Excuse me. Are you Jewish?

Alan's last visit to Israel.

“Excuse me. Are you Jewish?”.

With these five words, I was baptized into the world of Jewish Outreach.

Back in 1967, only two days before the outbreak of the Six-Day War in Israel, the Lubavitcher Rebbe of Blessed memory, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, announced from his headquarters  “770”, located on Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, New York, the international Tefillin campaign.

In the Book of Deuteronomy we learn: And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for ornaments between your eyes. This verse is stated in the context of one’s obligation of education, of teaching and passing on to the next generation the Teachings of God, the Teachings of the Torah.

The importance of these verses cannot be overstated. They are part of the daily liturgy that Jews have been reciting for millennia. They are to be found written inside of the Mezuzah scroll found on the doorposts of Jewish homes. And they are also to be found written on parchment inside of the hollow leather boxes we call “Tefillin” (Phylacteries).

The practice of putting on Tefillin also goes back for millennia. Rolled up texts were found inside fragments of ancient Tefillin cases among the Dead Sea scrolls discovered at Qumran.

The importance of putting on Tefillin is expressed in many ways. They are treated with reverence similar to the reverence we treat a Torah scroll. They are put on every single day (except on the Shabbat and Jewish Holidays), usually as part of the daily morning prayer service.

And they are typically put on for the first time with much fanfare at one’s Bar Mitzvah.

Unfortunately today, for all too many Jews, the Bar Mitzvah can sometimes be the one and only time (if ever) that the  Tefillin is used. The goal of the Tefillin campaign was to influence Jews to put on Tefillin, many for the first time ever.

I was still quite young back in the ’60s, but I still remember it as a time of great upheaval. The Vietnam War. The assassination of President Kennedy. The protests. The Civil Rights movement. The Cold War. The Sexual Revolution. The Beatles. The JDL. The Hippies.

Jewish identity was on the decline. And then came the Six-Day war in June of 1967.

At first, all looked bleak. Things were not looking up for the State of Israel. Israel back then was less than twenty years old. Just over 2 million Jews were living in Israel at the time, many of them survivors of the Holocaust. The neighboring Arab countries joined together and vowed to push the Jews into the Sea. War was on the horizon and Israel was practically on its own. Thousands upon thousands of deaths were anticipated. People were scared. Scared to death. The running joke back then was that the last Jew to pass through the airport should shut off the lights.

Jews worldwide came together in support of Israel. It was a time of great Jewish unity.

And then the miraculous occurred.

In only six days, not only was Israel able to repel their enemies, they were able to triple the size of their territory. And most importantly, the entire city of Jerusalem was in Jewish hands. The Western Wall, the Kotel, a place venerated for generations, a last remnant from the time of the Jewish Temple,  was again a place that Jews could come to pray just as they had until 1948 when came under the control of Jordan.

There was a surge of Jewish pride throughout the world. No longer perceived as the eternal victim, Israel had accomplished something that no one could have predicted. Jews under the strict rule of Communism in the Soviet Union suddenly had the urge to express their Jewish pride. There was even a surge of Aliyah to Israel from the United States.

All this was happening at the very time that the International Tefillin campaign was taking off. I clearly remember from back in the ’60s the signs hanging on the Tefillin booth in Flamingo Park in Miami Beach advertising LSD (Let’s Start Davening) and POT (Put on Tefillin). This was taking place on college campuses, all throughout the United States and all throughout the world. Tefillin were even being smuggled into the Soviet Union. And for many, a visit to the Western wall became synonymous with putting on of Tefillin.

To this day, Chabad maintains a Tefillin booth at the Western Wall where countless Jews of all stripes, when they come to put their note in the Wall will often also put on Tefillin, sometimes for the first time in a very, very long time, and sometimes for the very first time ever.

The Tefillin campaign struck a Jewish nerve in many. It became synonymous with Jewish pride, expressing one’s Jewish identity.

As a teenager in the ’70s, having the opportunity to join a Mitzvah Tank was a great honor. The Mitzvah Tanks were often glorified small motor homes. They’d be decorated with signs and sent off daily on their mission of drawing out Jewish identity to the Jewish masses. The Mitzva Tanks could be found all throughout the world.

A balance needed to be found between the obligations of daily study in school (Yeshiva) and outreach. Getting permission to join a Mitzvah Tank, even just for one day, was not easy.

Looking back to those days brings a smile to my face. I was a serious student at the time, taking my obligations quite seriously. Here I was, finally, joining the ranks of the privileged few, heading off on our Tank mission to some busy corner in Manhattan, as part of the general campaign for Jewish identity.

By then, the campaigns had grown to also include the most important observance of lighting the Sabbath candle Friday night.

Here I was, young and naive, standing on some random NYC corner, in the middle of the busy workday asking complete strangers as they rushed on by; Excuse me. Are you Jewish?

The responses of course varied. Many people would simply ignore you. This was New York after all. Some people were angered by the question. Some people answered yes or no and then continued on their way. A favorite response was “Do I look Jewish?”.

The goal was to get the person you asked to agree to enter the Mitzvah Tank for a few moments to put on Tefillin and recite a short prayer. Once in a while, someone would simply agree and would enter the Tank to put on Tefillin. We proudly kept track of our successes.

Every so often a lengthy discussion could develop, sometimes even antagonistic in nature but eventually, sometimes, leading to the putting on of Tefillin. And sometimes not.

