An expression of faith: Traveling 50 states, meeting Jews, and putting on Tefillin
For Jewish men, Tefillin is one of our most important rituals. Tefillin are phylacteries. One box affixes to the forehead, with the other box held by straps around the arms. Each box contains Torah passages. The straps are attached tightly, a metaphor for binding our head and heart to Hashem. Finally, the reading of prayers, including The Shema. Wrapping Tefillin takes maybe two minutes, but its brevity does not minimize its vital Judaic importance.
Frequent business travels meant the ability to visit synagogues around America to wrap Tefillin.
It is also a mitzvah for rabbis to help Jewish men perform the ritual. Rabbis joyfully teach their sons how to help congregants and strangers passing through town wrap Tefillin. One day while observing a map, a random thought occurred. How many states had rabbis helped me put on Tefillin?
My travels took me to all 50 states. Rabbis helped me wrap Tefillin in 40 states.
Returning to the remaining ten states became a goal. This quest became a reality thanks to many Jews and righteous gentiles. Chabad Lubavitch played an indispensable role in helping me accomplish this mission. Chabad rabbis were eager to help me wrap Tefillin everywhere.
In California and New York, synagogues abound aplenty. Those unable to see the rabbi in my Los Angeles town can travel five minutes and see his brother. In some states, few Jews exist. The one synagogue within an entire small state is often a Chabad House.
Fulfilling this quest became difficult in states where the Jewish population is small and scattered.
Jewish life was scarce on a five-hour drive from Minneapolis, Minnesota to Grand Forks, North Dakota.
Fargo, North Dakota, is thankfully between them. Yonah Grossman is North Dakota’s only Chabad rabbi. He helped me wrap Tefillin in Fargo and educated me on various Jewish topics. On the way from Grand Forks back to Minneapolis, he helped again. South Dakota was the last state to have a Chabad House. Mendel Alperowitz runs South Dakota’s only Chabad House in Sioux Falls.
Sioux Falls is over three hours from my business conference, but that city had no airport. So flying in and out of Sioux Falls, let me see Rabbi Alperowitz before and after my business.
West Virginia required luck, better described as God’s plan.
Chabad, West Virginia, was too far from my Virginia location. The rabbi was out of state that day. Hashem’s plan offered an alternative. That evening my business meeting was in Winchester, Virginia, a few miles from the West Virginia border. Rabbi Yishai Dinerman runs Chabad Winchester. We drove from his house across the border and stopped at the first West Virginia welcome center.
The tourist center manager was welcoming indeed. Rabbi Dinerman wrapped Tefillin around me, and the manager took pictures, making sure to get West Virginia’s logo in the background.
My modest budget was another complication. Some travel on this quest was personal, rendering those expenses mine. Many people helped reduce these costs.
Upon wrapping Tefillin in 42 states, the final eight provided excitement.
A Christian friend with a Wyoming home one block from Idaho opened up her home to me in late September 2020. October 2 through 9th was Sukkos. Tefillin in three Mountain West states leaving me three days. Zero room for error existed. On September 30, we drove one hour north to Jackson, home of Chabad, Wyoming. Rabbi Zalman Mendelsohn helped me wrap Tefillin. Two of his children also helped me with Sukkos rituals several days later.
Utah was a race against the clock.
My friend’s house was three and one-half hours from Salt Lake City. Seven hours of driving for a two-minute ritual may seem insane, but Rabbi Benny Zippel of Chabad Utah helped make my brief few minutes in Salt Lake City meaningful. His son Rabbi Avremi Zippel helped me wrap Tefillin in Utah at about 6:30 p.m. on October 1.
Driving seven hours roundtrip is difficult enough. My friend’s home was six hours from Boise, Idaho’s only Chabad presence. Rabbi Mendel Lifshitz invited me to wrap Tefillin in Boise on October 2 and enjoy a Sukkos meal that night. Yet I had to be back at the Wyoming house by sundown the same night for Sukkos. So twelve hours roundtrip was not doable.
