I was 16 years old and I was in the city of Venice, Italy on a family vacation. After having lunch with a wealthy Kuwaiti family whom I had met during my travels, I thought to myself: “I doubt anything more interesting is going to happen today.” It was with that frame of mind that I decided to walk back to the hotel where my family was staying.
As I made my way out of San Marco’s square and walked alongside the famous Doge’s palace, I noticed two men in the garb of Chassidic Jews walking past me. Despite their black hats, dark suits, and long beards and my jean-shorts and oversized t-shirt sporting an image of Bob Marley’s face sculpted out of marijuana leaves, I felt a kind a sense of Jewish connection with them. As they strode past me I gave them a subtle nod.
Suddenly the two men stopped abruptly and I found myself surrounded. “Are you Jewish?” one of them asked me excitedly in a thick accent I could not place.
I was taken aback. Why were these two men dressed in clothes from another time period hovering around me and asking if I was a member of the tribe?
“Yes…” I replied nervously.
“And is your mother Jewish?” the other Chassid asked.
“Yes…” I replied.
“Would you like to put on tefillin today?” One of them reached into a bag he was carrying and took out two small black leather boxes attached to black leather straps.
“What is that?” I asked, curiously.
The two men looked at each other incredulously before proceeding to briefly explain this classic Jewish ritual.
Tefillin is comprised of two black leather boxes. Each box is attached to a black leather strap. The boxes contain verses from the Torah that command the Jewish people to bind the Torah to their minds and to their hearts. One box is strapped to one’s arm and the other to one’s head. Tefillin is traditionally worn by Jewish men during morning prayer services.
“Were you given a Bar Mitzvah?” one of the Chassidim probed.
“Yes, I had a bar Mitzvah,” I replied.
“Really?” one of them asked me in surprise. “You had a Bar Mitzvah and you don’t know what is tefillin?”
I shook my head and shrugged my shoulders. My Bar Mitzvah was on a Saturday night. I learned later that tefillin is not worn at night.
“Ok,” he said. After making sure one more time that my mother was Jewish, he asked me again if I would like to put on the ‘tefillin’. He explained that he and his friend would help me to put them on. “It will not take long,” he cajoled.
Crazy thoughts swirled around in my head. Why were these two bearded individuals so interested in my Jewishness and why did they want to wrap leather boxes around me? Maybe these two men were thieves that wanted to tie me up with the leather straps so that they could then easily go through my pockets and snatch my wallet or whatever else I had on me. After all, Venice was notorious for pickpockets. Or perhaps they were terrorists…It was a post-9/11 world so this was a notion to be taken seriously. “A terrorist would never be caught dead dressed like that,” I naively convinced myself. I glanced around. There had to be hundreds of tourists and other people of various walks of life milling about. Not mention the swarms of pigeons. I hesitantly agreed to humor these two gentleman. I reasoned that since I was in a public place and there were many people in the vicinity, I could call out and receive assistance if I found myself in danger.
They slowly wrapped me up with the Jewish ritual prayer objects. It felt sort of awkward and uncomfortable in the hot Mediterranean sun to be having such foreign-looking objects bound tightly to my arm and head. One of the Chassidim told me that now we were going to recite a short Hebrew prayer known as the ‘Shema.’ The Shema is both a collection of verses from the Torah as well as a prayer uttered by Jews in the synagogue twice daily and recited again privately before retiring for the evening. This prayer is also inscribed on the parchment that resides in the boxes of tefillin. Shema literally means ‘hear’ and the prayer is best described as the credo or the ‘mission statement’ of the Jewish faith. Luckily, I already knew the first line by heart – something I remembered from my Hebrew school days: “Shema, Yisrael, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem echad,” which translates in English as “Hear, oh Israel. The L-rd is our G-d. The L-rd is One.” I recited the paragraph that follows the first line responsively with one of the individuals who had helped me wrap the tefillin.
“Mazel tov,” the two chassidim exclaimed as they placed the tefillin back in their cases. “You just did a mitzvah! Where do you live?”
“New York, ” I replied, feeling a strange sense of accomplishment mixed with confusion about what had just taken place.
“Oh, New York,” one of the black-hatters said enthusiastically. He reached into his sport jacket pocket and handed me a card. The card displayed a photo of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of blessed memory. Below the photo was printed the address: 770 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, NY. On the back of the card was the traditional Jewish prayer for travelers, in English.
I took the card, unsure of what to do with it, and placed it in my wallet. I bid the men farewell and I went on my way.
It was not until about three years later that I would come in contact with the mitzvah of tefillin again. For a long time I didn’t quite understand what had happened to me that afternoon in Venice. Nevertheless, I saved the card and whipped it out as a conversation piece when telling interested parties about my ‘random’ Jewish experience. Sometime later I began to recite the first line of the Shema prayer before going to sleep for reasons that I cannot really explain to this day.
I later discovered that my experience of being asked to wrap tefillin by a couple of strangers was not so unique. The Chassidic group, Chabad-Lubavitch, is known for stopping Jews in public and asking them if they would like to participate in certain mitzvot (commandments) such as laying tefillin, giving charity, and lighting Shabbat candles. This practice of asking Jews to put on tefillin or perform other Jewish rituals was strongly encouraged by the movement’s leader of over 40 years, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, also known as the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
During my college years I began to grow increasingly interested in my Jewish heritage and I attended classes and Shabbat dinners sponsored by various Jewish organizations. Initially, I did not think there was any connection between my newfound love for Judaism and my experience in Venice several years prior. However, Chassidic thought teaches that everything that happens to us in our daily lives is connected and happens for a good reason. Nothing is ‘random’. Today, I am an observant Jew. During my journey of becoming observant, I kept the card with the picture of the Rebbe in my wallet.
On occasion I will now ask a fellow Jew if he would like to put on tefillin. I never pressure, but if the other person is willing, I help him fulfill this important mitzvah. The Lubavitcher Rebbe asked his chassidim to engage in this method of Jewish outreach partly on the basis of the Talmudic principle that doing one mitzvah brings about the observance of another mitzvah. Sometimes we never know how one small act will impact another person or the world around us. Therefore, we should never think we are powerless to affect positive change. I wonder if those two rabbinical students in Venice know whatever became of that kid from New York.