It all started 40 years ago.

One Monday morning, Yosef Samuels woke abruptly to 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 Eastern Parkway, the Brooklyn, N.Y. address of the Lubavitch World Headquarters, to join everyone else in seeking 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 remarks on the previous Shabbat, the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, addressed the mitzvah of tefillin with a unique vigor. Quoting various Talmudic passages to describe them as "armory," he spoke about tefillin ensuring the safety of our brothers and sisters in Israel. That Shabbat, the Rebbe gave specific instructions to go out and find other Jewish men to perform the important mitzvah. But his orders took some digesting.

"Nobody knew what the Rebbe wanted," said Samuels, who today is a rabbi in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in a recent interview. "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. That is, until news of the war gave the Rebbe's words an even greater jolt of urgency.

Samuels processed Raskin's directive and heard the Rebbe's voice in his head. He knew what he had to do. A bank stood across from 770; without delay, 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, 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." It was there in that office that Samuels put tefillin on someone for the very first time.

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

Still Approaching Strangers

Today, Samuels is a veteran Chabad-Lubavitch emissary and a father to seven children. For him, looking back to the 1967 war means reflecting on the day that launched his 40 years of vigorous devotion to the tefillin campaign. Since that day in the small office atop a Brooklyn bank, Samuels has virtually never put his tefillin bag down, committed to a lifestyle that has by now touched close to a hundred thousand lives.

"Whatever I do is connected to tefillin," said Samuels. "It is the air I breathe."

The set of boxes, which contain the Shema and other scriptural passages, and straps are not another thing he carries, but practically another limb. When asked if he has a specific tefillin route or schedule, he responded with a gentle laugh, for he has no thought-out strategy, let alone special routes.

One of Yosef Samuels' "customers" in the middle of being wrapped by the rabbi
One of Yosef Samuels' "customers" in the middle of being wrapped by the rabbi
Wherever he is, there are his tefillin: 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 he clearly sees it, effectuates a strong connection that rejuvenates their inherent bond with Torah and mitzvot.

When people praise him that he's unique, he demurs.

"I'm sure it's true of everyone," he said, referring to his passion for the tefillin campaign. "Anyone who was in 770 in those days is this way now, too."

A War Breeds Newfound Unity

Samuels has many stories about the days during the "very life-forming" war. "The Six Day War was a very powerful time," he said. "There was a massive spiritual awakening among the people."

He recalled 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 Samuels and his fellow yeshiva students there until they had to rush back for Shabbat. They 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 remembered meeting a farmer in the Catskills who wanted a pair of tefillin. 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, apparently, had created unprecedented demand.

Samuels proudly related how he got to go on the very first "Mitzvah Tank." A group of yeshiva students would park on 47th Street and 5th Avenue in Manhattan, and call in passersby to wrap tefillin and recite the proper blessing. What they called "the tank" was in fact 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 his 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 said. "He's connecting. And deep down, that's all he ever wanted to do."

Meaning for All

Indeed, four decades have not dulled Samuels from feeling privileged to be so involved in the mitzvah of tefillin. His spirited outlook is certainly inspiring, but 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," he explained. "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 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 and 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!"

Samuels offered 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 said in a tone rich with experience. Noting an exception to the rule, he recalled 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 even put his hand up and said, "No, no, no! I don't want to rush this experience."

But even with his lightening speed, no one ever looks as if they're foregoing a deep and personal experience, related Samuels. He instead sees what he calls a "deep soul connection" happen with people he helps put on tefillin.

"People often become serious and very emotional," he insisted. "No one wraps tefillin without some deep emotion. Nobody walks away from it apathetic."

Refusals are rare. Samuels credited 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, asserted Samuels. 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, Samuels received an urgent call from this same man. He was diagnosed with leukemia and wanted to put tefillin on right away. Today, they remain good friends.

Dedication is a Way of Life

Plenty people involved in Milwaukee synagogue life are people whom Samuels originally connected with through tefillin. One such person, Scott Heifetz, became close to the rabbi while mourning the loss of his father 20 years ago. Heifetz's father was a college professor who learned with Samuels. After the funeral, the son discovered his father's tefillin bag and asked Samuels what he should do with them. The rabbi's natural response changed Scott's life: "Well, you have to put them on." Today, Heifetz lives a religious life and testified that "putting on tefillin is certainly a catalyst for doing other mitzvot."

Tamar Heifetz, the man's wife, tells of Samuels' magnetic friendliness and energy. When asked of her impressions of the rabbi's being active in spreading the mitzvah of tefillin, she laughed and responded, "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 anyway, "so he doesn't miss any Jew on the way."

Bringing his tefillin with him wherever he goes comes with some risks. Rabbi Samuels remembered 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. 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 said. "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 Samuels inspires Jews around the world. While his is a story of a unique man devoted to emboldening Jews everywhere through an extraordinary mitzvah, Samuels' enthusiasm and sincerity points to anything but himself. With a lifestyle that warrants bragging, he possesses a humility that proves that true leadership comes from the recognition that the mission is far greater than one person.