Thankfully, Rabbi Lifshitz had an alternative option. Idaho Falls was only 90 minutes from me. Unfortunately, Idaho Falls Jewry is nonexistent except for one Jew named Nir, all by his lonesome. Nir happily helped. Three hours roundtrip let me wrap Tefillin with Nir on October 2 and still return to the house before sundown.
No worthy mission goes flawlessly.
A De Queen, Arkansas lunch speech had me near Oklahoma’s border. Tulsa Jewish life was four hours away. Even 21st-century technology could not help this time. Two different Tefillin iPhone apps failed to locate one Jew. Surrender and retreating back into Arkansas felt like a failure. But, returning to Oklahoma had to happen.
My Tefillin outings typically involved a rabbi. Besides, every good man is an even better woman. Rabbis are indispensable to Jewish community life, but so are rebbetzins.
Rebbetzin Etel Weg helps run Chabad Tulsa. In February 2021, the business had me in Shreveport, Louisiana, five and one-half hours from Tulsa. Another hitch came. Rabbi Yehuda Weg was out of town.
Thankfully, Rebbetzin Weg had another option. One congregant named Joel would help. Rain poured down during my drive, but my spirits were not dampened upon arriving. Joel helped me wrap Tefillin. Rebbetzin Weg took the pictures. Meeting Rabbi Weg one day will be a joy. For now, thanks to Rebbetzin Weg and congregant Joel, Oklahoma became Tefillin state 46.
Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, and New Mexico remained.
Business would take me to the Midwest but not New Mexico. My only New Mexico 2010 visit was around Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, so Tefillin may not have happened. However, no memory meant that for all intents and purposes, it did not occur.
Returning to New Mexico was essential. My possessions do not include millions of dollars, but they do contain plenty of airline miles.
Rabbi Chaim Schmukler runs Chabad, New Mexico, in Albuquerque. He was available on July 8h, 2021, at 2:00 p.m. My flight from Los Angeles arrived in Albuquerque at Noon. The hotel across the street from the airport was a convenient place to wrap Tefillin. My return flight home was 4:00 p.m. To fly from one city to another and back intraday for a two-minute ritual may seem silly.
Again, meaningful life events are powerful. New Mexico was in the books as state 47. The final three states would show the beauty of Tefillin and the beauty of various people of different faiths.
Los Angeles to Albuquerque and back is easy enough.
Those needing to thrive financially cannot just whimsically fly and traipse Midwest America. The final three states required help. Again, a Facebook appeal provided generous assistance.
Business plans had me traveling to Missouri in August and Kansas in September. Man makes plans, and God laughs. The main Missouri Jewish enclaves are Kansas City in the West and St. Louis in the East. A 2005 St. Louis trip provided me no recollection of Tefillin.
My business began in Southwestern Missouri. Unfortunately, Springfield’s sole synagogue Temple Israel was frequently closed due to the pandemic. My following business obligation in Sedalia in Central Missouri had zero Jewish life.
Temple Israel graciously referred me to a couple of active congregants. Ken and Vicki Burstin kindly invited me to their home. Since Missouri was a Covid hotspot, the Burstins recommended wrapping Tefillin outside. Mr. Burstin helped wrap me, and Mrs. Burstin recorded me on Facebook Live.
In late July 2021, Missouri became state 48. Kansas and Nebraska were on the schedule for September, but that seemed far away. If September business fell through, it could be years before a Midwest return. However, tomorrow is never guaranteed, so immediate action was essential. The question was how.
My Facebook appeal received enthusiastic support, for which my gratitude cannot be overstated. An Arkansas Christian friend told me his Missouri business had a three-day break from August 7th through 10th. He gave me his truck and told me to go everywhere necessary. My Arkansas friend is a Baptist preacher’s son. He knows my faith matters to me.
That was enough for him to help.
