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I Jew, You Jew, I Tefillin, You Tefillin

I Jew, You Jew, I Tefillin, You Tefillin

How the Tefillin Campaign Radically Changed the Way We Think About Being Jewish.


You’re out on your lunch break, walking down a busy street, and some black-hatted, bearded young guy walks up to you on and says, “Hi, are you Jewish?”

Let’s say you say “Yes.”

“Hey, you’d look great in black leather! Roll up your left sleeve.”

Before you’ve had a chance to decide whether you believe in this or not, what your dear mother would have to say, and whether this is really a normal thing to do in a place like this (it’s not), you’ve got black leather straps and boxes wrapped on your arm and head, your hand is over your eyes and you’re mumbling, “Shma Yisrael…”

Or let’s say you say “No.” And you keep walking.

But you’re thinking, “Why did I say no? Am I Jewish or not Jewish?”

Either way, something has shifted inside. Your idea of what it means to be a Jew may be shifting, may be crumbling, or may even be experiencingSuddenly, you’re thinking, “What does it mean that I’m a Jew?” a nascent emergence. After all, when was the last time you ever thought about your Jewishness?

And now all of a sudden you’re thinking, “What does it mean that I’m a Jew?”

We’ve had fifty years of such scenarios since the Tefillin campaign was launched—followed by the Shabbat candle campaign, and yet more, totalling ten mitzvah campaigns. Now it’s time we can consider how these guerilla-type, street tactics have changed the way we think about what it means to be a Jew.

Paradigm Shmaradigm

Let’s consider three classic models of Jewishness and Judaism. We’ll call them Religion, Affiliation, and Observance. Here’s how their dynamic works:

Religion, says the general consensus, is about what you believe.

Affiliation is about where you pay dues.

Observance is about how much you do and don’t do.

If there’s a tefillin campaign, being Jewish can’t be about religion. If there’s a tefillin campaign, being Jewish isn’t about religion. It’s about you.Neither can it be about affiliation. It’s not even about observance.

Because if any Joe right off the street (and right there on the street) can be asked to wrap those leather boxes on his arm and head—whether he professes to believe in G‑d or is an avowed atheist, whether he stands for Israel or for BDS, whether he believes the narrative of the Jewish people or denies it or never even heard of it— just because he has a Jewish mother, then Judaism can’t be an ism, can’t be an ideology, can’t be a religion and certainly can’t be defined by membership dues.

So what is it about? It’s about you. You’re Jewish. So you’re in because you’re in. Done. Period. Let’s wrap.

Basically, an identity thing. Identity first, action second (like leather boxes or Shabbat candles), and all this feeding into your mindset, which triggers yet more identity and more action. Like this:

Count the Ways

Let’s count the ways this paradigm radically alters how we think of Judaism and our Jewishness. I can think of six for starters:

  1. Unity
  2. Space
  3. Value
  4. Accessibility
  5. Ubiquity
  6. Individuals

Once I’ve described all of these, let’s look at how this affects the larger society in which we live—in other words, how all of humanity looks at themselves and their time here on earth.

1. Unity: If it’s not about ideas, then we are one.

If you’re ever asked by a Chabadnik to do a mitzvah, don’t imagine you can squeeze your way out with the magic words, “I don’t believe in that.”

The Chabadnik is a step ahead of you. “Don't worry,” you will be told. “You don't have to believe to do it. You just have to be Jewish."

Take the case of the Jewish Russian immigrant, desperate to explain to an American Jew why he was lending him these strange leather straps and boxes. “I Jew. You Jew,” he said, pointing his finger. “I tefillin. You tefillin.” And it was a done deal.

Now that changes everything. People kill over beliefs.Forget beliefs. People kill over beliefs. Just do the mitzvah. For 150 years, Europe was ravaged with wars over beliefs—sometimes just over some nuance in a Calvinist creed. Here, we’re skipping all the clauses, even the biggest ones, and getting straight to the point: Do the mitzvah. Beliefs are almost irrelevant. All that’s relevant is that you’re Jewish, and this is what Jews do.

This I-Jew-You-Jew paradigm shifts everything. Anything else we place at the center is going to be divisive—beliefs, ideology, affiliation, practice. But when we start with identity, we level the playing field. We are all Jews, and no Jew is more Jewish than any other Jew. Now we are all one.

2. Space: If it’s about you, there’s lots of room for you.

Ideas are a great way of exploring our world, but they're not the stuff it’s made of. The human world is made mostly of humans. Ideas—especially rigorously idealist ideas—don't leave a lot of room for humans.

That's why, whenever we start with ideology, our tolerance is limited.When people are measured by ideas, they usually don’t fit. We end up measuring each person with the calipers of our ideas—and, most often, they don’t fit.

With the exception of one idea: that each person is born with divine value. Now there is room for everybody. As for ideology and lifestyle, we have patience.

One of the ten mitzvah campaigns is the mitzvah to love every other Jew as you love your own self. In several talks, the Rebbe said that this campaign was the heart of all the mitzvah campaigns.

