It all started forty years ago.

Monday morning, Yosef Samuels was woken up abruptly by his father’s announcement that war had broken out in Israel. The year was 1967, and Samuels was a young yeshiva student. With concern in his steps, he hurriedly made his way to 770 (Lubavitch World Headquarters) to – along with everyone else – seek the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s guidance. 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 address on the previous Shabbat the Rebbe had been speaking about the mitzvah of tefillin with a unique vigor. Quoting various Talmudic passages to describe them as “armory” the Rebbe spoke about tefillin ensuring the safety of our brothers and sisters in Israel. The Shabbat prior to the war's advent, the Rebbe had spoken with specific instructions to go out and find other Jewish men to perform the mitzvah of tefillin. But the Rebbe’s orders took some digesting. “Nobody knew what the Rebbe wanted,” says Rabbi Samuels, “Who knew how to approach a stranger and tell him to roll up his sleeve? You can’t just do something like that!”

And in fact, many in the United States didn’t. Until news of the war gave the Rebbe’s words an even greater jolt of urgency.

Samuels processed Rabbi Raskin’s order-like message and heard the Rebbe’s voice in his head. He knew what he was supposed to do. Kitty-corner from 770 there was a bank. Without delay, Yosef Samuels marched right in. With bravery unknown to him, the yeshiva student went straight to Mr. Rose, the president of the bank. “You know there’s a war?” he asked him. Mr. Rose nodded yes and, in an unimaginably ideal response, asked, “What can I do?”

Now, many years later, Rabbi 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.” And it was there in Mr. Rose’s private office that Yosef Samuels put tefillin on someone for the very first time.

It was a moment that shaped the rest of his life.

Today, Rabbi Samuels is a Lubavitch emissary in Milwaukee and a father to seven children. For him, looking back to the 1967 war means reflecting on the day that launched his forty years of vigorous devotion to the tefillin campaign. Since that day in the small office atop a Brooklyn bank, Rabbi Samuels has virtually never put his tefillin bag down, committed to a lifestyle that has by now touched close to a hundred thousand lives.

Assigned the task of interviewing the Milwaukee tefillin guru, I was excited to plug his number into my phone. To properly reference the new contact, I entered him under the name, “Rabbi Tefillin Samuels.” But after a few short minutes on the phone, it became clear that for Rabbi Samuels tefillin is more than his middle name.

Rabbi Samuels told me, “Whatever I do is connected to tefillin. It is the air I breathe.” His tefillin are not another thing he carries, but practically another limb. When I ask if he has a specific tefillin route or schedule, the question is met with a gentle laugh. Rabbi Samuels has no thought-out strategy, let alone special routes. Wherever he is, there are his tefillin. Together, the magical duo connects Jewish souls everywhere – 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 oftentimes leave with more than new information, but with lasting inspiration from a mitzvah that, as Rabbi Samuels clearly sees it, effectuates a strong connection that rejuvenates their inherent bond with Torah and mitzvot.

Rabbi Samuels in the midst of wrapping up one of his "customers"
Rabbi Samuels in the midst of wrapping up one of his "customers"
When people praise him that he’s unique, the tefillin activist demurs. “I’m sure it’s true of everyone,” he says, referring to his passion for the tefillin campaign. “Anyone who was in 770 in those days is this way now, too.”

Samuels has many stories about the days during the War which he calls “very life forming.” I am quiet as he recollects stories with a voice that, after so many years, is still filled with marvel. “The Six Day War was a very powerful time,” he says. “There was a massive spiritual awakening among the people.”

He recalls 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 the boys there until they had to leave for Shabbat. The boys had to rush back and 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.

He remembers meeting a farmer in the Catskills who wanted a pair of tefillin. At the time, tefillin cost eighteen dollars. Samuels happily called around to order a pair for the farmer, but couldn’t find any because thousands of people had been buying them up! The Rebbe’s campaign had created unprecedented demand.

Samuels proudly relates how he got to go on the very first "Mitzvah Tank." They would park on 47th and 5th Avenues and call in passersby to wrap tefillin and recite the blessing. What they called “the tank” was a plain Hertz truck with no air conditioning. And yet, even in New York City’s stifling heat and humidity, crowds would wait outside, and then pack inside the tank to fulfill the mitzvah of tefillin.

Without a doubt, Samuels' experiences during the War are engraved in his heart forever, serving as his ultimate daily inspiration. To this day, tefillin’s consistent and passionate stay in Rabbi Samuels' life makes him one of the greatest witnesses to the strength and liveliness of the Jewish people. He sees firsthand the reality that every Jew wants to be connected. “That’s what you’re witnessing when someone puts on tefillin,” he says. “He’s connecting. And deep down, that’s all he ever wanted to do.”

Forty years have not dulled Yosef Samuels from feeling privileged to be so involved in the mitzvah of tefillin. Inspired by his spirited outlook, I am eager to know what makes his passion so unyielding. His answer? "The Jewish people."

