It was almost Chanukah, 5728 (1967). Jewish people worldwide were still aglow with the victory of the Six Day War six months before, when four million Jews had miraculously prevailed over more than one hundred million Arabs. At that time, the Rebbe had launched a massive tefillin campaign and Lubavitcher chassidim everywhere took to the streets to encourage as many Jews as possible to put on tefillin, many for the first time in their lives. Now it was six months later and the Rebbe called for a global intensification of the campaign in connection with the forthcoming holiday of Chanukah.

As shluchim of the Rebbe in the Twin Cities, we were thinking about what we could do to answer the Rebbe’s call. It occurred to me that if we could take advantage of the regional B'nai Brith Youth Convention in S. Paul, Minnesota–scheduled for the first three days of Chanukah–and get the boys to put on tefillin, it would be a major shot in the arm for the tefillin campaign.

What a statement that would be—close to two hundred B'nai Brith boys performing the mitzvah of tefillin! But could it be done? To be sure, the B'nai Brith youth directors would have no problem with boys putting on tefillin as an official part of the program before my keynote speech was to be delivered.

I had been asked to be one of the keynote speakers at the forthcoming convention because of my having done programs with the BBYO. The theme was “The Right to be Different,” and three personalities who personified that right—a hippie from Haight-Ashbury, a Black Panther activist, and I—were to deliver the keynote addresses on the three days of the convention.

I was scheduled to speak on Thursday, the second day of the convention. I suggested to the teenage BBYO leadership that my address be preceded by an official scheduled half-hour service, one for the boys featuring the donning of tefillin, and one for the girls featuring prayers and the Shema. I also told the boys that on Wednesday morning, the first day of the program, I would come to the high school lobby where the convention was being held and put on tefillin with as many boys as possible prior to the opening of the convention. I avoided mention of any tefillin or service for the third day. I did not want to “overdo” it. My proposal was enthusiastically accepted by the teenage leadership, and then by the regional director of the BBYO.

But by now it was the day before the convention. My euphoria over getting official approval for a tefillin donning service at the BBYO conclave was somewhat tempered when it hit me that now I would have to come up with a very large number of pairs of tefillin. More than four hundred teenagers were expected, half of them boys. Where was I going to get two hundred pairs of tefillin? I informed the Rebbe of my happy dilemma and got an immediate response that the Rebbe would pay for as many pairs of tefillin as I could come up with since this was an “exceptional mitzvah.”

Immediately, I contacted Shmuel Spritzer and Sholom Ber Kalmanson in New York. These two rabbinical students had spent the previous summer in our region as part of a program which dispatches rabbinical students all over the country during their summer vacation to visit Jews and encourage them to intensify their commitment to Torah and mitzvah observance. I asked them to obtain as many pairs of tefillin as possible and overnight them to S. Paul in time for the opening of the convention. Instead of shipping them overnight express, they bought tickets and brought the tefillin.

On Wednesday morning, when the doors opened for the convention, Rabbi Asher Zeilingold and I were present. The two of us put on tefillin with a few dozen boys before the convention was called to order.

Later in the day, Rabbi Shmuel Spritzer arrived with 139 pairs of tefillin. After speaking to me the day before, he had visited dozens of Jewish bookstores and purchased as many pairs of tefillin as were available. Even though we did not have enough for all the boys to put on tefillin at the same time, we would be able, in the half-hour officially allotted to us for services, to improvise some sort of assembly line procedure wherein all the boys would be able to perform the mitzvah. Meanwhile, Rabbi Zeilingold was busily preparing a Shema and prayer service for the girls.

Nine o'clock Thursday morning, some two hundred and fifty teenage Jewish girls were assembled in the auditorium listening to Rabbi Zeilingold speak words of Torah and reciting the Shema prayer with him. Two hundred Jewish boys were donning tefillin. First 140 received a set of tefillin and followed my step-by-step demonstration as I put tefillin on the BBYO regional director while Sholom Ber and Shmuel hustled from boy to boy very quickly, coaching each one, checking if they were following correctly. When the first group had finished, we immediately gave the tefillin to the second group and repeated the procedure. By nine-thirty that morning, two hundred Jewish young men had donned tefillin, and 450 Jewish young men and women had recited the Shema!

How good we felt as we proceeded to the auditorium where I was to address these 450 young people. The thrust of my address on “The Right to be Different” was that you have the right to be different if “by being different you are right.” Many values are relative and what is considered right or wrong in one situation or society may not be considered so in another. Only G‑d can posit what is absolutely right and what is absolutely wrong, and He does so in His Torah. By following the Torah you can be assured that you are right.

The talk went over well, thank G‑d, and as soon as I was able to, I ran to the phone to call Rabbi Hodakov, chief of the Rebbe's secretariat, to report on our tefillin campaign. I repeated what had happened Wednesday morning at the unofficial tefillin ceremony and what had taken place as part of the official program with all two hundred of the male participants putting on tefillin. Suddenly, I heard another voice on the phone, softly interjecting: “Un vos vet zein morgen?” [And what will be tomorrow?] It was the Rebbe! Apparently, the Rebbe wanted to hear this report first hand. The Rebbe had known that the conclave would run for three days and now he heard that on the first day the tefillin campaign was promoted unofficially and on the second day it was conducted officially. At this point, the Rebbe, ever-vigilant of opportunities to do more mitzvahs, knew that there was one more chance for the boys to put on tefillin. The Rebbe was asking of me what was going to happen tomorrow!

After the initial overwhelming realization that the Rebbe was awaiting a response, I collected my thoughts and I said in Yiddish, “Ich vill nisht ibertzien dem shtrikel” [I don't want to pull the string too tight]—I don't want to overdo it, to outwear my welcome. Requesting a third day might be too much, and negatively affect our relationship.

That is what I had thought—or so the tired, apprehensive part of me had thought. The Rebbe, always opposed to such negative thoughts, firmly responded, “In dem geit nit ohn ibertzien dem shtrikel,”—“overdoing it” does not apply in this instance.

The Rebbe instructed me to request of the B'nai Brith leadership that we have an official tefillin program again the next day. In addition, he told me to offer the boys the opportunity to buy the tefillin at half price. Furthermore, since it was Chanukah, the Rebbe wanted a menorah lighting ceremony at the convention.

Emboldened by the fact that this was a clear directive from the Rebbe, I rushed to tell the B'nai Brith director what the Rebbe had requested. Imagine my relief and elation when he answered, “The Rebbe's suggestion is most appropriate. It worked so well today, we should do it again tomorrow.” There was also a more than enthusiastic reaction to the Rebbe's instruction that we offer the boys the tefillin for half price—the B'nai Brith director stated that B’nai Brith would pay an additional twenty-five percent of the cost.

I arranged for the public menorah lighting that afternoon and could not wait to let the Rebbe know the good news, how the suggestion had been received, and how B'nai Brith would participate in the boys' purchase of the tefillin. Within moments, a member of the Rebbe’s secretariat called to tell me there was a written response from the Rebbe: “T'shuas chein t'shuas chein t'shuas chein al habesurah tovah” [many, many, many thanks for the good news].

And it was the tefillin program of the third day that was attended by reporters, who told the world about this experience—the day on which the program would not have taken place were it not for the personal intervention of the Rebbe. The Rebbe countered my fear to “overdo it” with his confident directive to “do it over.”

I hope you'll remember this story the next time you're in doubt about “overdoing” a mitzvah!