The mitzvah campaign says, “It’s great if you do a mitzvah. It’s even better if you do more mitzvahs. It’s good for you, it’s good for the Jewish people, it’s good for the whole world. So we’ll provide the opportunities. But if you choose not to do any mitzvahs, we will love you and respect you just the same. Because that’s also a mitzvah.”

3. Value: If you count, every mitzvah counts.

This is one issue many observant Jews still have trouble with. It’s hard for many to see the value of a Jew hurriedly wrapping tefillin just because someone nudged him into it. Or putting up a mezuzah in a house where the kitchen is not kosher. Or lighting Shabbat candles before going out to the movies.

Yes, they know what the Talmud says about a head that never bore tefillin. Yes, they know what the Mishnah says about one mitzvah pulling in another mitzvah. But something still bugs them.

They’re looking for context. If your Jewishness is about ideas, beliefs and affiliation, then mitzvahs need to work within the context of those ideas, beliefs and affiliations.When identity is the context, every mitzvah is valuable. A mitzvah without any such background seems like a ship out at sea with neither merchandise nor a port of landing.

But now that we’ve shifted from ideas to identity, that identity is the context. The mitzvahs are the means the Torah prescribes to bring out the inner person we value so much.

And if whatever is inside that person is invaluable, certainly any single mitzvah he or she does is also of immeasurable value.

4. Accessibility: If every mitzvah counts, entrances are everywhere.

The cost of engagement in the Jewish world has always been very high. Of course, you could always claim to be “A Jew at heart.” But to be an active participant, the dues are high and the commitments are heavy, wide and diverse.

But the mitzvah campaigns lower the bar of engagement. The mitzvah campaigns lower the bar of engagement. You haven’t paid membership fees, you’re out at a movie on Friday night, you eat pork—but, hey, you lit a Shabbat candle. Or you wrap those boxes once a day and say Shema Yisrael. Or you have kosher-certified mezuzahs on your doors.

With any single mitzvah, you’re already engaged, inducted, and an active member of the worldwide Jewish community. Now you can do more.

Take the case of the Chabad rabbi who was new to his community—and was having a hard time getting anywhere with anyone. Finally, one day a young mother said to him, “I see you really want me to do something Jewish. So I’ll do something. But, please, make it something easy. Ask too much and I’m out.”

This was pre-mitzvah campaign. The rabbi couldn’t decide what to tell the lady. Perhaps he had never thought of mitzvahs as being “easy.”

So he picked up the phone and called the Rebbe’s secretary. In a matter of minutes, the secretary called back.

“The Rebbe has a response,” he said. “He says she should set out a white tablecloth on her dining room table every Friday afternoon.”

5. Ubiquity: If it’s about you, it’s about you everywhere.

Religion, ideology, affiliation —those can all be relegated to your private life. Not so your identity. If you really are who you are, that doesn't change by where you are.

For Jews living as a minority in the big city, this was a major shift. To declare in public, by your actions, “I am a Jew and I’m doing it out loud”—today, that’s cool. At one time, it was brazen.

The mitzvah campaigns broke Jews out of their closets, bringing them to put their Jewishness on open display.

6. Individuals: Working from the ground up.

To this day, in many people’s minds, strengthening Judaism is all about building institutions. With the mitzvah campaigns, the Rebbe took an entirely different track. It’s all about individuals.

Or put it like this: We start from the grassroots and work up.

Each person is an entire world. Change one world, and many more will change along with it.

As the Rebbe would often quote from the prophet, “…and you, Children of Israel, will be gathered one by one.” (Isaiah 27:12)

What About the Rest of the World?

Of course, many reading this have been asking all along, “What about the rest of us—those that aren’t Jewish? Aren’t we also of inherent value? Doesn’t Genesis declare that every human being is created in the divine image?”

Absolutely. But we’re talking strategy here. If we’re going to talk about working with one individual at a time, where do we start? With our own tribe, the holy, ancient Jewish tribe. From there, we extend outward.

And what could benefit society more than having a healthy Jewish community alive within it? A community that values each individual, that teaches pride in our heritage, and is not ashamed to stand out as a minority in the public forum.

Today, much of the Western world is a world of minorities. What a wonderful place it would be if each minority group had the cohesiveness of the Jewish community, the pride and the value of each individual that the mitzvah campaigns teach.

When Jews are proud of their Jewishness, everyone benefits. When Jews are proud of their Jewishness, everyone benefits.When Jews deal with one another in terms of person-first-ideas-second, that rubs off on the attitude of all around them. The world needs community, identity, belonging, and a sense of love and respect that begins within and spreads out further and further, beyond all boundaries of ideology and faith. Beyond all bounds.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
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Eric Sander Kingston Los Angeles June 4, 2017

Great Article Rabbi Freeman. Get into positive action. "Drop a pebble in a pond and you get ripples. Soon the ripples cross the entire pond."

