317 Henry St. New York, NY 10002 – 212.473.1000
(Inspired by Rabbi Paysach Krohn's In the Spirit of the Maggid, pps. 186-189—see quote below)
Bound for Life
In 1992, Rabbi Moshe LaBrie, a musmach of Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim in Queens, New York, founded the Young Israel of Huntington, Long Island. From his outreach work in Huntington and the surrounding areas, he developed the Mesorah Center of Long Island in 1996, which offered classes, inspiration, and direction for those who wanted to learn and become familiar with Torah Judaism. Over the years, more than a hundred people joined the ranks of Orthodoxy through the work of Rabbi LaBrie and his associates.
When the Mesorah Center started, Rabbi LaBrie asked a warm and friendly fellow musmach of Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Tuvya Harris of Kew Gardens, New York, if he would join the staff to give shiurim and assist in kiruv projects. Rabbi Harris agreed immediately.
As Rabbi Harris' shiurim became more and more popular, Mr. and Mrs. Allan Binder of Huntington became regular attendees. The shiurim covered a wide array of topics, such as kashrus, Shabbos, Torah study, mezuzah, and bris milah. One night Rabbi Harris spoke about the importance of tefillin. Mr. Binder seemed to be especially attentive that evening, so after the lecture, Rabbi Harris approached him and suggested, "How about putting on tefillin every day?"
"I don't even own a pair," said Mr. Binder. "When I was a youngster, my bar mitzvah was so secular that my father didn't even buy me a pair of tefillin for the occasion. I would like to have a pair, but what would they cost?"
Rabbi Harris told him that there were different gradations in the quality of tefillin, but a kosher pair would cost at least several hundred dollars. "I'm sorry," said Mr. Binder, "I am not that ready to make such a commitment."
Allan and his wife Monet seemed genuinely interested in growing spiritually, but money was a factor. Rabbi Harris did not push the matter, but every once in a while he would give the Binders a friendly reminder about the importance of a man donning tefillin every day.
One day, Rabbi Harris was at the Safra Hebrew Book Store on Jewel Avenue in Queens, to have his own tefillin checked by the sofer (scribe). As he stood at the counter, he overheard a woman, Mrs. Sarah Wilner (*), saying to a salesclerk, "My brother Phil is gravely ill and at death's door. I need to have his tefillin repaired so that they are perfect. Perhaps in that merit, Hashem will bring him healing and extend his life."
The sofer examined the tefillin and said, "To bring these tefillin to the standard you wish is a long and tedious job. For the amount it would cost you, it pays just to get a new pair."
At this point, Rabbi Harris spoke up and said to Mrs. Wilner, "I know a fellow who is becoming religious who needs a pair of kosher tefillin. Perhaps he would be willing to pay for the repair of these tefillin. Then he would have kosher tefillin and you could buy your brother a new pair."
"That would be wonderful," Mrs. Wilner said. "Phil could have a double merit, one for wearing his own new tefillin and a second for having another Jew wear his old tefillin."
"That's exactly what I was thinking," said Rabbi Harris.
He asked the sofer how much it would cost to make the tefillin kosher on minimum standards and was given a price. He immediately called Mr. Binder to ask if he would be willing to spend that amount to be able to wear a special pair of tefillin. Mr. Binder readily agreed.
When the tefillin were repaired, Allan began putting them on every day. This daily commitment became the catalyst for him and his wife to become attuned to their Jewish roots. Before long, they became Sabbath observers and members of the Orthodox shul.
Almost four years later, Allan's father approached him and said, "I have always felt guilty that I did not get you tefillin for your bar mitzvah. I see now how much they mea to you and how much religion now means to you and your family. I would like to buy you the best tefillin there are. Just let me know the price. I'll cover it."
Allan could not believe what he heard. He embraced his father and told him this was a dream come true. He knew his father would not become religious at his age, but the fact that he would even spend money for tefillin was a validation of the lifestyle Allan and Monet had chosen.
It took a few weeks until the tefillin arrived. One Tuesday morning, Mr. Binder put on his new tefillin for the first time. The batim (boxes) glistened and the retzuos (straps) shone. The tefillin "beitel" (pouch) even had his Hebrew initials embroidered in gold. Just like bar mitzvah boys.
Soon afterward, Rabbi Yoni Katz, a close friend and mentor of the Binders from the Mesorah Center, came to the morning minyan at the Young Israel of Huntington, where he and Allan would always daven. When he saw Mr. Binder, his face lit up as he said, "Those tefillin are magnificent. Where did you get them?"
"My father got them for me," said Allan. "After all these years he got me the tefillin that he didn't get me for my bar mitzvah."
Rabbi Katz paused and then said slowly, "How long have you had these tefillin?"
"I got them last week," Mr. Binder said.
Rabbi Katz's face turned ashen white. "Did you hear?" he said softly.
"Hear what?" asked Mr. Binder, suddenly frightened.
"Phil died," Rabbi Katz said in a hushed voice.
Now Mr. Binder's face lost its color. "When was that?" he asked, awestruck.
"Last week," Rabbi Katz said barely audibly.
The two words were like daggers. "Do you think I killed him?" asked a crushed Mr. Binder, worried that because he stopped wearing Phil's tefillin, a tragedy befell him.
"No, just the opposite," replied Rabbi Katz. "You were probably the one who kept him alive."