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Sunday, January 11, 2009

A Prayer Ritual Shared in Religion and Football

By COREY KILGANNON

The Martin Greenfield clothing factory on Varet Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is known for turning out sleek suits for presidents, mayors and star athletes.

But in addition to being a clothier for the power elite — customers over the years have had names like Eisenhower, Clinton and Bloomberg — the factory may well be aiding the success of the New York Giants, who face the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday in a National Football League playoff game. At least the factory owners think so.

Jay and Todd Greenfield, the brothers who run the company founded by their father, Martin, made a deal last season with a rabbi in the Chabad Lubavitch movement, and the Giants have been successful ever since.

The rabbi, Israel Shemtov, who runs a rabbinical clothing store on Kingston Street in Crown Heights, visited the factory regularly to buy items for his business. Rabbi Shemtov had been trying to get Jay Greenfield, 50, to become more spiritual.

Mr. Greenfield had been resistant because, while he is Jewish, he does not consider himself observant. He says his real spiritual pursuit is the Giants. He has rooted for the team since age 6, and his family has had season tickets to home games for decades. He attends the games with his son, David, 15 — whose bar mitzvah, of course, had a Giants theme — and a group of friends from his hometown, Roslyn, on Long Island. They do the ritual tailgating at the Meadowlands at every home game, and often travel to see the team’s away games, too.

In the fall of 2007, the Giants’ record was dismal and Mr. Greenfield was a desperate man. His team had gone 1-3 in the preseason. The Giants then lost their first two regular-season games and confidence sagged in their quarterback, Eli Manning.

It was around this time that the rabbi, who acknowledges not watching television, let alone Giants games, visited. With Yom Kippur approaching, Rabbi Shemtov was trying to encourage Mr. Greenfield to do the tefillin prayer — which includes strapping a pair of black leather boxes containing biblical verses around the head and on the arm, hand and fingers and reciting a prayer declaring loyalty to God and a request for blessing. The rabbi told Mr. Greenfield that the ritual would help make it a good new year.

“I told him, ‘You’re talking about a good new year, but if we lose against the Redskins this Sunday, my year is over,’ ” Mr. Greenfield said in his factory on Thursday, recalling the moment.

It was then that Mr. Greenfield, who follows strict game-day rituals including wearing the same jeans, undershirt and jersey, got an idea. None of his rituals seemed to be working, and here was this persistent rabbi telling him that simply saying the tefillin prayer might be just the thing needed to help Mr. Greenfield get what he wanted for his team.

“I was at a weak moment, so I considered it,” Mr. Greenfield said.

“I told the rabbi, ‘I’m not asking for them to win every week — I’m not greedy — I just want them to make the playoffs.’ He said, ‘What’s the playoffs?’ I said, ‘You don’t need to know that now.’ ”

Rabbi Shemtov said in an interview on Friday, “I told him, ‘We know prayer goes a long way, and I can see that this Giants thing means a lot, so let’s go for the prayer.’ ”

Mr. Greenfield did, and he saw immediate results. The Giants beat the Redskins the following Sunday. Soon, Mr. Greenfield began praying three times a week with the rabbi, who in turn began keeping the fan group in his thoughts while praying at the gravesite in Cambria Heights, Queens, of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the rebbe of the Chabad Lubavitch movement.

The Giants kept winning in 2007 and Mr. Greenfield kept praying. Soon, his brother, Todd, was also praying. So were many of their friends and relatives who attended the home games — and many games on the road. The tefillin prayers became rituals at the tailgating gatherings before games at the Meadowlands, and when some of the fans traveled to games on the road, the rabbi would contact Chabad rabbis in those cities to help Mr. Greenfield’s group with pregame prayers. One day, Rabbi Shemtov showed up with blue-and-orange yarmulkes bearing the Giants logo, and other ones bearing his name for the group, the New York Giants Tefillin Club.

The Giants went on to qualify for the playoffs and began their playoff run. Mr. Greenfield said he saw divine intervention during the playoffs in a dropped pass by a receiver for the Dallas Cowboys, which changed the tide of the game and allowed the Giants to go on to victory.

“When that happened, about 50 people jumped up and said, ‘Thank you, Rabbi,’ ” he said. “At that point, we really thought God was on our side.”

The Giants went on to win the Super Bowl, but even that did not get Mr. Greenfield to start attending synagogue or reading the Torah regularly — although he did agree to pray with the rabbi in the off-season.

The pregame tefillin prayers have gained momentum, and this season, Mr. Greenfield secured a parking pass for Rabbi Shemtov. Putting on tefillin in the Meadowlands parking lot drew stares and comments, but as the Giants continued to win, other fans — even some non-Jewish rooters — began doing it too.

“He thought he was converting me,” Mr. Greenfield said of the rabbi, “but I got a sector of his community interested in the Giants.

The rabbi said that he would probably never wind up watching a Giants game — although he plans on being in the parking lot Sunday morning at the Meadowlands — but “this means a lot to Jay, and each one should pray according to what he needs.”

“I may hear the score, but I still really couldn’t tell you if the Jets were playing the Mets — I don’t know the difference. But if it makes him happy, only good things will come out of it.”

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