See you at "Happy Minyan" Reply

Sue Kanata June 13, 2017

Heart and Soul This was a great article, and I especially loved the last paragraph.
Thank you again. Your concepts are heartening. Reply

Anonymous Sandwich, MA June 8, 2017

Thanks! I feel more welcomed. Maybe one day I will get to wrap tefillin too. For the Jewish holy days my wife has lit candles with encouragement. She doesn't like change, and she likes the idea of tradition that comes with celebrating Jewish holy days. I post anonymously to respect my wife because she speaks for herself. Reply

Tzvi Freeman June 9, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

Hi Anonymous! If you're in Sandwich, you're just a pleasant 20 minute drive to Chabad of Cape Cod, in Hyannis. Rabbi Alperovitch is a sweet, friendly rabbi, and will be more than happy to introduce you to the joyful mitzvah of tefillin, even if just for one time.
All the info you need is a chabadCapeCode dot com. Reply

Michael A Cohen CPA CFE Livingston June 8, 2017

tefillin campaign My first experience with the tefillin campaign was when my 90+ father, Joe was in a nursing home due to Alzheimer's, in west palm beach Florida about 5 years ago. Joe, my mother Connie (I drove her to visit him every weekend), and I were sitting on an outdoor bench when a young Rabbi walked by us and said hello. He asked if we were Jewish and asked when was the last time we donned tefillin. As reformed as we were, I responded, "never" (even though Me and dad were bar mitzvah boys). Rabbi performed the mitzvah and I could see the pleasure in my father's eyes. That was a moment of my life I will always remember and will always be thankful to that young rabbi & Chabad. After Joe passed a year or so after that, I was cleaning out his things and found his old blue suede bag with Tallis inside, from his bar-mitzvah (circa 1930). I now wear that Tallis to Chabad Shabbos. 😊 thank you! Baruch HaShem. Reply

ann Houston June 8, 2017

I rarely neglect to bentsch licht on erev Shabbos or erevYomtov.

But what are the other eight mitzvah campaigns?

Can I participate in those too? Reply

Simcha F. Los Angeles June 9, 2017
in response to ann:

Click here to read about the Mitzvah campaign Reply

Bob Rosenthal Chicago, IL June 6, 2017

Wonderful article. I have been fortunate enough to put on Tefillin with a number of the great people working the Tefillin campaign. Every time, it was a great experience. Reply

Gail June 6, 2017

I start a class on the Book of Esther at a senior class, this week. It's refreshing! Reply

Yossi new york June 5, 2017

Thank you for the fantastic article.
The story about setting the shabbos table intrigued me. It is after all not classic chabad, to encourage a deed that is not a mitzvah.
Would you be able to give a source for the story, or with which shliach it happened? Reply

Mendy June 6, 2017
in response to Yossi:

It is a mitzva! I don't have an answer to your question. However, honoring the Shabbos is a mitzvah and setting the table is one of the ways of doing that (see Kitzur Shulchan Oruch 72:7). I believe that this 'deed' would 'count' as part of the Rebbe's Shabbos campaign. Reply

Tzvi Freeman Los Angeles June 6, 2017
in response to Yossi:

Mendy is correct that setting a tablecloth before Shabbat is indeed a mitzvah of honoring Shabbat. See Rambam, Shabbat 30:1.

I heard the story from Rabbi Zushe SIlberstein, a senior shliach to Montreal. He told me that the grandchildren of this woman are learning in yeshiva.

I can imagine how this young woman must have argued with the rabbi, "That's all? Are you sure I shouldn't light candles as well?"
What would he have to say to her? Reply

Hanalah Houston June 14, 2017
in response to Mendy:

I change all my linens on Friday. I do my white wash on Friday so as to have fresh clean linens (sheets, towels, tablecloth, cloth napkins) for Shabbos dinner. That's what I was always taught. Reply

YY Israel June 7, 2017
in response to Tzvi Freeman:

Hechsher Mitzvah! Look also in Kiddushin around the brginning (Im sorry but I don't remember the exact page. It's at amud aleph of the given page, at the top) where it discusses hechsher Mitzvah and the great lengths the different sages went to in order to prepare for the Shabbat, a huge mitzvah--even doing actions indirectly related to other preparations for the Shabbos!

(The Rebbe discusses this sugya in Kiddushin at great length, as well) Reply

Hanalah Houston June 4, 2017

I thought I knew all this, but I wold not have been able to think of the part where you say that being willing to stand up and claim pride in being a Jew--a member of a hated minority--is a mark of respect for all people, including of course non-Jews.

Because Jews are a "community that values each individual, that teaches pride in our heritage, and is not ashamed to stand out as a minority in the public forum."

Because this is an expression of respect for every human. Reply

Jay Eisenberg AGOURA HILLS June 4, 2017

I Jew, You Jew Great article, but I don't understand how you can tell the "I Jew, You Jew" story without giving credit to one who the story is about, who I understood to be Naftali Estulin when he first came to California. Reply

Tzvi Freeman June 4, 2017
in response to Jay Eisenberg:

Yes, I heard the story about Reb Naftali, who I love and respect very much. But then, I also heard it from reliable sources about Mendel Futerfas.
My guess is that both are true—and there are probably others as well. Which just goes to show how real it is, and how native to the chassidishe heart. Reply

Mark Sp June 4, 2017
in response to Tzvi Freeman:

Very well said. Reply