Early in 2020, on a cold January Friday morning, just two months before the beginning of COVID, I got up to get dressed and begin my day. I was looking forward to an upcoming trip to Israel to visit with friends, present my research from UCLA at Hadassah Medical Center, and take in the sights and sounds of the Holy Land. I had packed my bags with everything I would need for the 10-day trip, as I was planning to head out to the airport after Shabbat. I pulled up to the Syracuse University Chabad House driveway at 6 a.m. It was a Friday morning during winter break, so the students who normally live around the Syracuse University Chabad House were away.

Everything was quiet. I had been moving some of my things to the Chabad House as there was an open room upstairs, and the rabbi graciously allowed me to move my stuff there as I was between residences. My backpack with all my personal belongings including my tefillin, laptop computer, wallet, passport, and thumb drives were all packed and in the car. I had just parked briefly in the driveway, locked the doors and ran up to grab a few items in the room upstairs for my trip. I was gone for just five minutes. I headed back to the car and, to my horror, I saw broken glass on the passenger side front seat where my backpack had just been a few minutes before.

Smashed passenger side window and the space where my bag and tefillin had just been.
Smashed passenger side window and the space where my bag and tefillin had just been.

My stomach sank. My mind was racing with thoughts of all the ways my plans had instantaneously now just come undone and just how many things I was just now unable to do. I couldn’t travel; I couldn’t present my work (my laptop and thumb drive were gone—fortunately, though, I had backed up the laptop). I couldn’t even drive without my license.

My most immediate concern was that I couldn’t even wrap tefillin and daven that morning. Fresh footprints in the new snow went from the passenger’s side of my car to the menorah in front of the Chabad House, where the perpetrators had torn down a sign wishing everyone a “Happy Chanukah,” and then footprints went around the neighboring yards of nearby homes and disappeared. After calling the police and filing a report, I went to shul and told my sad story.

That morning, a kind friend lent me his tefillin, which we shared until I was able to get a loaned pair of left-handed tefillin from Rabbi Yaakov Rapoport, the Syracuse University shaliach.

Over the next few weeks, I got my life back together, piece by piece. I traveled to Buffalo, N.Y., to get a new passport, and I got a new driver’s license and bank card. I was even able to go to Israel the next month and give my presentation at Hadassah Ein Kerem Medical Center. Looking back, I am glad I took the opportunity to travel to Israel when I did in February 2020, as I had not been able to return to Israel for quite some time due to COVID-19.

As the pandemic swung into full force, I thought that was the end of things and that my tefillin were lost forever. I had combed security-camera video footage from nearby apartment buildings but outside in the middle of the winter, everyone is dressed the same on camera, all bundled up in the cold. I searched every bush, the sides of buildings and trash cans, hoping to find some remnant of my tefillin and belongings. Only a few of my books and papers from the backpack were found dumped into nearby garbage cans. Whatever the thieves felt was not of value was discarded. I eventually ordered a new pair of tefillin from Crown Heights, and as summer gave way to fall, the incident was put into the back of my mind.

During the Yom Kippur services that year, there were new faces as the local student population surfaced during the High Holiday services despite the pandemic. One young man named Zach Bellin came by, and we introduced ourselves.

After Sukkot, Rabbi Rapoport was having a storage shed constructed out in the back of the Chabad house for sukkah pieces and various other equipment. It turned out, Zach had his own construction company and was skilled at construction and working on buildings. So, I would often see him around the Chabad house that fall. At the same time, the rabbi’s son Mendy was starting up “BLT”—Bagels, Lox and Tefillin—on Sunday mornings. He would often encourage Shabbat regulars to come on Sunday to wrap tefillin with him.

Zach grew up traditional and remembered many things from Hebrew school, synagogue and Jewish family life. He remembered something vague about tefillin—that they were special black boxes with black leather straps. One day during the summer of 2020, while cleaning a shared garage with the house next to the one he was in, he had found a plastic bag with some solid-feeling contents in a smaller pouch. He took them home and opened them up and found a pair of what appeared to be black boxes with straps. He thought: “Maybe these are tefillin?” Included in the bag and backpack was a small flash drive on a lanyard. Not thinking much of it, he stored the tefillin aside, as he knew they were important but was unsure what to do with them.

Zach came to a Sunday BLT in November 2020. Mendy showed him tefillin and how to put them on. Zach mentioned: “You know, I think I might have a pair like these in my closet at home.” He explained that he had found something which looked like them in a nearby garage.

 Zach Bellin, right, and I wrapping tefillin on a Sunday morning at the Chabad House at Syracuse University.
Zach Bellin, right, and I wrapping tefillin on a Sunday morning at the Chabad House at Syracuse University.

Mendy told him to bring them next Sunday. When Zach brought them, Mendy inspected them and noted, “These look a little weathered but the straps are new. Still, we need to get them checked.” Mendy noted: “But it’s also a left-handed pair of tefillin, Zach, and you would need a right-handed pair. But it’s easy to have them switched. I can take them to Crown Heights, and have them checked and switched.”

After going back home, Zach started to wonder where the tefillin had come from. Also, the flash drive piqued his curiosity. He cautiously placed the flash drive in an older computer of his (in case it had a virus). Instantly, a set of file folders named “ UCLA Fellowship,” and ”SUNY Upstate Medical School” came up. Finally, a folder opened up with the name “David Lubin” at the top.

He told Rabbi Rapoport, who exclaimed: “This must be David Lubin’s lost tefillin and thumb drive.”

G‑d arranged that my flash drive and tefillin should find their way to Zach’s hands. The fact that Zach had never put on tefillin before and was only just starting to come to Chabad at the time he came across my tefillin is amazing. This is what is known as Hashgachah pratit,or Divine providence. That G‑d had orchestrated everything so that my tefillin would end up with Zach and that he would come closer to Yiddishkeit by them—this truly was Divinely arranged. Now the pair of tefillin are with Zach and he told me that every time he puts them on, he thinks about how he came to find the tefillin and come closer to Judaism.

Sixteen years ago, I, too, came closer to Judaism when I started to wrap tefillin one day at a time during the Second Lebanon War in July 2006. Not only for that fact, but there are many other ways that Zach and I share similar interests (both of us are avid aviation fans; Zach joined the Navy in the late summer of 2021 and will be starting in a Naval Officer’s School as of this writing).

Hashgachah pratit—the idea that everything is Divinely orchestrated and constantly working at many levels in our lives. We just have to be receptive to looking for it. Sometimes, we don’t see immediately how something can actually be good. At the time my tefillin was stolen along with my computer, wallet and passport, I could not have been more angry or frustrated or sad; I felt helpless. When my tefillin was stolen, fears of it being desecrated were racing through my head. Yet when I found out that it had actually been found—and by another Jew who had started putting them on—well, I could not have been more relieved and delighted.

A gift from the Chabad House crew at SU: a tefillin bag, personalized with Zach’s Hebrew name. Zach Bellin is currently in the U.S. Navy and has just completed basic training, hoping to become a naval pilot one day.
A gift from the Chabad House crew at SU: a tefillin bag, personalized with Zach’s Hebrew name. Zach Bellin is currently in the U.S. Navy and has just completed basic training, hoping to become a naval pilot one day.