Rabbi Mendel Altein* is following in the footsteps of his ancestors. His great grandfather, the renowned Chassidic teacher and mentor, Rabbi Yisroel Jacobson** provided the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe with an etrog for the Holiday of Sukkot when he arrived on the shores of America the first time in 1929.
Chabad Lubavitch is particular to use etrogim which come from Calabria, Italy, also known as Yanover etrogim, if at all possible. When the Previous Rebbe settled in America (his second trip to these shores) in 1940, Rabbi Jacobson was the one who made sure to import the Calabria etrog for the Rebbe’s use. When the shluchim came to Italy, one of them was a student of Rabbi Jacobson. Rabbi Moshe Lazar arrived in Italy in 1960. From then on, he would accompany Rabbi Jacobson to procure the sought after etrogim to make sure that the farmers were not grafting lemons into the etrogim to make them hardier, which would make the etrog invalid.
When Rabbi Jacobson passed away, his dedication to this mitzvah, was handed down to his son in law, Rabbi Mordechai Altein. From then on, it has been known as the Altein Etrogim. Year after year, these high quality etrogim are used by hundreds and thousands of Chassidim to fulfill the mitzvah of Lulav and Etrog for the Holiday of Sukkot, as prescribed in the Torah.
Rabbi Mendel Altein began working for Altein Etrogim about twelve years ago, shortly after he got married. One year, it was an especially difficult year. It was in 2017 that there was a late frost in January and the majority of the etrogim trees were destroyed. There was a real shortage of Calabria etrogim, thus causing the prices for a high-quality Calabria etrog to become very expensive.
A venerable looking Chasid came into the store and found what he wanted. He inquired about the price. Hearing that the particular beautiful etrog he picked out would cost $500, he was taken aback. He had not expected it to be so high. He did not have that much money and hoped he could find a way to purchase the etrog he chose. He knew that it is a big zechut – merit – to beautify a mitzvah even if it is expensive. Turning to Rabbi Mendel, who was manning the shop, he asked him if he could please hold this etrog back for a day. Rabbi Mendel was used to such requests and placed the etrog on the special shelf reserved for those who would be coming back to pick their etrog up. He included the name and phone number of the Chasid as he would always do.
A week passed and into Altein Etrogim shop appeared a wealthy looking gentleman. He looked around at all the etrogim but could not find one he liked. Rabbi Mendel turned to his special shelf and noticed that the beautiful etrog was still there. He showed it to the customer who immediately fell in love with it. He was ready to purchase it on the spot.
Rabbi Mendel hesitated for a minute and then said, “I will call the Chasid who asked to put this aside for him. Though it is past the time we spoke about, perhaps he is planning to pick it up.” He dialed the Chasid’s number telling him that he was calling about the etrog which was put aside for him.
The Chasid was caught by surprise. He had figured that it was no longer available. Now that he realized that it had not yet been sold, he asked Rabbi Mendel if he could please give him just one more day to try to raise the money. Rabbi Mendel agreed, telling the wealthy gentleman that he would know by tomorrow if this etrog is sold or not. The gentleman agreed to wait and give the Chasid a chance.
When he left the store, another customer who was in the store and overheard the conversation, came up to Rabbi Mendel. On the outside, he did not look like the venerable Chasid, nor did he appear as super wealthy. Sporting a kippa and dressed casually, he totally surprised Rabbi Mendel by what was about to transpire.
He pulled out of his wallet $500 and handed the money to Rabbi Mendel.
“This is for the etrog for the person who originally wanted it,” he said. “Please do not use my name. I don’t want anyone to know who paid for it. I would like this to be an anonymous gift. Just let him know that the purchase price of the etrog is all taken care of and he can pick up his etrog.”
He then walked over to another table and chose an etrog for himself, paid for it, and left.
Rabbi Mendel called the Chasid and told him that the etrog is waiting for him. When he explained to him about the anonymous donor gift, the Chasid was flabbergasted. He simply could not believe what he heard. When he came the next day to pick up the beautiful etrog, he begged Rabbi Mendel to tell him who his benefactor was.
“I must thank him!” he said emphatically. “This means so much to me!”
Rabbi Mendel was in a dilemma as the man told him that he wanted to remain anonymous.
The Chasid came up with a plan. He wrote a heartfelt thank you letter and dropped it off at the store. He asked Rabbi Mendel if he could please personally deliver it to his benefactor.
Of course, Rabbi Mendel was happy to do so. He searched to find where this kind gentleman lived, and on erev Sukkot, finally found the time to drop off the thank you letter.Rabbi Mendel concluded the story:
“Many times, we judge people by their outer appearance. Although, there are many wonderful lessons to be learned from this episode, to me the most important lesson is that one should never judge a book by its cover. The person who paid was modern-looking on the outside, yet what motivated him, was simply that he wanted that another Jew should have the joy of acquiring the beautiful etrog that he so desired. I feel that to Hashem this person is certainly very holy!”
Story heard from Rabbi Mendel Altein.
*In conversation with Rabbi Altein, it came to light that he is the spiritual great grandson of Rabbi Yisroel Jacobson, a’h and the great nephew of Rabbi Mordechai Altein, a’h who was Rabbi Yisroel Jacobson’s a’h son in law.
“My grandfather and his brother became Lubavitch because of Rabbi Jacobson,” Rabbi Mendel told me. “Rabbi Jacobson set up a Tanya shiur in the Yeshivot where my grandfather and his brother were learning at the time, which they attended. That’s how my grandfather and his brother became Lubavitch.”
The three Altein children, Motel a’h, Yisroel a’h and Miriam Popack a’h went on to raise amazing Lubavitch families with many of their offspring serving the needs of others around the world.
** Rabbi Yisroel Jacobson, 1895-1975, was a Chabad Chassidic rabbi and representative of the sixth Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, zt’l. He was one of the first Lubavitcher activists to arrive in the United States in 1925. He served as rabbi in the Anshei Bobroisk Shul in Brownsville, Brooklyn, New York and founded the Yeshiva Achei Temimim in 1932 for young men who had become close to Chabad. He was active in the rescue of the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe from war-torn Europe. He remained a staunch chasid of the Previous Rebbe, and following his passing in 1950, continued to be totally devoted to his successor, the Rebbe.
With help from chabad.org/news and Geni Genealogy.