By: Mimi Notik
It all started 40 years ago.
One Monday morning, Yosef Samuels woke abruptly to his father’s announcement that war had broken out in Israel. The year was 1967, and Samuels was a young yeshiva student. He hurriedly made his way to 770 Eastern Parkway, the Brooklyn address of the Lubavitch World Headquarters, to join others in seeking guidance from the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
But when he got to the doors, he was halted by Rabbi Dovid Raskin, head of the Lubavitch Youth Organization. Addressing the student’s jumpiness, Rabbi Raskin simply told him, "You have to go put tefillin on people."
Indeed, in his public remarks on the previous Shabbat, the Rebbe addressed the mitzvah of tefillin with a unique vigor. Quoting various Talmudic passages, he spoke about tefillin ensuring the safety of our brothers and sisters in Israel. That Shabbat, the Rebbe gave specific instructions to go out and find other Jewish men to perform the important mitzvah. But his orders took some digesting.
"Nobody knew what the Rebbe wanted," said Samuels, "Who knew how to approach a stranger and tell him to roll up his sleeve? You can’t just do something like that!"
Samuels knew what he had to do. A bank stood across from 770; without delay, Samuels marched right in. With bravery he didn’t know he had, him, the yeshiva student went straight to the president of the bank. "You know there’s a war?" he asked him. The bank president nodded yes and, in an unimaginably ideal response, asked, "What can I do?"
Now, many years later, Samuels tells the rest of the story with wonderment in his voice: "Here was a banker looking at a penniless yeshiva boy. But when I told him about tefillin, he got up and took me upstairs to his private office." It was there in that office that Samuels put tefillin on someone for the very first time.
It was a moment that shaped the rest of his life.
Since that day in the small office atop a Brooklyn bank, Samuels has virtually never put his tefillin bag down, committed to a lifestyle that has by now touched close to a hundred thousand lives.
"Whatever I do is connected to tefillin," said Samuels. "It is the air I breathe."
Wherever he is, there are his tefillin: at community events, hospitals, shopping centers, on planes and anywhere else imaginable. When guests are expected for Shabbat, he phones them to ensure they come before sundown, lest they miss the opportunity to put on tefillin.
When he gives a class, his students often leave with more than new information – they take away a lasting inspiration from a mitzvah that, as he clearly sees it, effectuates a strong connection that rejuvenates their inherent bond with Torah and mitzvot.
"The Six Day War was a very powerful time," he said. "There was a massive spiritual awakening among the people."
He recalled visiting universities on Fridays. With a small group of friends, he would stand for hours putting tefillin on students. One time, at Queens College, they had a line that snaked down countless steps and into the cafeteria. Once, the swarms of people wanting to put on tefillin kept Samuels and his fellow yeshiva students there until they had to rush back home for Shabbat. They were still driving when sundown, and the onset of Shabbat, was moments away. They had no choice but to park, lock everything into the car and continue home by foot.
"Someone who puts on tefillin with others has the opportunity to really see the greatness of people, of their souls," he explained. "This affects the way he interacts with people, friends and family, bringing a renewed respect for everyone. When one rolls up his sleeves, you’re watching the greatness of a Jew."
"People often become serious and very emotional," he added. "No one wraps tefillin without some deep emotion. Nobody walks away from it apathetic."
Plenty of Jews have found their Jewish connection to Judaism through Samuels’s tefillin. One such person, Scott Heifetz, became close to the rabbi while mourning the loss of his father, a college professor who learned with Samuels. After the funeral, the son discovered his father’s tefillin bag and asked Samuels what he should do with them.
The rabbi’s natural response changed Scott’s life: "Well, you have to put them on." Today, Heifetz lives a religious life and testified that "putting on tefillin is certainly a catalyst for doing other mitzvot."
Samuels says he is still looking to inspire others. "There is so much to accomplish, we need more to join."