Rabbi Hershel Pfeffer — who was sent to Pittsburgh in the 1940s to help start the city’s Yeshiva Schools and grew that chance directive into a 70-year career as a scribe, shochet (ritual slaughterer of animals) and gabbai — died May 2 following a short bout with aspiration pneumonia. He was 98.
“He was a very happy guy, a very happy person — his specialty was being as nice to everyone as he could,” said Rabbi Yisroel Rosenfeld, who heads the Lubavitch Center of Pittsburgh where Pfeffer served as a gabbai (a person who assists with the Torah reading during services). “He made sure everybody was comfortable, that everybody was cared for. I was working with him for over 40 years — it was really always a pleasure and exciting when I came into the synagogue.
“There was always something to learn from him,” Rosenfeld added. “He was a very refined person, a Torah scholar. And he was an expert in everything he did.”
Born in 1922 to an observant Jewish family of Polish ancestry in New York City’s Lower East Side, Pfeffer — whose twin, David, predeceased him by about 18 years — attended Yeshiva Chaim Berlin in Brownsville. As a young man of 16 or 17, Pfeffer found himself moved by a particular brand of Chassidism when he greeted Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn — the sixth spiritual leader of the Chabad movement, also known as the Frierdiker Rebbe — when the religious figure arrived in New York City by boat in the late 1930s.
“When he looked at [Rabbi Schneersohn’s] face, he said he saw an angel,” said Pfeffer’s daughter, Neshi Pfeffer. “He said he made a profound impression on him.”
Pfeffer went to Lubavitch’s U.S. headquarters in Crown Heights in New York City for Rosh Hashanah shortly after he met the Frierdiker Rebbe. There, he was further awakened as Lubavitchers nearby wept intensely as they prayed.
“He never saw davening like that,” Neshi Pfeffer said. “And he decided immediately: That’s how he wanted to be.”
Pfeffer moved to Pittsburgh after stays in both Massachusetts and New Jersey. A roving Chabad shaliach, Pfeffer settled in Western Pennsylvania, in part, because a group of local women set him up with a Jewish girl from McKeesport, Rosella Mendlowitz. The two went on to marry and were together for 63 years.
“How do you keep [the Chassidic men] here? You marry them to a local girl so they’ll stay,” Neshi Pfeffer laughed.
She remembers her father telling her about the first time he visited Mendlowitz, who was studying at a religious school in Brooklyn around Labor Day in 1946.
“He said he walked up the sidewalk and walked up the stairs to the dormitory where she lived and he felt 100 eyes looking at him,” Neshi Pfeffer said. “In those days, a Chabad Chassid was a very exotic creature — it was very new in America.”
The Pfeffers had two children, Neshi and Chaim. Chaim Pfeffer was murdered in a basement room he was renting in Borough Park in New York City at the age of 42. News of his death at that time was overshadowed in the media by rioting in Crown Heights.
Neshi, over the years, grew a tight bond with her father.
“We were so close — he told me everything,” Neshi Pfeffer said. “He confided in me, and he taught me — oh, my goodness — he taught me everything about how to take care of myself.”
Pfeffer had a deep love for animals despite his calling as a shochet (ritual slaughterer) before the days of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.
“He wouldn’t let me kill a spider because he said, ‘Spiders are good. They kill other bugs,’” Neshi Pfeffer said.
Pfeffer also had a deep love of learning and teaching, she said.
“He never answered anything without looking in a book,” said Neshi Pfeffer, who remembers her father’s incredible knack for finding just the right text in shelves stacked three books deep. “He wanted to see it in black and white and he wanted us to see it in black and white. He never mislocated a book or mislocated a source. He was always on top of things.”
“He taught everything,” Rosenfeld said. “He was one of the first teachers at our Yeshiva and there were probably students of all ages in each class.”
Pfeffer also was an accomplished scribe, a trade taught to him by his mother. In 2018, he displayed a host of his offerings — mezuzahs, ketubahs (marriage contracts) and other Judaica — at the appropriately named shop in Shadyside, Scribe.
“For fun, I used to write the aleph bet,” Pfeffer told the Chronicle at the time of the show. “[My mother] used to criticize me in the beginning — ‘This should be longer. This should be shorter’ — because she knew. She was brought up in a house [where] they were all sofrim (scribes), and her father, too.”
Sara Hargreaves, the proprietor of the Shadyside store, when asked where Pfeffer ranked among her growing list of guests and exhibiting artists, said, “I’ll tell you, he was just at the top. We were so thrilled to have a real-life scribe here.”
Rabbi Yosef Itkin has worked in Pittsburgh for 40 years, much of that time alongside Pfeffer. “He was just a very nice guy — people liked him,” he said. “I saw this great personality when I worked with him hand-in-hand. He was so very respectful to people.”
Pfeffer’s advice to Itkin: “We should always give to everyone else,” Itkin said.
For Neshi Pfeffer, the memories that stand out of her father are of him honoring worshippers with aliyahs, or readings from the Torah, at the Lubavitch Center. She said he took particular care to give aliyahs to people who needed them and, like Aaron from the Torah, he strived “to be a peacekeeper.”
“He never forgot who needed what and when,” she said. PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.