“Someone who puts on tefillin with others has the opportunity to really see the greatness of people; of their souls. This affects the way he interacts with people, friends and family, bringing a renewed respect for everyone. Perhaps one of the reasons why the Rebbe launched the tefillin campaign is to enable us to see how great a Jew really is. Most people have never learned about tefillin. But they still do the mitzvah with so much happiness. When he rolls up his sleeves, you’re watching the greatness of a Jew!”

This insight gives Rabbi Samuels relentless energy. When he flies to Israel, he barely sleeps on the plane. As soon as the seatbelt sign is off, so is he – with his tefillin in hand. Sometimes, passengers just assume that it’s a service provided by El Al! Perhaps the most unexpected part of his in-flight action is the involvement of the flight attendants. “Hey, over here!" they call out. "You missed a guy!”

Rabbi Samuels offers an important pointer for those who want to put on tefillin with others: “To make it easy for the person, you have to be really quick,” he says in a tone rich with experience. Noting an exception to the rule, he recalls a few incidents when people asked him to slow down. When the rabbi said "let’s do it" and hurriedly started to wrap the straps around the man’s arm, one young man put his hand up and said, “No, no, no! I don’t want to rush this experience.”

Even with his lightening speed, though, no one ever looks as if they’re foregoing a deep and personal experience.  Samuels sees what he calls a “deep soul connection” happen with people he helps put on tefillin. “People often become serious and very emotional,” He says. In fact, Samuels insists that “no one wraps tefillin without some deep emotion. Nobody walks away from it apathetic.”

Refusals are rare. Samuels credits having “just a small amount of the Rebbe’s boundless love for every Jew” as the reason for his ability to get through to the harshest skeptic. Furthermore, in his experience, it touches people just to be asked. “When you approach a Jew to put on tefillin, you’re essentially telling him, ‘you’re Jewish, you have a soul.’ That alone is a very personal statement. It’s a big deal to people.”

And even when a person refuses, a seed has been planted in the person's mind. Rabbi Samuels recalls an incident which occurred when he lived in Seattle. He once passed a boutique with a sign that read “Samuel Jewelers.” Thinking that he might be related to the owner, he showed up one day with his tefillin bag. The man working there said, “I just work here for a guy named Samuel.” And no, he did not want to put on tefillin. One day some time later, Rabbi Samuels gets an urgent call from this man. He was diagnosed with leukemia and wanted to put tefillin on right away. Today, they are good friends.

Plenty people involved in Milwaukee synagogue life are people whom he originally connected with through tefillin. One such person, Scott Heifetz, became close to Rabbi Samuels while mourning the loss of his father twenty years ago. Scott’s father was a college professor who learned with Rabbi Samuels. After the funeral, Scott discovered his father’s tefillin bag and asked Rabbi Samuels what he should do with them. Rabbi Samuel’s natural response changed Scott’s life: “Well, you have to put them on.” Today, Scott lives a religious life and tells me that, “Putting on tefillin is certainly a catalyst for doing other mitzvot.”

Scott’s wife, Tamar, tells of Rabbi Samuels' magnetic friendliness and energy. When I ask Tamar about her impressions of Rabbi Samuels being active in spreading the mitzvah of tefillin, she laughs and responds, “Active! I don’t think even the Rebbe ever thought anyone would be so active!” Tamar works with other nurses in a predominately female workplace. However, whenever the rabbi shows up for a visit, he brings his tefillin anyways, “so he doesn’t miss any Jew on the way.”

Bringing his tefillin with him wherever he goes comes with some risks. Rabbi Samuels remembers a few times when he misplaced his tefillin bag. On one such occasion, it disappeared for days before reappearing in his synagogue. But he’s not so lucky every time. After leaving his tefillin bag in a shopping cart in an overcrowded Wal-Mart, he never saw it again. Rabbi Samuels didn’t waste any time panicking and quickly ordered a new pair – a delicate task for a man so particular about a mitzvah that changes peoples’ lives. “I make sure I have a special pair,” he says, “Not a cheap pair. Some people are putting tefillin on for the first time ever. The tefillin must be the best and nicest I can possibly get.”

With such genuineness, it's no wonder Rabbi Samuels inspires Jews around the world.

As for me, I didn't expect to be so transformed. Our interview was now drawing to a close. I had called Rabbi Samuels to gather a picture of a unique man’s devotion to emboldening Jews everywhere through an extraordinary mitzvah, but Samuels' enthusiasm and sincerity points to anything but himself. With a lifestyle that warrants bragging, Rabbi Samuels has a humility that proves that true leadership comes from the recognition that the mission is far greater than one person. Near the end of our long conversation, my cheeks hurt from smiling, and my heart was welling with a refreshed pride in the soul of my Jewish nation. Before I hung up, Rabbi Samuels told me I can call him for anything whenever I want. I know he meant it, and thanked him excitedly. For any Jew, “Rabbi Tefillin Samuels” is a very good contact to have.