It’s not every day that you see a group of men soaring high above the Seattle skyline in a Cessna aircraft donning the Jewish prayer boxes known as tefillin, chanting traditional Chasidic melodies while anxiously prepping for their very first skydiving jump together.

But when Marc Meyer, an 18 year-old freshman at the University of Washington who had never donned tefillin before, invited Rabbi Elie Estrin on the high-flying expedition, the director of the Rohr Chabad-Lubavitch Jewish Student Center couldn’t say no.

The rabbi had never before flung himself from a plane, but the payoff was worth it, he explains.

“Marc was raised Jewish but had never put on tefillin and when he asked what the rationale was behind it, I told him that it’s about focusing your mind and your heart and pulling it all together to focus on G‑d,” says Estrin. “Marc, an experienced skydiver who’s performed 34 jumps, replied that he is most focused when he’s skydiving. He said, ‘If you come skydiving with me, I’ll put on tefillin.’ So I said okay.”

Meyer had always been curious about Jewish customs but assumed the act of putting on tefillin was a mere “technicality.” Now that he knew the meaning behind the practice, he wanted his first time to be an event forever etched in his memory.

“I felt that it would add so much more to the experience,” he explains of the skydiving choice. “The first time I was up there I got extreme butterflies and it was so cool getting over that fear and learning to conquer it. It’s amazing the way your mind just narrows in on something.”

The prospect of climbing 13,000 feet in a single-engine aircraft and jumping off with nothing but a tandem instructor and a parachute on the back of his blue flight suit wasn’t exactly an idea to which Estrin initially threw himself, but he was determined to follow through on his promise.

“Marc was asking me to jump, and by him putting on tefillin for the first time, I was asking him to jump as well,” says Estrin. “If he was going to show respect for the things that I care about, I was going to show respect for the things he cares about. We were both asking one another to go the extra mile – two miles up in the air.”

As the plane ascended, Estrin and the others pulled out their tefillin and as part of their prayers, proclaimed a verse from the Torah known as the Shema: “Here O Israel, the L-rd our G‑d, the L-rd is one.”

While wearing tefillin, student Michael Eisenberg concentrates on his prayers while ascending to the jump point.
While wearing tefillin, student Michael Eisenberg concentrates on his prayers while ascending to the jump point.

“I was really focused on the tefillin and the prayer that I was saying and the whole time was just entirely in my head,” reveals Meyer. “It’s a feeling you can’t describe.”

“It was very awkward but very empowering,” adds Benjamin Mandel, a 22 year-old Washington senior who accompanied the group. “You’re shoved together in this little plane, strapped to the side of it. You’re extremely nervous and your adrenaline is rushing. When we were finished, there was a mad rush to put the tefillin away and hand them to the pilot. It was a very exciting experience. It was a very surreal moment.”

As the plane banked up at 13,000 feet and Estrin nervously scooted toward the door, readying to take the plunge, he sang a passage from Psalm 121: “I lift my eyes to the mountains from whence comes my help; my help comes from G‑d, Maker of the heaven and earth.”

And then he jumped.

“You feel like you’re floating,” he effuses. “You’re buffeted by the wind, you feel like you’re falling on a pillow. It’s a pretty big head rush. It’s such a gorgeous city and the view is absolutely stunning – the Cascade Mountain range, Mount Ranier, Mount Baker, Puget Sound. I was not thinking about the fact that I was falling. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it.”

But back on terra firma, Estrin was visibly relieved.

“I didn’t quite kiss the ground,” he jokes, “but I lay there for a second.”

As for Meyer, the experience left him inspired and full of gratitude. He’ll consider wrapping tefillin again, if not at 13,000 feet then at least in his dorm room among friends.

“These people had all done it with me and it was definitely a bonding experience,” he declares. “And, yes, I would wear tefillin again. And if they all want to come skydiving again with me, then that would be great. Skydiving itself is always bonding experience, whether you do it once or a thousand times.”