In August of 1975, I went to Detroit for some business meetings.

I arrived on a Tuesday morning, had meetings all day, and in the evening went to stay with one of the people who was involved in the business meetings, and whose family was associated with the local Lubavitch community.

My hosts had invited a few couples to their home. Although not at my instigation, the conversation turned to religion, and one of the men there kept asking seemingly facetious questions about tefillin: “Why couldn’t they be round?” “Who said that they had to be black?” etc. etc. The “evening” ended at about 2:00 AM. As we were saying goodbye, I said to the man who had been asking the questions: “I suppose that you have a special interest in tefillin; is that was why you were asking those questions about them?”

He didn’t own a pair of tefillin, but if someone gave him a pair, he would put them on regularly

“I haven’t put on tefillin for over 20 years!” was his reply.

“But you should!” I responded.

He then said: “Everyone here is now going home to sleep, but I am going to work. I own a bakery, and we work all through the night. If you want me to put on tefillin, you can come to my bakery at about 6:30 AM. At that time we are between bakes, and I’ll put on tefillin.”

I must admit that this was not my style, but I could not refuse, so at 6:30 Wednesday morning I arrived at his bakery with tefillin, prayerbook and skullcap, and amongst the sacks of flour he put on tefillin. What surprised me was that he needed no help—he knew exactly what to do and what to say.

After he finished, I said to him: “You obviously know how to put on tefillin, and you know the blessings and the prayers. Why don’t you do it regularly?” He told me that he didn’t own a pair of tefillin, and it was not one of his priorities to buy a pair—but if someone gave him a pair of tefillin, he would put them on regularly. I answered that I was returning to England via New York, but I expected to be back in Detroit in about six weeks, and that I would bring him a pair of tefillin.

Late that evening I flew to New York, and stayed overnight in Crown Heights. Thursday morning I prayed with the Rebbe, and sent in a note to him. I wrote to the Rebbe about the business discussions, and about the episode with the man in Detroit and the tefillin. I concluded the note by telling the Rebbe that I was returning to London that evening (Thursday night), and that I was especially looking forward to Shabbat, since our entire family would be staying with us in our London home: my daughter, her husband and three children from London; my daughter, her husband and baby from New York; and my son, who was studying in Israel and would be home prior to returning to New York. This was the first time that the whole family, including the grandchildren, was to be together for a Shabbat.

After praying, I went to Manhattan. My intention was to return to Brooklyn in time to pray the afternoon prayers with the Rebbe, and then go to the airport for my journey home.

A little while before the afternoon prayers I returned to the Rebbe’s headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway, where the Rebbe’s secretary told me that he had been trying to reach me, as he had a reply to my note to the Rebbe.

In his reply the Rebbe gave a blessing for the business discussions, but then wrote: “Do you think it is right that a Jew who put on tefillin yesterday for the first time in over twenty years should wait another six weeks for you to buy him a pair of tefillin so that he could perform the mitzvah again? You should buy the tefillin today, and if you can arrange to get them to him in Detroit in time for him to put them on today, fine; if not, you should personally return to Detroit today with the tefillin, so that he can put them on in good time. You should do this even if it means not being with your family for Shabbat.” The Rebbe then wrote: “And when this Jew sees how important it is for you that he does not miss even one day putting on tefillin, this mitzvah will have a special importance to him.”

“If not, you should personally return to Detroit today with the tefillin, so that he can put them on in good time!”

There were a number of problems. It was the period of exchange control in England, and one could take only a small amount of currency out of the country; I had used up all my allowance, so I had only a small amount of money with me. I certainly didn’t have enough money to also buy a new airline ticket. The second problem was obtaining a pair of tefillin in Crown Heights. First I tried Lubavitch Youth’s office, but they had none; then the Judaica store Drimmers, who were out of stock. Finally, I was able to buy a pair at a store on Kingston Avenue—the last pair they had—against my check. Then I phoned American Airlines, who would transport them. Next I called the person with whom I had stayed Tuesday night in Detroit, who said he would collect them at the airport and deliver them in time to the person for whom they were intended. One of the yeshivah students gave me a lift to La Guardia Airport, and the tefillin were put on the plane to Detroit.

I left for London only after advising the Rebbe what had been arranged, and after waiting to hear that they had been collected and delivered in Detroit.

A few months later, I met this person again in Detroit, and asked him how he was doing with the tefillin. He told me that he had not missed a day—even walking home in the snow one day when his car broke down so that he put on the tefillin before sundown. He said: “Because of the trouble you went to in order that I should receive the tefillin the very next day, they are especially important to me.”

Almost the exact words that the Rebbe had written to me.