They say that G-d works in mysterious ways, but this is ridiculous. First a little background. We live in a very rural area of coastal California in the United States. In fact, we are so rural that most Californians don’t even know we exist. If you ask them they would say that north of San Francisco is Oregon. This is the land of  towering redwood trees, Bigfoot and Paul Bunyon. This is a place where you’d expect to find a rough and tumble lumberjack or salty old fisherman. It is also so remote that a “Super Max” maximum security prison was built here in the 1980’s to house the most violent and unrepentant criminals in the country.

So, our community is a mix of prison guard families, prison inmate families and old retirees spending their twilight years fishing and golfing among the natural beauty of our awe inspiring redwood forests and untamed coast line.

As you might expect of such a remote place, there are very few Jews here. We are blessed with a very wise Reformed Rabbi, Lester G. Scharnberg, who lives 90 miles away and comes twice a month for Shabbat services and Torah study. The congregation boasts an annual pot-luck Pesach (Passover) Seder that has attracted up to two dozen attendees many of which were non-Jews attending with the Jewish half that they married. The local supermarket even has one whole shelf of kosher food that is kept pretty well stocked. Although, they did run out of Shabbat candles for a few months. I guess the store manager had no idea that we use the candles every week.

It is interesting to note that Matzah is sold out every spring to a few local Chrisitian congregations who I assume are using it as part of their own services. I’ve heard that many are holding their own Passover Seders and some are even lighting candles on Friday nights! If you’d told me 10 years ago, that non-Jews are observing the Sabbath, I’d have slapped you up-side the head and sent you to the nearest head shrinker.

Over the last few years I’ve watched my own children grow and begin to ask me about G-d. Being a Jew who had pretty much neglected any form of organized worship since my bar-mitzvah, I found myself returning to my roots to answer their questions. Eventually, I found out about our local, traveling Rabbi and arranged for us to attend b’nai-mitzvah classes. I also began reading Torah and found myself drawn back to my Jewish roots as I found effective answers to many of the problems that had plagued me for so many years.

To be a Jew, one must have a Jewish mother or an orthodox conversion. Also, all boys must be circumcized have a bar-mitzvah and put on Tefillin (the black leather housed Torah scrolls that we bind to our hand and head during prayers).

Boys and girls are required go to the Mikvah (ritual bath) at least every Shabbas and other auspicious times. Boys usually first put on the Tefillin about two months before their bar-mitzvah. I had originally planned to use my father’s Tefillin, but being Reformed Jews I had only planned to wear it once for my bar-mitzvah. As it turned out, I didn’t know that Tefillin must be checked occasionally to make sure it is kosher. If there is any degradation or damage to the animal skin parchment scrolls inside or the leather “bayit” that house them it must be repaired or replaced by a “Sofer” (scribe) before it is used.

So, we went ahead with my bar-mitzvah, sans Tefillin. “No big deal, right? I can always put on Tefillin another time,” I figured. The only downside was that until I put on the Tefillin it was as if I had never completed my bar-mitzvah.

So, here I am, raising my family over twenty years later in a town where I’m more likely to have a traffic accident with a horse than I am to run into another Jew and we’re going shopping at the local Safeway. Walking past the dairy section I notice a husky, bearded man wearing black pants, a white button down long sleeved shirt and a yamulke on his head. Poking out from his waist band were the tell-tale white threads, the tzitzis that identified him as a Torah observant Jew.

I immediately thought that this poor guy must feel very out of place, so far away from the tight knit community that a person like him usually comes from. So, I gave him a warm, hearty “shalom aleychem” (hebrew for “peace to you”) and we struck up a conversation. As brief as it was, there was an amazing connection during that conversation. His name was Baruch, the same as my dad’s name, and his eyes seemed to laugh and dance with an inner light as if, while we were speaking with our mouths, we were also having a whole second conversation on an entirely different level. It felt like I was talking with a brother I’d known all my life yet still couldn’t find enough time in the day to speak with about all of the things that were really on our minds.

Anyway, it just so happens that he was in town to bless the vats of kosher cheese at the local gourmet cheese factory, Rumiano Cheese. They have some great cheese and  you can order from their website at http://www.rumiano-cheese.com/, but I didn’t see the kosher cheese listed on the website. It might only be available by special order.

What made our meeting even more mysterious was the vast improbability of it. Baruch and I would never have been shopping there at the same time, if airport security hadn’t confiscated the kosher sack lunch he’d packed before he left home. If I’d taken another couple of minutes at home before going shopping, we’d have missed each other entirely. Heck, If I had decided to go to the produce before the meat section, our paths may have never crossed. Of course, G-d had different plans and He made sure that we went exactly where we were supposed to go and at the exact right time.

Baruch shared with me how he had been asking G-d on his flight up here why he was being sent to such a remote place. He was only coming to fill in for the regular Rabbi and had never been to this part of the world. He couldn’t imagine that there was even a Jew anywhere in Del Norte County, but he suspected that G-d was sending him here for more than to bless some kosher cheese.

