohen (Manchester, England), Sara Pinson (Nice, France), Chanie Gurarie (Montreal, Canada), Sima Zalmanov (Tzfat, Israel), Rabbi Avrohom Altein (Winnipeg, Canada) and Rabbi Leibel Altein (Brooklyn, N.Y.); in addition to many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by his son, Yossi OBM. He is also survived by his sister, Miriam Popack, of the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y.
The levaya will take place Monday, leaving Shomerei Hadas at 1:30 p.m. and passing by 770 Eastern Parkway at 2:30 pm. Shiva will be at 1378 Union Street. Visiting hours are 10 a.m to 1:30 p.m; and 3:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. Condolences can be sent to [email protected]