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Before I Said “Yes” to Tefillin

Before I Said “Yes” to Tefillin

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In 1975–76, my senior year at the University of Washington in Seattle, I lived at the Chabad House on Campus.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t observant in the least. My interview went something like this:

Rabbi Samuels: “So . . . tell me about your Jewish background.”

Me: “I won the attendance award twice for the Temple de Hirsch choir. My I wasn’t observant in the leastfather drove me there every Saturday, even when it snowed.”

Rabbi Samuels: “You’re in.”

And so I moved in. Chabad of Seattle, led by head shliach (emissary) Rabbi Sholom Ber Levitin and Rabbi Yechezkel Kornfeld, had wisely purchased a former sorority house. So there I was, right in the midst of Greek Row, with a room of my own and dinner, all for $75 per month—clearly the best deal on campus!

Or so I thought. My first Saturday there, I was suddenly awakened all too early. “Please, please, John, can you help us out—we need you for a minyan.”

“What? What are you talking about?” I exclaimed. Having been told by Rabbi Samuels that the only rule was to have my head covered while I was in the house, I was quite perturbed by this sudden inflation of expectations. They pleaded that all I had to do was to be there, to sit in shul. I told them I just wanted to read my novel. They said okay. So I sat there. They prayed. I read.

From then on, every Saturday morning, I would rise early and get out of there, determined to avoid the minyan. Have you ever strolled on a college campus on a Saturday at eight in the morning? No one is around, no one is up. But I was—because I wasn’t going to get trapped.

Rabbi Samuels never lost sight of his mission. He sold delicious tuna and egg salad sandwiches at the Student Union Building for a nickel less than what they cost in the cafeteria—anything for a Jewish student to eat kosher. He told me how special I was because my grandparents came from Yekaterinoslav, where the Rebbe was born, and that it was extremely likely that the Rebbe’s father officiated at their wedding. And then, when my stereo was stolen from my room one Friday night, Rabbi Samuels promised with absolute certainty that it would be found, because the theft happened while I was at the Chabad House Shabbat meal. Sure enough, two months later, the stereo was located. Rabbi Samuels, in his loving way, never let me forget that.

That year, the Rebbe had also sent yeshivah students to Seattle. To me, these fellows—who were about my age—looked like they were from another planet. They seemed totally out of touch with the earthiness, the humanist spirit, of the great Pacific Northwest. I simply did not relate.

However, two of the yeshivah students engaged me. One, Abba Perlmutter, talked with me relentlessly about baseball—whether it was Carlton Fisk’s dramatic home run just inside the foul pole, or Joe Morgan’s on-base percentage, Abba knew it all. And then, after our two-week nonstop baseball talk, without missing a beat, he asked if I knew anything about hockey, “because that’s the sport I really know well.” Go figure.

The other student, Mendy Gluckowski, talked politics with me, specifically about Ronald Reagan. In 1976 he predicted that Reagan really had his eye on becoming president in 1980 and ushering in a whole new wave of conservatism in America. I told Mendy he was completely crazy . . . but, it turned out, he was precisely correct.

Smart guys. Great guys. Guys who connected with me where I was at.

But not when it came to tefillin. I must have been asked 60 times during that year if I would put on tefillin, and 60 times I said no. To me, those black boxes and straps made no logical sense.

As much as I admired Rabbi Samuels, Abba and Mendy, I held my own, steadfast in my conviction that humanism and making the world a better place simply had no space for such an ancient rite. Upon their offer, I would respond with a simple “no, thank you.” I wouldn’t debate, I wouldn’t get riled up. Just a “no.” A dispassionate “no.” An unfazed “no.”

None of this, of course, affected our friendship. But the tefillin remained untouched.


Two years later, I had moved to the East Coast and was teaching history at a high school in Boston. One night I received a desperate call from my parents: “John, we’re very worried about your sister. She’s somewhere in Brooklyn, living with I received a desperate call from my parentsthat Chabad group. Please check up on her and, if you can, influence her to leave.”

And so, a respectful son, I went to Crown Heights. Lo and behold, my sister was happy and healthy as could be.

The next morning, just out of curiosity, I wandered over to Chabad’s beginner yeshivah, Hadar HaTorah, on Eastern Parkway. As I stood outside, looking through the open doorway, I saw a bearded young man at the top of a steep flight of stairs. “Good morning,” he said. “Would you like to put on tefillin?”

I was caught off guard, speechless. He looked at me; I looked at him.

Tefillin. Two black boxes with words of Torah inside. Two black leather straps. All made from a cow’s hide, transforming the physical to the spiritual.

Tefillin. Submitting head and heart—in essence, self—to a Higher Power, to G‑d.

Tefillin. A connection to 3,300 years of Jewish history.

But none of that occurred to me at that moment. All I could think of was Rabbi Samuels, Rabbi Levitin and Rabbi Kornfeld, Abba and Mendy. I thought of their sincerity, their unabashed devotion. I thought about all they had given of themselves to settle in the exile of Seattle. I thought about the purchase of a huge former sorority house on campus just so fellows like me, who seemingly didn’t care, would have a place to eat kosher and a place to be (or escape from) on Shabbat.

I was suddenly filled with a feeling of resonance, a feeling of home.

Shluchim may never know the impact they make, but, thanks to G‑d, thanks to the wisdom of the Rebbe, they always do make an impact. It’s just that sometimes it takes time to sink in.

Gently, the young man repeated, “Would you like to put on tefillin?”

I looked I guess I was readyup.

After 61 loving requests, I guess I was ready.

And I climbed those stairs.


(By the way, my parents never sent any of my other siblings to check up on me.)

Dr. John Yaakov Guterson received his medical degree from Albert Einstein College of Medicine. He now resides in Pittsburgh, Pa., with his wife, Amy, where he works as a psychiatrist. Dr. Guterson was honored to speak at this past year’s Kinus.
Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many Chabad.org pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
© Copyright, all rights reserved. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with Chabad.org's copyright policy.
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Bracha Goetz Baltimore April 6, 2016

Wonderful! Reply

Anonymous April 1, 2016

:) Very good. Thanks. Reply

Sarah NY March 31, 2016

Spectacular! Yashar Koach! Reply

Randi Freedman US March 31, 2016

tfillin Note to self?? Put on tfillin and encourage 20 something's same? I like this story. Cool! Reply

Anonymous March 29, 2016

Involution? Seems like a case on involution. Reply

Anonymous March 28, 2016

Gave me a few laughs :) Wonderfully written and entertaining. Reply

Jolie Greiff Ramat Beit Shemesh March 28, 2016

What a great story. Thanks. Reply

Anonymous Mesa,AZ March 28, 2016

Yes To Tefillin I do not believe it is the leather bag that bring the miracle, but that it is the connection to the Divine. Chabad isvdoing a great job in accomplishing this task. This connection is what will bring our people to the unity we need, and this time, I believe, there will be no interference from the world of evil to destroy what had been pre-destined for our redemption and return. Fulfilling the greatest commandment, love one another as ourselves, and to love G-d above all things, will do the trick. If continued, we shall succeed. B"H Reply

S U.K. March 28, 2016

Beautiful Beautiful, worth the wait. I am sure the recollection will bring smiles and tears for many reading this. Reply

lauren vallone March 28, 2016

Beautiful story and very well written. Reply

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