Rabbi Pinchas Korf, a beloved Chassidic mashpia (mentor) whose endearing smile, indefatigable energy and blazing inner fire influenced and inspired thousands of students and rabbinic peers for decades, passed away June 30. He was 86.

Affectionately known to all as “Reb Pinye,” Korf was a man who was hard to define. A model of a Chabad Chassid, his prayers were a sight to behold, imbued with deep feeling and Chassidic warmth. In his role as a mashpia (Chassidic mentor), one could frequently find him studying tomes of Chassidic works, or mentoring one of thousands of students or adults. Almost as frequently, he might have been found poring over a tractate of Talmud or writing to Torah journals debating the finer nuances of Jewish law.

Yet, even when he was in his 80s, he would join young students in mitzvah tanks, offering Jewish passersby a menorah on Hanukkah or Shmurah Matzah before Passover. If one would pass Kingston Avenue in Crown Heights late on Sukkot night, one would find him dancing non-stop for hours, fulfilling the directive of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson of righteous memory, to bring the joy of the holiday to the streets.

Throughout his life, and even more so after his passing, in the effort to delineate the beloved mashpia, family, students, colleagues and admirers related stories, shared memories and recalled his farbrengens and classes. In every one, a distinct denominator stood out. Here was a man who served G‑d with every fiber of his being, an authentic Chassid for whom the Rebbe’s teachings were not merely a way of life—they were life itself.

It is through this lens that those seemingly paradoxical qualities become a beautiful tapestry, bringing to life the Chassidic concept of bittul, the Divine service that transcends self-concern. When facing the world with that perspective, the only question is what the Almighty desires at any given moment. It made no difference if the call of the hour was studying or action, Reb Pinye would faithfully stand in his post, ready to fulfill the higher command.

In the words of Chabad.org writer and editor Rabbi Eli Rubin: “Reb Pinye internalized the teachings of Chassidus to the point that they defined the fundamental patterns of his own thoughts and feelings, and were concretely realized in the routines of his life. He wasn't a theoretician, he wasn't an activist. He was a transparent vessel illuminated by Chassidus.”

A similar sentiment was expressed by Rabbi Nachman Schapiro, who served alongside Reb Pinye as a mashpia in the Oholei Torah Yeshiva in Crown Heights.

“When Reb Pinye approached a directive or teaching of the Rebbe, there was no debate, not even an internal one. Neither age nor stage was a deterrent in his service of G‑d. In fact, one could frequently find him offering Jews the chance to don tefillin, or taking part of one of the Rebbe’s other mitzvah campaigns, together with yeshiva students many times his junior.

The Korf family circa late 1940s. From left: Chaya Rivka Korf, Bas Sheva Shemtov, Rabbi Pinchas Korf, Rabbi Gedalya Korf, Rabbi Yehoshua Korf and Rabbi Avraham Korf. (Credit: Korf Family)
The Korf family circa late 1940s. From left: Chaya Rivka Korf, Bas Sheva Shemtov, Rabbi Pinchas Korf, Rabbi Gedalya Korf, Rabbi Yehoshua Korf and Rabbi Avraham Korf. (Credit: Korf Family)

Early Life in Underground Yeshivahs

Korf was born in Kharkov, Ukraine, in 1935 to Rabbi Yehoshua and Chaya Rivkah Korf, devoted Chassidim of the Sixth Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory. As a young student, Rabbi Yehoshua Korf had served as one of the select few who would memorize the Chassidic discourses as they were taught by the Rebbe and repeat it later for the crowds of the Chassidim. After his marriage, he was appointed as a mashgiach, a spiritual supervisor, in the Chabad yeshiva of Kharkov for a short while until it was closed by the Communists. It was there that his children, including Pinchas, were born.

As a child, young Pinchas studied in the underground yeshivahs established by the Sixth Rebbe. Studying in the yeshivas was a highly illegal act during those years of oppressive communist persecution, yet the Korfs were undeterred.

When World Word II broke out, the family was still in Kharkov, which quickly came under Nazi bombardment. After the synagogue where the Korfs prayed was bombed while they were inside, the family decided to do whatever it took to escape to safer areas.

Knowing that it was nearly impossible to obtain a train ticket while the war was underway, Rabbi and Mrs. Korf traveled separately, with Mrs. Korf only able to obtain enough tickets for her children by telling the ticket master that her husband was serving on the front lines.

