For the week ending 19 December 2015 / 7 Tevet 5776

The Tefillin Project

by Rabbi Shlomo Simon
Library Library Library

As Rabbi Ivan Ziskind was exiting the Yeshiva one summer morning a few years ago with one of his JLE students, the student was expressing his reluctance to return home that day and his hope to hang onto the spiritual level of growth that he had achieved in the weeks he spent here. “I think if I had a pair of tefillin it would mean a lot to me,” the student said. At that very moment, a taxi pulled up to the curb in front of the Yeshiva and a young man got out. “Excuse me, Rabbi, but I’m leaving for the airport now to return home. I was a JLE student here a few months ago. When I left the program I wasn’t sure if I was going to continue laying tefillin, so I borrowed a pair. As a matter of fact, I’ve been putting on the tefillin every day since I left, and just bought my own new pair of tefillin. I’m returning the loaner. Could you please take them? I’m sure there are other boys like me who could use them.” Amazed that G-d answered his prayers immediately and in such a miraculous way, the student gratefully took the tefillin and left the Yeshiva more convinced than ever that G-d listens to the prayers of those who beseech Him.

Mr. Yossi Ehrman of Lakewood, New Jersey, following the dictum of the Sages to imitate the Creator, has recently launched a new campaign to provide tefillin for the young men who come Ohr Somayach and express a desire to come closer to G-d, and wrap themselves in the ornaments that are unique to the Jewish People.

Yossi was one of the first Mentors when the “Mentor’s Mission” began almost a decade ago, and has been coming to Ohr Somayach nearly every year on the Mission since. His dedication to the JLE students whom he tutors is renowned. He has maintained a connection with them throughout the years, and has guided and observed their spiritual growth. He was active in procuring tefillin for JLE students who expressed the desire to own them in the past. As an outgrowth of his activism he started the “Tefillin Project”, setting goals for students to achieve before receiving their personal set. While in the Yeshiva they can use “loaner” pairs, but, now, thanks to Yossi, they can earn their own.

To qualify, the student must commit to learning with his “tefillin mentor” for 15 weekly one hour sessions. They study the book “Tefillin” by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, published by NCSY, a division of the Orthodox Union. At the end of the sessions, the mentee is awarded a pair of tefillin.

The program is administered by Yossi Kantor of the Ohr Somayach staff. It began this September with two students, Justin Ross of the Mechina Program in Ohr Somayach, and Michael Rogachevsky, who had been a student on the JLE program this past summer and is now back at home in Minneapolis, working in IT.

Zvi Pitterman is an accountant in Manhattan and lives in Flatbush. He met Michael in Israel on this past summer’s Mentor’s Mission and was paired with him for the Tefillin Project. They met again in person at the Ohr Somayach Mentor’s Mission Shabbaton in Flatbush in October of 2015.

“I was apprehensive about joining the Mentors Mission as I was skeptical of the opportunity it claimed to afford — meeting high-achieving, college-age individuals seeking to explore authentic Judaism. I was quickly proven very wrong. The mentee I was assigned to (Michael), as well as the general group of mentees, were high-achieving, career-focused individuals with a tremendous thirst to explore indepth Torah learning. The enthusiasm of the mentees towards Torah learning was both invigorating as well as thought provoking.

“There is something extremely unique to learn in-depth with an individual who is highly intelligent, but due to his lack of Torah knowledge approaches a Gemara through the prism of Western culture. As we progressed through the learning sessions it was very gratifying to witness Michael’s appreciation of the thought process and truth of Chazal. I knew I had made a difference in my mentee’s life when he turned to me on the bus heading towards an excursion and stated, “I would rather have another learning session with you than go on the hike”. The mentee’s respect and admiration towards the mentor’s Torah lifestyle refocused my understanding of the corporate definition of “work-life balance” to “Torah work-life balance”. I have kept up with my mentee, first via e-mail correspondence and now with a weekly phone learning session. Through the Ohr Somayach tefillin program I will be presenting my mentee with his first pair of kosher tefillin.”

Rabbi Eli Harrar, a real estate executive, is Justin’s mentor.

Eli was born in New York and brought up in a religious home in Flatbush, learned in the Yeshiva of Chaim Berlin, and after his marriage, in its Kollel. He has deep experience in teaching Torah, and while in Kollel he also ran a Jewish day school on Long Island.

He also participated in a number of Shabbatonim with students at Yale University whom he hosted at his home in Brooklyn.

He was introduced to the Mentor’s Mission by his brother-in-law, Yossi Breacher, who participated in a Mission a number of years ago. “When he returned and described the program to me I said to myself that one day I would like to share that experience. Im yirtze Hashem, I hope to be on my fifth program this December.”

“I met Justin on a Friday night of President's weekend 2015 at an Ohr Somayach Shabbaton in Flatbush. His warm smile caught my eye and we had some interesting chats over the Shabbos. I was worthy enough to be partnered with him in the 2015 summer Mentor program. I had already learned with close to 20 students and I found that Justin had a very strong thirst for the knowledge of Torah. While my past students also had a degree of thirst, Justin’s was stronger. We enjoy learning together and spending quality time with one another. Our conversations over the course of that Shabbos centered on his desire to return to the path of his forefathers.

“In September 2015, I got a phone call from Rabbi Binyamin Schonblum, asking if I would like to learn the laws of tefillin with Justin. We have delved into the understanding of why we wear tefillin and the connection it has between bringing us closer to Hashem and a deeper understanding of the parshios in tefillin.”

Rabbi Eli Harrar’s “Justin” is Justin Ross, 32, from Princeton New Jersey. He had a secular upbringing, attended the University of Houston, and got a BA in Supply Chain and Logistics. With his degree he joined the US Air Force and worked in logistics and contract negotiations in Abu Dhabi and the US. After four years in the service he received an honorable discharge and moved to Baltimore, where he had a senior position with a major medical distribution company. When his childhood best friend died in 2013, he started thinking seriously about the meaning of life. A friend of his, Rachel Peretz, her memory for a blessing, who had become religious and gotten married, suggested that Justin get involved with Partners in Torah, a program that matches non-religious people with religious ones for weekly learning, either on the phone or in person. Justin followed her suggestion and became a Partner to Rabbi Eli Scheller, of Flatbush. The two learned for a number of months and then Rabbi Scheller suggested that Justin come to the Ohr Somayach Flatbush Shabbaton in the winter of 2015. It was the first Shabbat he kept. And he loved it. Rabbis Reuven Katz and Yitzchok Greenblatt were at the Shabbaton and suggested to Justin that he come to the Yeshiva for a few months. Mentioning this to his friend Rachel, she convinced him that it was the smart thing to do. He arrived on May 27th and is now in the Mechina Program. When his friend Rachel and her husband died in a tragic accident in Jerusalem, Justin was devastated. “Because I felt so crushed, in a way it would have been easy for me to walk away from the religion. But, instead, the next morning, I went to the Beit Medrash and wrapped tefillin and davened in front of the holy ark. I really felt a connection to G-d. And that’s when I felt the power of the tefillin.”

It is reported that when the Chafetz Chaim first heard about Marconi’s invention of radio in early 1900’s he inquired into the theoretical nature of the invention, its engineering and circuitry. As befits the Gadol Hador, he said, “Now I understand tefillin. If one letter in one of the parchments has the slightest cut, the tefillin are pasul (invalid). They cannot receive the signal from the Divine — just like a radio, if one of its many wires is disconnected, there is no reception.”

Thanks to Yossi Ehrman, Justin and Michael are now connected.

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