Either way, those discussions were my baptism through fire into the world of Jewish outreach. Those conversations to a great extent were responsible for my own personal growth and development, having an important influence on my own beliefs as I developed into the man I was to become.

The Tefillin campaign has remained strong for over 50 years. Even as I studied for my Rabbinical ordination I continued to participate in the campaign, having a specific route of people I would visit together with my friend every single Friday. (I recently had the opportunity to again practice “Mivtza Tefillin” while on a flight to Amsterdam on our way to the US for our son’s wedding. It never gets old.)

Then I got married and eventually moved to Teaneck, New Jersey.

Instead of hitting the pavement as I had in the past, now I sat in my office supervising our Mitzva Tank and Tefillin campaign.

Until one day in the 1980s, I decided to leave the comfort of my office and resume the Tefillin route method I had given up from my younger days.

That was how I met Alan Cornell.

Alan had a couple of years on me. Over time we became close friends. I was invited to  Bat Mitzvahs and weddings.  He owned an art and craft supply company, Loew-Cornell, that had already been around since 1963. Conveniently his office/warehouse back in the ’80s was located just alongside the railroad tracks in Teaneck, a few short blocks away from my office.

As busy as Alan might have been, he always had time for me and our weekly Tefillin visits. It was always a joy to be in his presence, a really down to earth kind of guy, someone you could share a good cigar with. He’d invite his Jewish staff into his private office to join in, even inviting a friend of his, Al Schmier, who would drive over from his company office located in nearby Hackensack for the weekly event. Al would be the person responsible, over 30 years ago, for my first ever trip to Israel. I didn’t realize it at the time, but one of the women working in the office, Cindy, would decades later become my son’s mother in law! I sometimes brought along my own young children as well. Years later when Alan’s son Michael joined the business the tradition continued with him as well. But with Alan, it was something really special. Such great memories.

Alan was a special person, on many different levels. He belonged to a unique generation. His family survived the Holocaust, saved by Righteous Gentiles during that dark period of the not too distant past, an event that had a great impact on his life. He was forever grateful. I found him to be a sweet man, a devoted husband to his beautiful wife Jane and a loving father. Later in life, he would become the loving grandfather as well.

I loved that sometimes deep, guffawing laugh of his. I still hear it in my head. And he could get emotional. I simply loved the guy like many others. Just a good all-around guy.

In my eyes, Alan represented the great Jewish American success story. Financially successful, a great philanthropist who successfully integrated into the American Jewish community. He was the one responsible for seeing to it that his hometown of Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey would publicly display a Chanukah Menorah each and every year. His involvement stretched from the local to the international, from AIPAC and his devotion to Israel to Hadassah.

Alan’s Jewish pride, his Jewish identity was so strong that we lovingly nicknamed him “Rabbi”. Together we traveled to receive a blessing from the late Lubavitcher Rebbe. Mezuzahs went up in his home. I have especially warm memories of hosting both Alan and his wife Jane for a meal in our simple Sukkah in Teaneck.

As time moved on, so did Alan and me. I would follow the route of many other Jews and make Aliyah to Israel and Alan, later on, would also follow the route of many Jews, moving to Boca Raton, Florida. We still remained close.

Alan, a great supporter of Hadassah, was instrumental in arranging my son’s participation in the Young Judea program in Israel. I had the great honor of touring the new wing of Hadassah with Alan and his family on one of their visits to Israel.

Two things stick out in my mind about that first time Alan together with Jane visited us in our home in Israel. First was his thoughtfulness, such a strong trait of his, presenting us with a house gift; a magnificent hand made glass Chanukah Menorah acquired from a local artist in our community of Mitzpeh Yericho from a family who would, later on, become the in-laws of another son of mine. We lovingly use that “Chanukiyah” till today.

The second thing was the first words out of his mouth upon entering our home and seeing for the first time the magnificent vista we enjoy from our home; “Now I understand”.

I believe that when he said those words that he was personally coming to terms with helping to understand our decision to leave behind the comforts, and success of New Jersey, to give it all up for Israel, for Aliyah.

Not that long ago I met up with Alan’s children and grandchildren who were visiting Israel. Alan’s kids, Michael and Lauren, together with their own families, have grown, in so many ways, all of them good. As they say, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Such a beautiful family.

Sadly, although Alan was planning on joining them, in the end, his health prevented him from making the trip. The last time he visited Israel we again put on Tefillin together. Ever the proud Jew, there was a reason we lovingly called him “Rabbi”.

We spoke on the phone on Passover eve, on the Yahrtzeit of his mother ob”m, as we have for years. Alan spoke to me over the phone from his hospital bed. He was already deathly ill. Thank God during Passover he was able to make it back home one last time, enjoying a last chance to be together with his family before he passed away.

He was buried yesterday, and tonight we commemorate Holocaust Day.

I have lost a dear, dear friend. The Jewish nation has lost a great man, a man from another time.

The title Rabbi belongs on his gravestone. He’d get a great last laugh out of that.

About the Author
Rabbi Mordechai Weiss was born in Miami Beach, Florida, and served as an emissary for Chabad in Teaneck, New Jersey for 21 years. Together with his family, he made Aliyah in July 2003 and is the author of "You Come For One Reason But Stay For Another." He is a licensed Tour Guide, a father of 12 children, and a grandfather of many. He resides together with his wife Ellie and family in Mitzpeh Yericho, Israel.
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