Stories of Jewish immigrants throwing their tefillin overboard upon encountering the freedom and promise of life in the United States may be the stuff of legend, but for Mendel Aisenbach, a Chabad-Lubavitch Chasid from the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, N.Y., such tales emphasize an important point: When they approached the Statue of Liberty, many of the tired and poor masses from across Europe – a good portion of them Jewish – pushed their identities to recesses deep inside in the quest to become Americans.

But by enlisting the help of a new crop of visitors to Liberty Island, Aisenbach did what he could so that the descendants of such immigrants – and those who followed in their footsteps – could not only reacquaint with their Jewish souls, but could publicly embrace their identities as well.

When he encountered the Rubinstein family early one morning, Aisenbach carried with him a collection of pictures he’s amassed of Jewish men donning tefillin at the Statue of Liberty.

Arthur Rubinstein, a 64-year-old resident of Vancouver, British Columbia, was waiting along with some 2,000 other visitors to board the ferry to the famous statue. When he looked up a few spaces ahead of him in the line, he noticed Aisenbach and figured from his Chasidic style of dress and outgoing personality that he might even know his rabbi from back home. Rubinstein approached to introduce himself.

Shaking the gentleman’s hand, Aisenbach said that yes, he did indeed know Rabbi Yechiel Baitelman, director of the Chabad House in the Vancouver suburb of Richmond, whom Rubinstein admires tremendously. It was then that Aisenbach pulled out his photo album.

“He showed me pictures he had taken of others putting on tefillin on the island,” related Rubinstein. “And he told us the story” of Jewish immigrants leaving their tefillin behind.

A Jewish man from Venezuela dons tefillin at the foot of the Statue of Liberty.
A Jewish man from Venezuela dons tefillin at the foot of the Statue of Liberty.

“You should become scuba divers,” grandfathers supposedly told their grandchildren years later, “so that you can go down there and pick up all the tefillin from the ocean floor.”

After he disembarked from the ferry, Rubinstein took Aisenbach’s offer to don tefillin.

“By you putting [these] on today,” Aisenbach told the man as he wrapped the leather straps around his left arm, “you are showing the world how we are picking up the tefillin from the ocean floor.”

Looking back, Rubinstein saw a great significance in Jewish life thriving in a land where many felt it couldn’t.

“Today,” marveled the Canadian, “We are given the opportunity to worship freely and openly, and Chabad provides ways for Jews to do more mitzvot.”

Mendel Aisenbach took a pair of tefillin, a charity box and Shabbat candles to Liberty Island each day.
Mendel Aisenbach took a pair of tefillin, a charity box and Shabbat candles to Liberty Island each day.

Lost in New York

While his friends headed for destinations around the globe as part of the summer rabbinical visitation program operated by Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of Chabad-Lubavitch, Aisenbach chose to make his base of operations at Liberty Island. Taking direction from campaigns established over the years by the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, Aisenbach took with him a charity box, Shabbat candles and the tefillin so that every Jewish man, woman and child could fulfill a Torah commandment.

Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, said that while an island in the middle of New York Harbor may not be exotic, the location fit right in with the mission of the visitation program.

“The Rebbe started the program,” explained Kotlarsky, “as a way to connect to Jews who do not necessarily have contact with full-time rabbis throughout the year.”

The day after meeting Rubinstein, Aisenbach was approached by a family visiting from France. He handed out candles to a man and his three daughters and inquired about their plans for the approaching Shabbat. They replied that they were staying in a hotel, but had been unable to find a synagogue nearby.

Aisenbach put the family in touch with Rabbi Yehoshua and Brocha Metzger, who direct the Chabad House on Fifth Avenue, just 15 blocks from their hotel.

Meanwhile, a family from Caracas, Venezuela, took advantage of the opportunity to embrace their heritage while sightseeing in New York. A man joined his eldest son in donning tefillin, while the others placed a few coins in the charity box.

One man, a citizen of the Dominican Republic, even learned that he was Jewish after investigating his family tree with the help of Aisenbach.

For his part, Aisenbach noted that whether due to the location or the timing, many people were open to doing something Jewish.

“People are a lot more at ease on the island than on the streets of Manhattan,” he observed. “They’re on vacation and looking for opportunities.”