Barry Newman

Tefillin and Minors

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Recent reports of strenuous opposition by local residents against Chabad-manned tefillin stands in predominantly secular communities are becoming noticeable throughout both English and Hebrew language media. On the one hand, this is hardly worth noting. Objections raised in opposition to Chabad activities are by no means new; every so often stories of how Chabad “missionaries” are disrupting the day-to-day lifestyles and family harmony in locales such as Givatayim, Ramat Hachayal, and north Tel Aviv. What’s going on now, though, is more than what is cynically referred to as anti-dati petitions. The recent protests have in fact added a new perspective to the ongoing debate. Many parents are demanding that action be taken against the Chabad emissaries who offer their teenage sons the opportunity to put on tefillin. Minors, they argue, have not yet had the experiences or developed the maturity to decide if they want to embrace the religiosity that is associated with tefillin. Strangers – even those with black hats, coats and beards – have no right to share religious messages and introduce the use of tefillin to youngsters without parental consent.

Objectively speaking, they have a point.

The promulgation of religious literature and paraphernalia in Israel is both sensitive and tricky. Current legislation specifically protects minors from being targeted for proselytization and conversion into other religions. Representatives of Jehovah’s Witnesses or Jews for Jesus, for example, are forbidden from distributing religious material in such places as schoolyards or shopping malls where teens frequently congregate. It sounds nothing less than ludicrous to suggest that attempts to influence Jewish youngsters into considering conversion to Christianity is in any way comparable to promising spiritual benefits from putting on tefillin, but the lens and prisms through which the world is perceived is a funny thing. Families with secular lifestyles may very well regard a Chabad presence as an uninvited intrusion, particularly if there is a possibility that unwanted influence over their children is a real possibility. Their concerns regarding the uninvited experience with tefillin cannot be regarded as inconsequential nonsense.

I generally smile to myself when I see a Chabadnic convincing a tattoo-laden truck driver or rifle- bearing soldier to take a several minutes from his hectic schedule to don a pair of tefillin and recite a few prayers. Those seemingly insignificant five minutes not infrequently results in a “click” and the idea of embracing a more religious lifestyle – observance of Shabbat, kashruth, prayers recited three times a day – may no longer seem so farfetched. But while adults have the emotional maturity to sort out such feelings and decide what to accept and what to reject, minors can be overly susceptible to something new and novel. As a Jew for whom tefillin has been part of my life for nearly sixty decades, I enthusiastically applaud the efforts of Chabad at bringing unaffiliated Jews closer to the rituals and traditions of Judaism, but can understand why caution must be exercised when minors are involved.

Stories of how families have been forced to endure periods of stress and anxiety as a result of changes to internal religious observance are not uncommon. Mitzvot abiding families find it confusing and more than a little challenging when a child decides to go off the derech (path) and adopts a secular lifestyle. Similarly, non-religious parents frequently find themselves unnerved by children who have become ba’alei tshuvot (repentant) and have to one way or another reconcile conflicting approaches to kashruth, Shabbat and holiday preparations. Acceptance and a readiness to find agreeable solutions to these conflicts are, fortunately, the rule rather than the exception, although estrangement among family members have been known to happen.

Chabad is not blind to the repercussions of their proactive approach to the unaffiliated. Emissaries fully understand the potential outcome of convincing someone to embrace a Torah-centric lifestyle. Marriages have often ended in divorce when a spouse refuses to accept a different level of observance, it may be difficult if not impossible for friendships to continue when perspectives and attitudes suddenly change, and interactions among colleagues can be tested when a kippa or wig becomes part of the corporate tapestry. It’s hard enough for mature adults to deal with these issues and find closure of one sort or another. Teenagers are not yet ready to be burdened with having to make such complex decisions. And this is precisely what many parents fear will take place when their sons are convinced to place tefillin on their arms and heads.

Chabad, of course, sees nothing wrong with what they’re doing. On the contrary, introducing teenagers to tefillin and Jewish practices has a greater potential than when dealing with adults who are already accustomed to a specific lifestyle or have family members to consider.  In Israel, moreover, moving from a secular education to a religious one entails few complications, since youngsters already are fluent in the language of the source material and have been exposed to biblical literature which is included in most secular curriculums. For teenage boys, tefillin represents that initial crucial step. And yet it is highly irresponsible – if not something more serious – to entice some kid off a skateboard or electric bike with a description of the wonders and miracles that tefillin represents.

The concerns being expressed by those objecting to how the tefillin-stands are operated are by no means unfounded. Parents and to some extent teachers are ultimately responsible for the upbringing of their children and should not have to be concerned over unwanted or unrequested involvement from sources outside of the home or school. Chabad, for better or worse, is no exception.

I’ve no doubt that Chabad will willingly respect this position and agree to refrain from offering a five-minute tefillin retreat to any young man not yet old enough to vote and who is not in the company of a parent. I urge those who manage affairs from the Chabad headquarters at Kfar Chabad to ensure that emissaries throughout Israel – and elsewhere for that matter – be made aware of this situation and abide by an acceptance of this important protocol. And while I’m in no way conjuring up the adage of flies, honey and vinegar, a cooperative attitude may just result in drawing more and more suitable patrons to their tefillin stands, which have been a welcome sight, internationally, for a half a century.

About the Author
Born and raised on New York’s Lower East Side, Barry's family made aliya in 1985. He worked as a Technical Writer for most of his professional life (with a brief respite for a venture in catering) and currently provides ad hoc assistance to amutot in the preparation of requests for grants. And not inconsequently, he is a survivor of stage 4 bladder cancer, and though he doesn't wake up each day smelling the roses, he has an appreciation of what it means to be alive.
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