For the second time in three months: Several dozen secular Jews from around the country gathered in Bnei Brak to receive a blessing from an elderly sage and to put on their own tefillin for the first time.
It happened this past Tuesday. “Many of the sets of tefillin [known in English as phylacteries, costing roughly $400 each] were donated by a generous Jew in the United States,” said Rabbi Shlomo Raanan of Rehovot, “and I was privileged to distribute over 40 of them on this occasion.” Tefillin are two specially-made leather boxes containing four Torah passages in each one and placed on the head and arm for morning prayers.
Rabbi Raanan heads the Ayelet HaShachar outreach organization, which is predicated on original, hands-on, long-term ideas. Most of those who took part in the tefillin-fest on Tuesday are “products” of Ayelet HaShachar’s “phone chavruta” program. “Chavruta” means study-partner, and close to 15,000 people take part in weekly phone calls under the programs auspices to discuss Torah topics.
“How many chavrutah-pairs are signed up on the program?” I asked Rabbi Raanan, expecting a vague, rough estimate of an answer. “7,320,” he immediately and precisely popped out, “meaning that close to 15,000 people are studying Torah on the phone every week; each not-so-informed Jew is assigned one of our thousands of volunteers, and if they hit it off, they continue, week in and week out.”
Others of those who received their tefillin have been introduced to Judaism through the work of the religious families dispatched by Rabbi Raanan to live in secular kibbutzim.
“Many of them have shown great interest, over time, in putting on tefillin and becoming more observant. The 40-plus of this week first went through a few weeks of putting on tefillin each day [except for the Sabbath and holidays, when it is not permitted], and those who decided they were ready to take on the commitment for the long term took part in Tuesday’s ceremony. Some of them paid for their set themselves."
They first arrived at the home of the elderly Rabbi Michael Yehuda Lefkovitz of Bnei Brak, the Dean of the Ponovezh Yeshiva Ketanah and one of the most respected sages in the hareidi-religious world. He greeted each of them with a warm blessing.
One of the participants, a young man with very long, blonde hair, told Rabbi Lefkovitz that his grandfather lived in the hareidi-neighborhood of Meah She’arim; Rabbi Lefkovitz gave him a knowing look, and blessed him that his family should follow along with his desire to be religious. The man took this as an omen that his wife, who is not yet enthusiastic about leading a religious lifestyle, should soon “come around."
After an hour or so of personal blessings from Rabbi Lefkovitz, singing, and distribution of the tefillin, the proud Jews walked nearby to the famed Ponovezh Yeshiva. There, before the Yeshiva's world-famous, magnificent Holy Ark, they placed their own tefillin on their arms and heads for the first time.
One of the first-timers was a 70-year-old who just made Aliyah to Israel less than a month ago.
Rabbi Raanan (pictured below with blue tie) of Ayelet HaShachar has also arranged multiple First-Born Redemption (Pidyon HaBen) ceremonies in irreligious locales. Asked what other projects are upcoming for his organization, Rabbi Raanan said, “This coming Thursday we will be having dedication ceremonies for first-time synagogues in secular towns: One in Ram-On, in the Ta’anach bloc south of Afula, straddling the Green Line in the northern Shomron, and the other in Kibbutz Rosh HaNikra, which has never had a synagogue in its more than 60 years of existence.”