Most banks give out complimentary pens. Generous banks give out toasters. But the Kushner International Tefillin Bank has given out 2,500 pairs of tefillin–for free–in the past six months. That was just the pilot phase of what will soon be the most ambitious tefillin campaign undertaken by Chabad or any organization in recorded Jewish history.
The Kushner International Tefillin Bank, a project of The Shul in Bal Harbour, FL, and the Shluchim Office of Merkos L’inyonei Chinuch, began distributing the prayer items last year. Within the first two months, the Tefillin Bank shipped phylacteries to three continents. The continent count is now up to six. A map on the future Tefillin Bank website divides the world into to green – have received tefillin, and red – no tefillin shipped there, yet. The world map turns greener by the day.
Funding for the initial phase of the project came from Yaakov and Chana Weinbaum, Holocaust survivors. The Tefillin Bank’s work is being continued and exponentially expanded by the Kushner Foundation, headed by philanthropist Charlie Kushner. Significant support is needed to fund the Tefillin Bank. Specially trained scribes hand calligraphy each pair on animal hide parchment, a time consuming process that taps tefillin prices to $350 and up.
Corporate headhunter, Graeme Gilovitz has long started his day with a bit of pre-dawn surfing off the coast of Sydney, Australia. Now he completes his post-surf ritual by praying with his new tefillin from the Kushner International Tefillin Bank. “I have traveled around the world, and I know Chabad encourages people to put tefillin on. But it’s another thing entirely to have tefillin of your own,” he said. For Gilovitz, praying with tefillin on is a natural follow up to surfing. “It combines the physical and the spiritual. As I put on tefillin, my mind goes through all the things I need to correct, how I should be behaving and dealing with issues in my life, and it connects me to all the generations before me who put on tefillin. It’s a great way to start the day.”
Stopping Jewish men on street corners to put on tefillin has become one of Chabad-Lubavitch’s trademark public activities, right up there with giant menorahs in public squares. Avid tefillin advocacy has been a Chabad priority since the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of blessed memory, urged followers to promote the observance of this mitzvah in 1967 as a spiritual shield for war-torn Israel.
Gilovitz found out about the Tefillin Bank through his friendship with Motti Seligson, who is coordinating the Tefillin Bank project through the Shluchim Office. But the only “in” an average Joe needs to acquire free tefillin is contact with a Chabad representative and is willing to make a commitment to put on the tefillin everyday. “Tefillin are precious. We want to be sure that whoever receives them from the Tefillin Bank will know how to use them and give them the respect and use they deserve,” said Seligson.
The impact of the Tefillin Bank has only begun to rock the world. Chabad in Brazil put up 17 billboards advertising the Tefillin Bank opportunity. In New Jersey, Mark R. Killingsworth, a Professor of Economics at Rutgers University, is also a proud owner of tefillin from the Tefillin Bank. He sees no dichotomy between his position as a Professor and his commitment to wrapping tefillin each morning. “Precisely because the world is so aggressively secular, we need as many reminders a possible that there is much more to life than the merely material,” said Prof. Killingsworth. “That is where my tefillin come in. What is written in those little boxes is, truly, a reminder of what we need to guide our lives.”
Without the economic barrier standing in the way of their acquisition, tefillin are going where they never have before. One member of the Special Forces in Afghanistan puts on tefillin each day before duty. When his tent flooded in an Afghan downpour, the tefillin were among the first items the soldier saved. Major Jeffery Yarvis, stationed at Camp Victory in Iraq, asserts the tefillin that he and other soldiers now put on in their spare moments have boosted morale. The military connection can be traced back to Rabbi Shalom Ber Lipskar of The Shul, who brought the Tefillin Bank’s mission to the attention of the Kushner Foundation. Rabbi Lipskar is the founder and executive director of the Aleph Institute that extends Jewish outreach to military personnel and behind prison walls.
Soaring demand for tefillin has rippled through to Israel. Tefillin tend to be a once-in-a-lifetime purchase; there’s more call for scribe-written mezuzah and megillah scrolls. To fulfill Tefillin Bank boom, more scribes are devoting their time to writing the tefillin scrolls. Mezuzah orders haven’t slowed either because the Shluchim Office also offers a free-mezuzah bank. Seligson anticipates that requests for tefillin will grow even more as word spreads of the opportunity. “Our goal is to get every Jew in need of tefillin a pair to call their own.”