The family traveled for days, finally arriving in Soviet-controlled Uzbekistan. Over the next few years, they alternated between Fergana and Tashkent and eventually arrived in Samarkand, which had become a center for members of the Jewish underground who were engaged in preserving and spreading Jewish life and tradition in the former Soviet Union despite the risks to their lives.

After the defeat of the Nazis, the Soviet authorities permitted Polish citizens to return home, and many Chassidic families, including the Korfs, used forged papers to flee from the Soviet Union. They were eventually placed in a Displaced Persons camp in Poking, Germany, where young Pinye Korf celebrated his bar mitzvah. The DP camp at the time housed a large number of Chabad escapees, including many renowned Chassidic figures, who Pinye quickly became acquainted with. Among them was Rabbi Yisroel Levin, known as ‘Reb Yisroel Nevler’ after his birth town of Nevel. The Chassid’s fiery devotion and lengthy prayers made a great impression on the young boy, and decades later he would recall the profound effect the great Chassid had on him during his impressionable teenage years.

In 1949, the Korf family moved to Paris, France, and Pinye began attending the Tomchei Tmimim yeshivah in Brunoy, where he studied under the famed Chassidic mentor, Reb Nissen Nemenov. Reb Nissen was renowned for his piety and abstinence, and especially for personifying kaballat ol - unequivocal commitment to G‑d, all traits that would later be trademarks of Rebe Pinye himself.

Close to the Rebbe After Years of Longing

After finally obtaining visas to the USA, the Korf family immigrated in 1953. They arrived on a Friday, and headed over to the home of fellow Chabad Chassidim who had immigrated before them and had settled in the Brownsville neighborhood. After years of longing, Pinye was finally so close to the Rebbe, and he planned on heading over to see the Rebbe at 770 Eastern Parkway right then and there. However, when he attempted to leave, his hosts discouraged him, saying that with his lack of English and unfamiliarity of the area, he would never find his way. Pinye acquiesced and remained with his family and hosts over Friday night. First thing in the morning, however, he headed out, simply asking passerby ‘Eastern Parkway?’ until he found his way. Ever since then, he marked that day, the 8th day of Shevat, as his “Chassidic birthday”, a day of celebration marking the anniversary of the first time he saw the Rebbe.

Korf with yeshivah students
Korf with yeshivah students

Shortly afterward, the Korf family settled in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, where Rabbi Yehoshua Korf became a central figure in the fledgling Chabad community. Over the coming years, he authored a commentary on the Tanya, was appointed mashpia at the central Chabad-Lubavitch yeshivah at 770 Eastern Parkway and later a mashpia for the entire community, a title he held until his passing in 2007 at the age of 102.

While studying in the yeshiva at 770, Pinye quickly became known for his devotion to the Rebbe and to the teachings of Chassidus. Perhaps indicative of his fealty was an extraordinary incident that took place in 1953, only half a year after the Korfs had arrived in America. Pinye, and his brothers Avrohom and Gedalya, were called separately by the Rebbe into his private study, where he relayed a request; He asked that they take upon themselves a certain conduct or performance, and to do so unobtrusively. The brothers never confirmed the exact conduct that the Rebbe had requested from them, but the fact that the Rebbe chose the Korf brothers gives us an inkling into their devoutness.

Just over a year later, in the summer of 1954, the yeshivah students marked a celebration; Rabbi Yoel Kahn, already known as a prodigy in Chassidic teachings and as a chozer - redactor of the Rebbe’s teachings, married Leah Butman. The entire yeshivah body attended the wedding, which continued late into the night. The following morning, the students, exhausted from the festivities, did not wake up for the early-morning study of Chassidus. Pinye on the other hand, despite having rejoiced with his friends, woke up as usual and sat down to learn in the empty study hall. When the Rebbe arrived at 770, he glanced into the study hall, and noted the lack of attendance. Seeing Pinye, he asked him with a smile “are you the ‘only son’ of Tomchei Tmimim?” For decades afterwards, the story would later be pointed to as a trademark of Reb Pinye, never shirking the task on hand, even when the best excuses were readily available.

After receiving rabbinic ordination and studying in the Tomchei Tmimim yeshivah in Montreal, Korf was introduced to Chaya Hamn, and after a number of meetings the two got engaged. As the wedding date approached, a family friend asked the Rebbe to officiate the wedding, a practice the Rebbe had only recently stopped doing. In response, the Rebbe expressed his disappointment at the amount of money spent on weddings. He noted that the money spent on a photographer alone could fund a class for Jewish children in Morocco for a full year. Hearing that, Pinye took the money that had been assigned for the photographer and without a second thought, handed it over to be sent to the Chabad representatives in Morocco.

