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Hebron spokesman sees inspiration in stolen tefillin incident

A trip from Hebron to the US resulted in car thieves stealing Jewish ritual items.

11.4.22, 12:48 | Yishai Fleisher | 38 reads
This article originally appeared in the Jersualem Post. Click here for original article.
 
During a brief window for travel during the grueling coronavirus roller coaster, Rabbi Dan Rosenstein (the director of the Hebron Fund) and I, headed for a fundraising trip to the United States. Along the way, we got to San Francisco, packed all our luggage into the back of our rented, shiny new SUV Jeep – black with tinted windows – and made our way to a meeting downtown, where we would stop before heading to another location outside the city and then back to the airport. Dan was driving and suggested that we park in a garage, but since we were tight on time, I told him that I had parked on the street in San Francisco before, close to this particular office – and so that’s what we ended up doing.
 
We ran inside for the meeting and it went really well, thank God. We came back out feeling cheery, a little late for our next meeting and still aiming to catch our flight out of SFO. But as we walked towards the car... already from a distance, I could see that something was wrong. The windows on the new car were broken. Very broken. Broken into. Glass shards all over the pavement. We approached the car in disbelief and, after a second of stunned hesitation, began inspecting our luggage. Three bags were missing: Dan’s small carry-on and two of our laptop bags. Stolen.
 
Except those weren’t actually laptop bags at all – no, they only looked like computer cases. They were our tefillin bags. Misidentified by the thieves, just like that, my tefillin which I had lovingly worn for 20 years were gone. Actually, make that two pairs of tefillin in my stolen bag. I had taken upon myself the custom of laying Rabbeinu Tam tefillin many years ago on the auspicious day of Chai Elul (18th of the month of Elul) – the birthday of the Baal Shem Tov.
 
So, two precious, personal, expensive pairs of my tefillin were gone and so were Rabbi Dan’s. Now what? We got in the car and sat in silence, numb. The sun was setting, the San Francisco Bay’s famous cold fog was coming in and the car’s windows were shattered. We turned on the heat.
 
A few minutes later, a little more thawed out physically and emotionally, and we got to work: First, we tried to figure out the legal route forward and managed to file an online police report – not so much out of hope of recovering our priceless personal items, but rather for a later insurance claim. We identified a camera on the building right next to where we were parked, but couldn’t find the owner or anyone who would even talk to us. People on the street commiserated, but advised us to go on with our lives – evidently, this is what normally happens in San Francisco, and we made the rookie mistake of parking on the street and leaving our luggage in plain view.
 
I started thinking about my stolen tefillin. The Rashi pair was covered in a beautiful embroidered bag, carefully and artfully stitched by my dear deceased grandmother Bella. She was a beautiful and smart lady, a redhead, and a medical doctor. She was Russian and we called her Babushka. Thankfully, I had more of her embroidery at home. The tefillin bag itself afforded little protection and therefore lived inside an old plastic pink ice-cream case – a holdover from my early paratrooper days. The plastic kept the tefillin safe and the pink made it fun. Right in the center of the pink box for years had been a Jonathan Pollard sticker. Of late, the case became dingy looking and I was thinking about throwing it out, but my wife Malkah took it, cleaned it and made it look new.
 
The second pair of tefillin was less ornately encased, but it was my Rabbeinu Tam pair – representing my more hassidic side, an item I had bought when I had no money and few possessions, living in a caravan with my wife near the site of Jacob’s dream in Beit El. I liked to think that putting on this pair, with its different order of verses, was a way to surround oneself with a different ambiance and aura. I thought of the two tefillin as a Jewish yin and yang, completing each other.
 
I carried the two tefillin in a really excellent Targus computer case, which was very comfortable in airports because I could carry my important l documents in the case along with my critical spiritual apparatus. But now all that was gone.
 
In a last, desperate measure, Dan and I decided to drive around for just a few minutes to check every garbage can in the vicinity for our tefillin – hopefully discarded after the realization hit the thieves that there was little value on the black market for these weird leather boxes with straps. We found nothing.
 
And with that, our time was up. It was time to go. First, we followed the procedure told to us by the police and dislodged any loose broken glass from the car windows so it wouldn’t fly off on the highway. (I would end up finding small glass pieces in my remaining luggage months later.) We had to drive fast, blasting the heating in our windy car. San Francisco started out nice, but we had been robbed and our holy, precious and sentimental tefillin were gone, and we were cold.
 
Indeed, the mood was somber in that car. But as we were driving, I suddenly remembered a famous Baal Shem Tov story. In the tale, the Baal Shem Tov’s wife was combing out the hair of one of her young maids but was a tad too rough. The girl began to cry from the pain and a voice came out of heaven saying: The Baal Shem Tov has lost his place in the world to come!
 