He belongs to a Jewish group known as Chabad, which can be translated as: “essence.” They are a relatively progressive group of paradoxically orthodox Jews who embrace some modern technologies and are well known for their charity and community outreach programs all over the world. So, as we spoke, he asked me when was the last time I had put on Tefillin. Naturally, I explained to him the story about my bar-mitzvah and my dad’s Tefillin. He said that it would be a mitzvah if he could spend his lunch break with me to show me how to put on Tefillin.

In this town, in this day and age, you’d be lucky to find someone willing to give you the time of day, without grumbling about it, and here is this complete stranger offering to give up his lunch break to teach me about Tefillin. Well, we exchanged phone numbers and made plans to meet the next morning.

The next day Baruch found he had a lot more work waiting for him than he had anticipated. I didn’t get the details, but I got the impression that they had to redo many of the preparations to make them kosher. Baruch was very communicative, constantly calling me and keeping me updated about how it was going and when he thought they’d be finished so we could meet and talk about Tefillin.

It just so happened that Baruch was able to come to our home shortly after my oldest girl came home from school. I was very happy that she would get to see her dad put on Tefillin for the first time. So, Rabbi Baruch came in to the house, I introduced him to my wife and family and we sat at the dining room table. There, he explained to me the mitzvah of wearing Tefillin. That we are commanded to put on the Tefillin in the Shema our daily and perhaps most holy prayer when it is said, “these words, which I command you today, shall be upon your heart. Teach them thoroughly to your children, and speak of them when you sit in your house and when you walk on the road, when you like down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign upon you hand and they shall be for a reminder between your eyes.”

He explained how each bayit (small leather box or “house”) contains parchment made of kosher animal skin and inscribed in hebrew, with kosher ink by a Sofer with certain verses from Torah including the Shema. We bind these to our hand and on our forehead, between our eyes to fulfill the mitzvah given to us in the Shema.

Then, he used his own Tefillin and showed me how we first put on the hand tefillin, near our heart on the bicep of our “weak” hand and wrap the leather binding down our arm stopping at our hand. Next, we put the head Tefillin on our forehead wrapping the binding around our head, over our neck and down over our chest. Finally, we finish the hand by wrapping a finger and tucking in the end at our palm.

Once the Tefillin is in place, we begin our prayers. The whole ritual is meant to keep us always mindful of G-d and his commandments. That we continually remind ourselves to treat our neighbor as we would like to be treated. That we can only have a better life when we willingly share what we have with others and stand up for what is good and right in accordance with G-d’s commandments regardless of public opinion.

After we finished and respectfully put his Tefillin away into its protective case, he told me how I could get Tefillin of my own. It turns out that Tefillin starts at about $250.00 and can cost up to a few thousand, depending on the size and workmanship.

That was going to be difficult for us on our limited income.

Then, he told be about The Tefillin Bank (http://www.tefillinbank.com/) by Kushner International. The Tefillin Bank provides Tefillin to Jews from low-income families. They simply require the recipient to sign a contract promising to use the Tefillin on a regular basis.

Of course, I jumped at the opportunity of participating in the mitzvah of obtaining my own Tefillin. I didn’t care if it was a small, humble set of plain Tefillin as long as they were kosher and would allow me to fulfill G-d’s command to wear the Tefillin.

The next day, I got a special treat when Baruch called me that afternoon and asked me if I’d like to put on the Tefillin again. I told him that I would very much like to put on the Tefillin again. So, he asked me to meet him at the cheese plant as he was just finishing up and had a little time before he had to catch his flight home.

It was a beautiful day with some wispy clouds decorating a deep blue sky and brightly light by the warm, spring-time sun.

I pulled my car into the parking space next to Baruch and his rental car. This time he was dressed as usual with the addition of a hair net around his head and a spit mask around his neck. We greeted each other warmly and there in the parking lot under the wide open sky I again donned the Tefillin of Rabbi Baruch and prayed. I was overwhelmed with joy at the thought that I was so blessed to merit such an amazing, mystical experience for my first Tefillin and I only had to wait twenty some years.

After a few phone calls, faxes and a week or so of waiting I got a package in the mail from New York.

Inside, baruch H-shem, I found a small blue velvet bag with the words “The Kushner International Tefillin Bank” embroidered in silver, green and red on the front and a zipper on the top.

Inside the bag, with their leather straps wrapped around their protective, black, plastic boxes and adorned with Hebrew writing in gold letters, were my Tefillin. There was also a little note from the folks at Tefillin Bank and a nice little guide book complete with step by step instructions and illustrations.

Once I finally unwrapped everything I found the most beautiful, humble pair of Tefillin in all the worlds. The Bayit as strong and square as the grandest palace, the Shins as bold and strong as Moses telling Pharaoh to let the Israelites go free.

Thank you so much to G-d for blessing us all with the mitzvot of helping each other and wearing Tefillin, for blessing me with meeting Rabbi Baruch Greenberg of Oceanside, CA (whom you can learn more about at http://www.jewishoceanside.com/) and the wonderful, generous folks at http://www.tefillinbank.com/ and Kushner International.

For more pictures, check out my Flickr photostream at http://www.flickr.com/photos/cooperdavidc/

Advertisements