Wednesday, March 26, 2008

A Eulogy for my Grandfather

This past Thursday my grandfather, Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Chinn, passed away. I had spent the previous evening with my mother, having flown into Silverspring MD from Columbus OH for spring break a few days earlier. I was tagging along with my mother as she walked her dog, Loki, when my father called me with the news. So my mother my older brother, Gedalya, and I ended up jumping into my mother’s minivan and driving out to McKeesport PA for the funeral service.

My grandfather served as the rabbi of Gemilas Chesed in McKeesport for over fifty years. For those of you who have never heard of McKeesport, it is a little town outside of Pittsburgh PA. Like much of western Pennsylvania, McKeesport was a steel town until the industry dried up in the 1950s, leaving deserted mills and ghost towns. The Jewish community went the same way as the steel mills; when my father was growing up McKeesport was a dying Jewish community. The Gemilas Chesed that I knew was one of old men with my grandfather performing far more funerals than bar mitzvahs. Like many similar communities, the young left and no one came to fill in their place.

One might assume from this that my grandfather failed as a rabbi; nothing could be further from the truth. He built a very vibrant Jewish community. What you must understand is that, while my grandfather’s synagogue was nominally Orthodox, most of his congregants were not fully practicing Jews. Despite this my grandfather was incredibly successful at getting his congregants, even those who themselves were non-observant, to send their children to Jewish Day Schools. Many of these children, despite the fact that they did not grow up in observant homes, ended up becoming observant themselves. They went on to move to larger Jewish communities such as Silverspring, Baltimore, New York City, and Lakewood; some even went to Israel. One could say that my grandfather was the victim of his own success. His influence caused people to leave McKeesport. My grandfather may not have built a place of Torah in McKeesport (though there is now a small Yeshiva using the Gemilas Chesed building) but he helped build Torah around the world.

As my grandfather lived out his life in McKeesport and not Lakewood or Boro Park, you may find it hard to believe but my grandfather was haredi (ultra-Orthodox). He may have been old school haredi, a breed that, like Gemilas Chesed, is quickly dying out, but haredi all the same. He went to Yeshiva Torah Vodaath and studied under Rabbi Shraga Feival Mendlowitz of blessed memory. Throughout his life, my grandfather maintained himself as a part of the Haredi community. He was a featured speaker at numerous Agudath Yisroel and other such rabbinical conventions. My grandfather was close to many different rabbinic leaders. When my parents were going out my mother’s father, who is a Klausenberger Chassid went to the Klausenberger Rebbe and told him that my mother was going out with a boy named Chinn from McKeesport. The Rebbe’s eyes’ lit up and he replied: “Oh that is Yitzchak Chinn! Yes, that is a good family.” Once, when I was living with my grandparents, the phone rang and I went to pick it up. The person at the other end of the line said: “Hello this is Reb Avraham Pam.” I do not know how many small-town rabbis regularly got personal phone calls from the Rosh Yeshiva of Torah Vodaath.

My grandfather was someone who transcended boundaries. He could befriend rabbis in black hats and he could befriend Jews who drove to synagogue on the Sabbath, he could befriend non-Jews. He possessed the ability to do this because, at his core, he was a gentleman. He treated everyone with respect and dignity; no one was beneath him. My grandfather was a great man in of himself but he was also the product of a certain world. The world of my grandfather was one in which Orthodox Judaism was uncloistered. My grandfather grew up as a good American boy, who happened to wear tzitzit and a kippa. My grandfather could relate to practically anyone who lived in this country because he was an American. The secular world for him was not something that one could just ignore and try to hide from; it was family. One may disagree and fight with family but family is part of you and cannot be ignored.

I am not trying to portray my grandfather as Modern Orthodox. I honestly have no idea what he thought of Yeshiva University, Torah U’Maddah, secular education, rabbinic authority or about evolution. He was not the sort of person with who could be baited into such conversations. What he possessed was something that transcended these issues. He showed respect to everyone and was, therefore, someone who could be respected by anyone. This was founded on the fact that he did not see the world in terms of us and them; the world was part of him.

I mourn the loss of my grandfather and I mourn the passing of Gemilas Chesed of McKeesport. They represent the loss of something that we cannot replicate from within ourselves.


Anonymous said...

My deepest sympathies to you and your family. I found your tribute while searching the web. Your grandfather was a marvelous man. He hosted my confirmation class from Wesley United Methodist Church, White Oak to teach us about our roots in Judaism. My nieces, both Methodist, attended your Grandfather's kindergarden. I remember going there for Purim festivals. I felt priviledged in knowing your grandfather and the people of his congregation. They were a great assett to our community and a blessing to all.

pc said...

hi benz
thanx so much it was nice and true
hope to see u soon in Israel
pete and dassie cimring (landesman)

Tobie said...

He sounds like an incredible person, of a kind that is all too rare.

המקום ינחם אתכם בתוך שאר אבלי ציון וירושלים.

hirsh said...

thank you for this beautiful tribute. He was certrainly a rare breed of Jew, Rabbi and human being. I pray that though he was "rare", he was not "one of a kind". I hope that there are others like him who can serve as role models for other: Jews, Rabbis and Human beings
min hashamayim tinuchamu

Miss Shona said...

Thank you so much for writing this. I lived in North Miami Beach for 3 years and was studying for conversion in the frum (and large) community there. However due to medical reasons, I had to return to PA - Clairton specifically. Now I'm looking for a community and it's either Squirrel Hill or White Oak at this point. I just got a job in Belle Vernon, so White Oak makes much more sense. Leaving Miami though, I find Pittsburgh in general to be lacking as far as Jewish presence. However, I've encountered Jews who have had to live in far more devoid places.

I actually met people in Miami that had roots in Gemillas Chesed. At this point, I am not ready to move or anything like that...but I would not give up on the area just yet. For example, I used to be a student at WVU and a member of Hillel (I had a Reform "conversion" years ago). Now there is a Morgantown, WV! So you would be surprised.

Ha'makom yenahem etkhem betokh she'ar avelei Tziyonvi'Yerushalayim

Izgad said...

Squirrel Hill has a decent sized Orthodox community. It is not New York, Baltimore or Miami, but it is hardly a small town. I have an aunt and uncle who live there. If you want I can put you in touch with them.

B Positive in the Face of Triple Negative Breast Cancer (and anything else) said...

I am a graduate of Mrs. Chinn's nursery school. After that special graduation, my family moved from Mckeesport to a town where I was the only Jew in my elementary school. My grandfather prayed daily there and displayed his Minton plaque in his home. Your grandfather and grandmother instilled my Jewish identity that I held strong in my youth and have tried to instill in my own boys. Gemillas Chesed is a memory in which I still feel connected. I know you wrote this so long ago. I too am seeking another Source of wisdom and love such as Rabbi and Mrs. Chinn.