Writing for the Jewish Press, columnist Mordechai Bulua, a member of Monsey’s Orthodox Jewish Community, describes his experience encouraging non-observant Jews to put on Tefilin, after being challenged to do so by a Lubavitcher friend this past summer as part of the ALS ‘Tefillin challenge’:
Who hasn’t heard of the recent campaign known as the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge? It’s where someone is challenged to either make a donation to the ALS Association or have an ice-cold bucket of water poured over his head.
A week before Rosh Hashanah, my Lubavitcher cousin e-mailed me and challenged me to either get a Jew to put on tefillin within the next 48 hours, or give a donation to ALS. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, especially asking a total stranger if they were Jewish, but I decided to take on the challenge nonetheless. I e-mailed him back that I accept.
The next day, I was in Monsey for a wedding. Before the wedding, my wife asked me to drive her to The Shops at Nanuet, a new shopping mall just outside of Monsey. After my wife entered a store, I got out of the car and davened to Hashem to help me fulfill the challenge. A minute later, I looked and saw a muscular young man walking in my direction. I stopped him and asked if he was Jewish. When he replied in the affirmative, I asked him if he’d like to put ontefillin. He responded, “What’s tefillin?” When I described what they are, he told me that he had never heard about them before. I told him that I had a pair in my car, and he replied that he’d love to try them on.
I couldn’t believe me ears. I rushed back to the car to get my tefillinwhen I remembered that I didn’t have another yarmulke. Luckily, I had left my hat box in the car, so I put on my hat and gave him myyarmulke. When I told him my first name, he told me that he hadn’t heard his Hebrew name pronounced since his bar mitzvah. We both shared the same Hebrew first name. We agreed that our meeting was Divine providence.
I tried putting tefillin on the man’s arm, but couldn’t role up the sleeve of his sweatshirt. The man said it was no problem as he ran to his car and changed into a t-shirt. After helping him put on thetefillin, he repeated the Shema after me, both in Hebrew and English. After I put the tefillin away, the man said that he felt different, and that he had never felt that way before. (The mitzvah obviously had an immediate effect.)
He asked me again why I was doing this, and I told him the story. He then asked who else I had to put tefillin on. When I answered “You’re it!” his response was “I’m it?” The man was in seventh heaven. He thanked me for giving him this opportunity, but I thanked him for allowing me to help him. I then wished him ashanah tovah and we went our separate ways.
When I came back home, I called my Lubavitcher cousin and related the story. He told me that I get extra bonus points for having puttefillin on someone who never put them on before. He quoted me the gemara in Rosh Hashana 17 that if a Jew puts on tefillin just once in his life, he reaches a higher category. He then asked me rhetorically: “Do you know what you are?” Without waiting for an answer, he continued, “You’re now a full-fledged Lubavitcher.”
When my cousin further asked me to challenge at least three additional people, I put my foot down and told him that I didn’t feel comfortable asking others to do what I had done. Having done it, I know how hard it is asking someone if they’re Jewish. I suggested a different challenge which my cousin agreed to. As rabbi of a shul where all the worshippers keep Shabbos, on Rosh Hashanah I related the tefillin story to them and then challenged them to invite a non-affiliated Jew to their home for Shabbos on Parshas Noach for the world-wide Shabbat Project. There wasn’t even one dissenter.
Later I realized there’s an amazing connection between tefillin, Shabbos and Parshas Noach. Both tefillin (Devarim 6:8) and Shabbos (Shemos 31:17) are called an os (a sign), and so is the rainbow (Bereishis 9:13) mentioned in Parshas Noach. Helping unaffiliated Jews discover their heritage is undoubtedly anos, a ‘sign’ of the times.