The Baal Shem Tov absorbed this horrific news, and began to... dance! His family was gobsmacked. But he replied joyfully: “Now, I can finally serve God fully – without the promise of reward.” And after a time another voice came out of Heaven saying “the Baal Shem Tov has regained his share in the World to Come – this was a test to see whether you could serve God in joy.”
 
That story percolated in my mind. And I suddenly heard a new voice in my head: “You know what? If God wants me to be renewed and to accept that I need new tefillin, to serve Him anew – so let it be! Who knows, I thought, maybe a much bigger punishment was averted. Or maybe I needed to acquire a better level of Tefillin? Only God knows the truth. My test right now is to be b’simcha, to serve God in joy.”
 
These thoughts and the sting of the loss grappled with each other for a while – but within hours I felt totally over it. At our next meeting at a beautiful house on the outskirts of San Francisco, the owners fed us a warm kosher meal (not always easy to find in San Francisco area) and we high-tailed it to the airport. Freezing wind filled the cabin, while we considered what we would tell the folks at Hertz Car Rental – and the concern that they would hold us up and take time we did not have.
 
When we got to the car rental line we could not believe our eyes: The car in front of us had smashed windows, as well as the car in back of us! I asked the Hertz agent about it and he told me that at least 25 cars a day come in with smashed windows – a crime epidemic.
 
Now on the airplane, I had a chance to do what was only natural – post on social media. I used the photo I took of myself with the broken windows of the car and wrote on Twitter:
 
We had great meetings in #SanFrancisco!! And just before we left, robbers broke into our rented car (parked on the downtown street) and stole our TEFILLIN (which looked like laptop bags)!! THANK YOU GOD for giving me the test of serving you in JOY!! #ShabbatShalom!
 
A similar message went out on Facebook. I also recorded a segment for my weekly podcast telling what happened.
Responses began to come in. Naturally, friends and strangers were sympathetic and gave me chizuk (strengthening). But, a few told me something I did not expect: at least three people wrote that they had lost their tefillin at some point and that the pain still lingered in their hearts. They were writing to thank me for sharing my story and the Baal Shem Tov way of thinking which helped me transition out of the pain. They said my story helped them let go of the pain they had been holding (for one man twenty years). Just that itself, helping a few men let go of their sadness, made losing my tefillin worth it.
 
And there was one more kind of response: Two of the people offered to help me buy new tefillin. Wow. People wanted to help me be whole again. Years ago I may have turned them down in discomfort, but I have learned to let people help me – why take away a person’s chance to do the mitzvah of chesed (kindness)?
 
When I touched down in Israel, getting new tefillin was the top priority. I consulted my friend and halachic counselor, Rabbi Shimshon HaCohen Nadel, and the very next morning I was at a store. The knowledgeable and God-fearing salesman in Givat Shaul gave me a lot of options, maybe too many, and I hesitated. But after a little meditation, I made up my mind and made the big purchase. Tefillin, something you use every day to imbue your whole being with God’s words, is not something to shekel-pinch about and, with the help of Hashem, I ordered two wonderful pairs with excellent writing, which I saw for myself.
 
My mother and my family reimbursed me for the first Rashi pair as a birthday gift. Then, two friends, listeners to my podcast, said they wanted to reimburse me for the Rabbeinu Tam pair – which was just amazing. From then on, I have felt that the Rashi pair reminds me of love and responsibility towards my own family, while the Rabeinu Tam pair reminds me of the importance of the love of and responsibility towards Klal Am Yisrael – the nation and people of Israel.
 
So, in the end, the theft of my tefillin was an opportunity for growth, for employing the trait of trust in Hashem and for serving God in joy in a tough moment, and I am thankful that my experience has given some comfort and joy to others. I love my new tefillin and feel renewed.
 
I also think about the person who broke our Jeep window and stole those laptop bags and how he was probably disappointed when he found religious objects instead of computers. But maybe, just maybe, he had a moment of hesitation – a thought of repentance. I like to imagine that one day a US Senator would give an emotional speech, explaining how he was once a common thief on the streets of San Francisco and that one day, he broke into a black Jeep and pilfered two laptop bags in broad daylight. But, when he opened them up and recognized those holy objects, he was filled with regret for breaking one of the Ten Commandments his grandmother had taught him, and he vowed then and there to change his ways, to live a meaningful life and to work to make this world a better place in the image of God.
 
The writer is international spokesman for the Jewish Community of Hebron.
 
Originally published as "The tale of the stolen tefillin" - Jerusalem Post. 
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