Rabbi Yosef Itkin, joyful educator and kosher supervisor, has died at 69
News ObituaryRabbi Yosef Itkin

Rabbi Yosef Itkin, joyful educator and kosher supervisor, has died at 69

Devoted teacher, with keen sense of students' needs, disseminated light of Lubavitcher Rebbe

Rabbi Yosef Itkin. (Photo courtesy of Rabbi Yisroel Altein)
Rabbi Yosef Itkin. (Photo courtesy of Rabbi Yisroel Altein)

Rabbi Yosef Itkin, a respected educator who supervised kashrut for Pittsburgh’s Jewish community, died on Dec. 18. He was 69.

Born in Crown Heights, New York, Itkin grew up two doors from 770 Eastern Pkwy., the fabled headquarters of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement.

Though he left Brooklyn nearly 40 years ago, colleagues said Itkin lived his life as if he remained at the hub.

“Seven-seventy is where Chabad’s at home, and when you’re at home there’s a certain style and comfort that you have when you interact with people, the language you use,” Chabad of Squirrel Hill’s Rabbi Yisrael Altein said. “Rabbi Itkin was able to live that life in Pittsburgh. He didn’t change a thing and was always true to who he is. He had the comfort of expressing his Chassidic lifestyle no matter what the environment was around him.”

Rabbi Yosef Itkin, right, and Rabbi Yosef Munitz study together. (Photo courtesy of Yeshiva Schools of Pittsburgh)

Itkin and his wife, Nechoma, arrived in Pittsburgh in 1981. He worked at Yeshiva Schools of Pittsburgh and taught Chassidic philosophy, Talmud and halacha (Jewish law) for almost four decades, according to Rabbi Yossi Rosenblum, Yeshiva’s head of school.

“Rabbi Itkin’s impact on the lives of hundreds of Yeshiva students and on our community was legendary,” Rosenblum said. “He exuded a joy of life and Judaism that lifted up all those with whom he came in contact with.”

Squirrel Hill resident Chaya Sokol was a student of Itkin’s 35 years ago.

“He was a great teacher,” she said. “He always had a great amount of respect for me which, in turn, made me respect him a lot.”

Sokol and Itkin’s paths often intersected in the following years.

As a member of Pittsburgh’s Vaad Harabonim (an Orthodox group of Jewish rabbis), Itkin served as a mashgiach and oversaw kashrut in the city. Sokol went on to manage Milky Way, a vegetarian kosher pizzeria on Murray Avenue, and also became a mashgiach.

“He always stood up for me as a woman,” Sokol said of her late teacher.

In his role as the city’s leading supervisor of kashrut, Itkin would unexpectedly stop in the restaurant, ensure that vegetables were appropriately washed — the Torah forbids Jews from eating insects — and that new products followed adopted guidelines.

“Whether you’re someone who keeps the highest level of kashrut or someone who doesn’t, you want the entire community to feel comfortable. As a mashgiach, Rabbi Itkin always did that,” Sokol said.

“He saw his work on the Vaad not as a job but as a life mission,” Altein said.

Through the years, Altein repeatedly called Itkin with news that a community member wanted to transform their kitchen into a kosher space but needed assistance.

“He came with me time and time and again, and never took a penny,” Altein said.

But even before Itkin thoughtfully helped Pittsburghers follow the biblical mandate, he recognized the importance of kashrut.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe and late head of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, launched several campaigns in the 1960s and ‘70s that introduced Jews to 10 basic mitzvot; among the 10 was keeping kosher.

The importance of kashrut, Schneerson wrote within “Igrot Kodesh,” was that each item of food ingested becomes part of a person’s flesh and blood, which is connected to their neshama (soul): The more noble the food, the greater virtue of the eater.

“Rabbi Itkin took that very seriously,” Altein said.

“My father was sent to Pittsburgh by the Lubavitcher Rebbe and he saw himself as a shaliach (emissary) to spread light, warmth, acceptance, scholarship and kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God’s name),” Itkin’s daughter Shaina Stolik said.

For years, one of Itkin’s primary responsibilities in the city was kindling public menorahs.

He would leave home with a can of kerosene, dressed in a clean white shirt, only to return dirtied but satisfied by the labor, said Stolik: “He had a tremendous amount of pride maintaining Pittsburgh’s menorahs. That symbolism was very much him.”

Throughout his time in Pittsburgh, Itkin was often referred to as mashpia (influencer) of the community.

Three years ago, during a gathering marking the birthday of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov — the Chassidic founder was born in 1698 — Itkin noted that the movement teaches two ways to influence others. One is by being a teacher — but the quality of transmission is always dependent on both the educator and the student.

The other way to influence people is to be like a fire: “The innate nature of fire is that it creates warmth, it creates light.” This becomes clear to those nearby, who are instantly “illuminated and warm,” Itkin said. “The fire doesn’t even have to influence: It just radiates.”

Itkin is survived by his wife and their 11 children. PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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