BLOG: About Black Boxes and Jewish Pride

BLOG: About Black Boxes and Jewish Pride

File photo: Howie Mandel wraps Tefillin with Rabbi Chaim Cunin

by Baila Olidort

January 22, 2010

( Caleb Leibowitz, a reserved 17 year old yeshiva student, is hardly the type to appreciate  the limelight. But he was smack in the center of it Thursday, when news that US Airways Express Flight 3079 from New York to Lousiville--diverted to Philadelphia on account of his religious ritual--hit the wires.

Leibowitz, from New York, was on an early morning flight to visit his grandmother in Louisville. As the plane reached its altitude, he quietly began his morning prayers. The sight of tefillin on his head and arm made a flight attendant grow suspicious.

The black leather boxes of the tefillin contain parchment scrolls with verses of the Shema, a passage from the Bible (Deuteronomy) central to the Jewish liturgy. During morning prayers, they are worn by men, wound around the head and arm with black leather straps. 

Tefillin are conspicuous, and it is altogether reasonable that a flight attendant who’d never seen them before would become alarmed. A popular anecdote tells of how the tefillin frightened the Syrians during the Six-Day-War, when they spied an IDF unit with strange black boxes on their heads. Certain that the boxes were receiving signals that gave the Israelis the upper hand, the Syrians quickly retreated. 

But that was in 1967. 

Back then few people outside the observant Jewish community could be expected to recognize tefillin. Let alone the Syrians. In fact, 1967 was the year that the Lubavitcher Rebbe instructed Chabad Chasidim to launch a tefillin awareness campaign.

In the 43 years since, thousands of Chabad rabbinical students in every metropolitan city plus some, have invited countless Jewish men on the street to wrap tefillin.

In New York City, where more than millions of Jews live and where Chabad-Lubavitch has its central headquarters, mitzvah mobiles are a street fixture.

And yet, the attendant on a flight originating in New York had never seen tefillin. Ergo, the work of Chabad is far from done.

But in his unobtrusive desire for personal communion with G-d, Caleb Leibowitz unwittingly achieved what is described as a Kiddush Shem Shomayim, “sanctification of G-d’s name.”

Avraham Litvin, Chabad representative in Louisville, and rabbi of Ansche Sefard where Caleb prays when visiting his grandmother, said that when the news broke Thursday morning and Caleb was still under interrogation, a local 50-something Jewish gentleman came to shul.

“He’d never agreed to put on tefillin. But hearing about this young boy’s commitment to his Jewish tradition, he was inspired, and for the first time in his life, put on tefillin with me in shul.” 

Who would have thought that a shy 17 year-old Jewish boy from White Plains could teach millions of people what those little black boxes that Jews wear on their heads and arms are, and inspire a fellow Jew three times his senior, to do the mitzvah?

Just goes to show us.


Baila Olidort is Editor-in-Chief of Lubavitch News Service/

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