Alex Kernish wasn’t even planning to be in Washington Square Park that day.
The yeshiva student was planning to spend his Friday afternoon in Brighton Beach, a southern Brooklyn neighborhood, on mivtzoim—offering passersby the opportunity to do a mitzvah. But he and his friend Menachem Engel got off to a bit of a late start, and the hour-plus subway commute to Brighton Beach would have left them with some 30 minutes before they’d have to head home for Shabbat.
So they called an audible.
They got on the 3 Train and headed to Manhattan’s Washington Square Park. When they got there, they walked over to the west end of the park, where a group of chess tables with its ever-present crowd of players, known as “Chess Hustlers,” often presented them the opportunity to share Judaism with others.
“The people playing chess there are often Jewish, and they’re usually very sociable,” Kernish told Lubavitch.com. “So we went there, and I put tefillin on one guy, after we were done he said, ‘Do you see this older guy here? He’s turning 102 in two weeks.”
“‘I think he’s Jewish.’”
So Kernish approached the man, and said the phrase that has been said countless times in the decades since the Lubavitcher Rebbe introduced the Tefillin Campaign in 1967: “Excuse me sir, would you like to put on tefillin?” The man’s rejoinder surprised him. He said, “Do you want to play a game of chess?”
“Sure, I’ll make a deal with you. I’ll play you a game of chess, but if I win, you put on tefillin,” Kernish agreed. The man across from him had decades of experience, but unbeknownst to him, Kernish is no slouch, as his 1500 Elo rating is considered the mark of an “experienced and great” chess player.
As the game progressed, Kernish asked the man, “Have you put on tefillin before?” He ignored the question. Then he asked, “You are Jewish, right?” He replied, “I used to be Jewish,” and began crying. He wiped his tears and continued playing.
As the game progressed, he started talking some Yiddish. “You speak Yiddish?” Kernish asked. “Yes, I was in Europe,” he responded. His father had taught him to play chess when he was nine years old, as the clouds of antisemitism began to blanket the continent. His family didn’t survive the war—he was the sole survivor. In order to remember his father, every day for more than 80 years he has come to Washington Square Park to play chess.
The game ended, and young Alex Kernish prevailed over his opponent.
Then he asked, “Are you ready to put on tefillin?”
He rolled up his sleeve, and for the first time in his life, he put on the tefillin. Kernish said, “Repeat after me, ‘Shema Yisroel, Hashem Elokeinu …” and the man was overwrought with emotion, barely able to get the words out.
“As soon as he started doing the mitzvah, all the emotion came pouring out,” Kernish said. “After 80 years of not putting on tefillin, 80 years since the last time he said he had a connection with Judaism, his Neshama [soul] was being reawakened.”