Sunrise, sunset: Orthodox Jews keep Sabbath tradition

By Mike Lynch

It’s Friday night. The sun is about to set.

Rabbi Yisroel Altein is scrambling throughout his home with the ferocity of a hummingbird. He picks his 8-month-old daughter up off of the hallway floor so he can continue preparing challah, a traditional Jewish bread. His hands are still wet from shaping matzo balls.

“No matter how late Saturday comes,” he said, “there’s never enough time on Friday to prepare. And yet, it’s always done. Sabbath comes and everything comes to a standstill.”

Yisroel, 36, is an Orthodox Jew, meaning he and his family follows all 613 Jewish commandments as best they can. For Yisroel, there was never a choice.

Rabbi Yisroel Altien poses in his home.
Photo by Alyssa Kramer

Yisroel’s father, a native of Brooklyn, was a scholastic rabbi who preached the message of Chabad, a missionary Hasidic movement within the Jewish religion.

Peering through wireframe glasses, his facial hair long and thin, Yisroel said it was fate.

“Chabad’s goal is to not just have a house of worship for ourselves,” he said, “but to make it a place where everyone can feel comfortable.”

Rabbi Yanky Davidson has known the Alteins for 10 years and said they’re the epitome of a traditional family.

“God gave us a Torah,” he said, “and they follow it to the nth degree.”

Eighteen minutes before the sun is set to make its nightly dive behind Mt. Washington, Yisroel’s wife Chani, 32, makes her way downstairs wearing a red blazer and matching skirt. Dropping small pieces of wax into their corresponding candlesticks, Chani and the children take turns striking matches and lighting their candles. Shielding their eyes from the flames, the family recites a Hebrew prayer which translates to:

“Blessed are you God, king of the universe who has sanctified us with his commandments and has commanded us to light the candles for the Sabbath.”

Yisroel and Chani, who’s originally from New Haven, Connecticut, have somewhat of an arranged marriage. They were brought together by their families because they have a common relative.

“We don’t date for fun,” he says. “We date with the intention of marriage, which means that, when you date, your objective is [to ask yourself], ‘Is this going to work for a lifelong commitment?’”

Davidson avers that the couple works well together for the benefit of the community.

“They have set their entire life about helping other people,” he says. “They have totally taken on a selfless life.”

Dressed in black and white with a black fedora covering his yarmulke, Yisroel and his oldest son walk around the block to the Lubavitch Center of Pittsburgh, leaving Chani at home to watch the other children.

Inside, the school’s multi-purpose room has been converted into a place of worship. Folding tables and chairs are scattered throughout, and a divider is set up to separate the men from the women. A rabbi stands up front, reciting quiet Hebrew as quickly as he can, leaving little space between words.

For an outsider, Yisroel said, it’s a lot to take in.

“For someone who’s not familiar it might look a little chaotic,” he said, “but it’s an orderly chaos.”

Men, some sporting black jackets, others in bright dress shirts, walk throughout the room holding their own conversations in the middle of the service.

“For a lot of people, it’s the first time they’ve seen each other in a week,” Yisroel said. “There’s a lot to catch up.”

After 45 minutes of praying, singing, dancing and hugging, the service ends and Yisroel makes his way home. Yisroel’s cousin, Rabbi Chezky Rosenfeld, agrees that for the Alteins, it’s all about service.

“It’s their life mission and that’s what it’s all about for them,” he says. “The community means everything to them, specifically the Squirrel Hill community.”

The family moved to Squirrel Hill in 2003. Yirsroel and his wife wanted to be a part of Pittsburgh’s Chabad community, which has been in the city for more than 72 years.

“My mother’s family’s from here,” he says. “My mother’s family’s one of the founding families of Chabad here in Pittsburgh so we came back to work with family and the organization here.”

Yisroel says Squirrel Hill’s strong Jewish presence makes it easy to feel at home.

“It’s a very beautiful experience coming from New York where everything is fast moving,” he says. “You’re not sure who lives on the next block.”

Rosenfeld says the couple has latched on to the neighborhood.

“They’re very outgoing and inclusive of all different sectors of the community, whether it’s the orthodox community or the non-orthodox community,” he says.

The Alteins’ youngest daughter wanders through the living room. Photo by Alyssa Kramer

The Alteins’ youngest daughter wanders through the living room.
Photo by Alyssa Kramer

Their home decor represents their community values as well. Extending from one room to another, the family’s kitchen table is decorated with fine china and

bright pink napkins. Despite only having 5 children, the table is set for 23. Neighbors and friends find their seats and prepare to feast on gefilte fish, matzo balls and kosher wine.

Yisroel said the meal is like any other, but the conversation is faith-based.

“We have a tradition that angels come with us home from synagogue to bless us on the Sabbath,” he said. “So we first sing a song welcoming and asking them to bless us.”

By request of his daughter, Yisroel reads the daily parshah, a section of the Torah, at the dinner table. She sits on his lap as he reads from her children’s version of the book.

Yisroel recalls his childhood and remembers visiting Squirrel Hill as a kid.

“In the 80s, it was a Jewish neighborhood in the sense that the stores were mainly kosher bakeries, kosher butcheries, kosher groceries, even the retail shops were very much Jewish owned,” he said.

The community has gone through some changes in the last 30 years, Yisroel admits. With a younger generation coming into Squirrel Hill, some fear the neighborhood could lose its roots.

But Yisroel isn’t concerned.

“We’re not worried about disappearing,” he said. “We’re worried about individuals falling off and therefore we’re here to change that and make sure that no individual is left behind, but as a whole, we’re stronger than ever.”