Nebraska Jewish life is mainly in Omaha.
A Christian religious couple who befriended me on my one previous 2011 Nebraska trip helped. If getting to Omaha and performing Tefillin was possible, their Fremont home 30 minutes from Omaha was available for me to sleep that night.
A South Florida rabbi reached out. Rabbi Yaakov Perman of Chabad Delray Beach knew me because my mother is his shul’s administrator. Rabbi Perman had terrific news. His brother is the Rabbi of Chabad of Leawood, Kansas, a Kansas City suburb just past the Missouri border.
On August 8th, 2021, my multi-hour drive in my friend’s truck got me from Sedalia to Omaha by 6:30 p.m. Thankfully, in the Summer, daylight lasts longer. Rabbi Mendel Katzman runs Chabad Nebraska. As he observed, his son wrapped Tefillin on me while his daughter-in-law filmed the Facebook Live video.
After a good night’s sleep in Fremont and lunch back in Omaha, another multi-hour drive had me in Leawood with an hour of sunlight left.
Rabbi Schneur Perman saw my emotional eyes as we entered Chabad Leawood. A Facebook Live video before, during, and after Tefillin captured the moment’s significance. Kansas was once the 50th state my feet had set foot in. Now Kansas was the final state to help me with Tefillin. The Tefillin prayer and Shema preceded four words Chabad rabbis taught me during my youth.
“We want Moshiach now!”
On August 9th, 2021, around 7:00 p.m., it was official. Tefillin in all 50 states!
The yarmulke Rabbi Perman gave me has the insignia of Chabad of Leawood, Kansas, and rests on my bedroom table. Another nighttime multi-hour drive got me back to Springfield, followed by an afternoon drive on the 10th back to Sedalia to return the truck in time as promised.
My decision to accelerate my timetable proved fortuitous. First, my flight out of St. Louis was canceled. Second, my flight out of Kansas City was haphazard. Finally, my September 2021 Kansas trip was canceled. Finishing this quest in August prevented regrets.
This accomplishment is a source of pride, but my religious journey is far from over.
There are always more goals to attain to get closer to Hashem. Wrapping Tefillin in all 50 states inspired plenty of Jewish and non-Jewish people. They told me this in person and online. Further self-improvement became imperative.
Having already wrapped Tefillin in Washington, D.C., perhaps Tefillin in Puerto Rico or the Virgin Islands will happen.
People in all 50 states did more than help with Tefillin. They provided the Tefillin. Being left-handed often meant extra care is taken applying right-handed Tefillin to a left-handed individual. My grandfather left me several Tefillin. Fear of losing or damaging them had me leaving them home. Next is getting my grandfather’s Tefillin checked.
Rabbi Shlomo Cunin of Chabad of the West Coast wants me to put on Tefillin daily. Rabbi Sholom Ber Levitin runs Chabad of the Pacific Northwest, covering all Oregon and Washington. He wants me to, at a minimum, wrap Tefillin on Mondays and Thursdays.
Tefillin is also a stepping stone.
My Tzedakah giving and my Torah knowledge must both improve. Therefore, committing myself to Torah study starts with the weekly Torah portion.
A new goal could be to study Torah in all 50 states, unfortunately, eighteen years in New York and 30 years in California leave only 48 states to complete that goal.
Tefillin in all 50 states was a joyful and meaningful adventure. Now comes the next unknown adventure.
May God bless Jews forever. May every Jew be a light unto every other Jew and to the world. May we experience Moshiach in our lifetimes.
Editors Note: Eric’s friends and colleagues congratulate him on reaching this goal, expressing his faith, and recognizing the value of religion, and God, in his life. Congratulations, Eric.
About the Author:
Brooklyn-born, Long Island raised, and now living in Los Angeles, Eric Golub is a politically conservative columnist, blogger, author, public speaker, satirist, and comedian. But he lives for football. Particularly the Raiders.
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