After their marriage, the young couple moved to Newark, N.J. when the young rabbi was appointed mashpia of the Tomchei Tmimim yeshivah there, which eventually relocated to Morristown, N.J. Korf quickly became known for his ability to grasp and communicate profound Chabad Chassidic concepts to people from all walks of Jewish life, from English-speaking university students to Yiddish-speaking Torah scholars.

After a number of years in Newark, the couple moved to Montreal, where Reb Pinye began serving as the mashpia of the local Chabad yeshiva. In those years, Montreal was a city with a large number of renowned Chassidic personalities, and Reb Pinye became close to many of them, while at the same time making a great impression on the students in the yeshiva.

A Central Figure in the Life of Crown Heights

In 1970, Korf was appointed mashpia at the Oholei Torah yeshivah in Crown Heights, and became a central figure in the spiritual life of the neighborhood, giving classes to residents, tirelessly leading groups engaged inthe Rebbe’s mitzvah campaigns, and counseling countless individuals, especially recent arrivals from the former Soviet Union.

Among the wider Chabad community, it was known that Korf when approached to deliver a class or lead a farbrengen, he would rarely refuse, and was always willing to share a teaching of Chassidus when asked. One time he was even attacked for teaching a class in an area hostile to Chassidic teachings, yet the assault did not deter him in the slightest.

In 1987, a fire broke out in the Korf home on the night following Purim, ravaging the house and seriously injuring seven-year-old Psachya Korf. The doctors warned his parents that his prognosis was not too optimistic, expecting serious long-term injuries or worse. As a faithful Chassid, Reb Pinye went to the Rebbe for a blessing, and after receiving it, the boy miraculously woke up from his coma and made a complete recovery.

In the decades to come, he became a steady source of inspiration to countless students and community residents, a model of Chassidic Torah study and prayer.

“As I child, I once watched my grandfather pray on one of his visits to our home or one of our trips to New York. Watching him pray with his trademark devotion and feeling, I was mesmerized,” recalls his grandson Mendel Korf, who grew up on shlichus in Los Angeles, California. “I remember telling my father afterward that it was the first time I had seen true prayer.”

Mendel’s father, Rabbi Leibel Korf, director of Chabad of Los Feliz, California, says that his father’s visits to his community were looked forward to by both sides. “The community loved and respected him for his sincerity and genuineness, and he loved coming and spending time with the community,” he said.

“Since his passing, many members of the community have told me how he inspired them to grow in their Judaisim during his visits to California,” he said.

In recent years, Reb Pinye was named mashpia of the central Chabad-Lubavitch yeshivah at 770 Eastern Parkway, like his father before him. He continued to serve in that capacity well into his 80s until last spring, when he contracted the coronavirus, which he never fully recovered from.

Despite his lengthy hospitalization and precarious health situation, Korf continued to meticulously keep to the highest ideals of Halacha, making sure his room was clean for prayers, and his food was at the high standard of kashrut he always kept. He also continued to pray with whatever strength he had, summoning up all his energy to say the words with fervor.

As his health deteriorated, thousands around the world prayed for his recovery. On the 20th of Tammuz, June 30th 2021, Reb Pinye passed away. The funeral held the following day attracted a large crowd from the Crown Heights community he so faithfully served. A bus full of students from the central Chabad Yeshiva accompanied the funeral all the way to the cemetery, paying their final respects to the mashpia that had taught them so much with his classes and farbrengens, but mainly just by being a living example of a Chassid.

Rabbi Pinchas Korf is survived by his wife Mrs. Chaya Korf, their children, Batsheva Gruzman of Migdal, Israel; Yosef Yitzchok Korf of Brooklyn; Chani Marinovsky of Kfar Daniel, Israel; Rochel Landa of Toronto; Rabbi Mendy Korf of Toronto; Nechama Dina Nemirovsky of Brooklyn; Rabbi Leibel Korf of Los Angeles; Rabbi Benche Korf of Miami Beach; Rabbi Pesachya Korf of Brooklyn; Rabbi Berel Korf of Manchester, England; grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

He is also survived by his siblings Rabbi Avrohom Korf of Miami, and Mrs. Batsheva Shemtov of Oak Park, Mich. He was predeceased by a brother, Rabbi Gedaliah Korf.