A postcard from the early days of Yeshiva Schools
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A postcard from the early days of Yeshiva Schools

Postcard begins a search through history

Rabbi Mordechai Dov Altein sent this postcard to Meyer Fogel in March 1942, as he prepared to launch Yeshiva Achei T’mimim. 
Image courtesy Rauh Jewish Archives
Rabbi Mordechai Dov Altein sent this postcard to Meyer Fogel in March 1942, as he prepared to launch Yeshiva Achei T’mimim. Image courtesy Rauh Jewish Archives

On Dec. 1, while browsing the archive, I came upon a folder of correspondence donated by Meyer Fogel in 1992. Fogel was a businessman and community leader. The correspondence had been sent to him by notable Jewish figures throughout the area.

In the folder were two postcards, handwritten in Yiddish, signed by Rabbi Mordechai Dov Altein of “Agudas Chasidei Chabad.” They were dated February and March 1942.

I was intrigued. As a graduate of Yeshiva Achei T’mimim, the local Chabad day school, I knew the name Altein, although not this Altein. A quick online search revealed that Rabbi Mordechai Dov Altein, of blessed memory, had passed that very day, at the age of 100. His obituary credited him as the founder of Yeshiva Achei T’mimim. I was again intrigued, having always heard that Rabbi Sholom Posner founded the school in 1943.

Moved by divine providence, I sent copies of the postcards to Rabbi Mordechai Dov Altein’s grandson, our local Rabbi Yisroel Altein. A few days later, we met at Chabad of Squirrel Hill to follow the footsteps of his grandfather from 1941 to 1943 using two volumes of Chabad history. The first was Toldos Chabad B’artzos Habris: 5660-5710, a chronicle of the Chabad movement in the United States from 1900-1949. The second was the 5702/1941-1942 volume of Igrois Koidesh Marayatz, the letters of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, now known as the Frierdiker Rebbe, or “Previous Rebbe.”

In late 1941, the Frierdiker Rebbe received a letter from a Jacob Schiff in Pittsburgh, detailing concerns about the state of Jewish life in the Hill District. Schiff represented Congregation Anshe Lubovitz, “people from the town of Lubavitch.” It had been founded in 1907, when the Hill District was a mostly Jewish neighborhood and pulsing with communal energy. By the early 1940s, though, the major Jewish institutions of the neighborhood either had relocated to Oakland and Squirrel Hill or were preparing to do so, leaving a spiritual desert for those who were forced by circumstance to stay.

Rabbi Mordechai Dov Altein had been born in New York in 1919. As a young man, he learned Chassidic thought with Rabbi Yisroel Jacobson and other followers of the Frierdiker Rebbe, who had come to the United States from Europe in March 1940. On December 7, 1941, in the shadow of Pearl Harbor, the Frierdiker Rebbe dispatched Rabbi Altein to Pittsburgh “to learn Torah and create activities among the youth.” The young rabbi was refined and supremely dedicated to his mission. And, like most of the children of the Hill District, but unlike their parents or grandparents, he was American-born.

Rabbi Altein launched an afterschool program in a private home and worked to build something more permanent. On March 19, 1942, he wrote this postcard, inviting Fogel to a meeting at the home of Solomon Oklin at 5700 Melvin Street in Squirrel Hill, where a group would discuss the necessary steps required to establish a yeshiva in Pittsburgh.

By summer, Rabbi Mordechai Dov Altein had started Yeshiva Achei T’mimim, the first Lubavitch yeshiva in America outside of New York. The afterschool program was based in three places at once: a home at 2124 Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill (where Engel’s Market used to be), at Anshe Lubovitz in the Hill District, and at Adath Israel on Ward Street in Oakland. The schools had combined enrollment of 60 students and growing.

Over the fall, Rabbi Altein consolidated this sprawling operation into one school at Adath Israel. A notice in the Nov. 20, 1942 issue of the Jewish Criterion states, “Courses being offered include a study of the Bible with its commentaries, Tanach, Shulachan Aruch, Jewish History, Jewish and Hebrew Writing, Mishna, Talmud with all commentaries, both ancient and modern. A special endeavor is being made to create a general revival of interest in the study of the Torah and traditional Judaism throughout the city.”

Rabbi Sholom Posner arrived in Pittsburgh in the summer of 1943. He turned Yeshiva Achei T’mimim into the parochial school it is today, with Hebrew and secular studies and separate programs for boys and girls. The yeshiva soon moved into a house with a surprisingly expansive yard at 3329 Dawson Street in Oakland. Rabbi Altein stayed in town as principal through the rest of the year. He married in late 1943. The following summer, he left for New Haven, Conn., on a new assignment from the Frierdiker Rebbe, before returning to the Bronx, where he established a yeshiva and remained for 50 years. pjc

Eric Lidji is the director of the Rauh Jewish History Program & Archives at the Heinz History Center. He can be reached at eslidji@heinzhistorycenter.org or 412-454-6406.

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