Tzitzis transformed me into the man behind a movement
As told to Rivka Streicher by Yehuda Yosef Skriloff
ust a few years ago, I was 17, in yeshivah, but I wasn’t keeping Shabbos.
It wasn’t quite a mainstream yeshivah, but it was a safe space for guys who were struggling. It gave us a framework, with rebbeim who were willing to hear us out. They were shepherds of a wayward flock, there to give us back the treasure — we only had to want it.
But I wasn’t sure that I did. I had come from a frum background, went to the right schools, but by the time I hit my mid-teens, I was struggling deeply. I dropped one religious rite after another — brachos, davening, my kippah and tzitzis. I’d wear my kippah in yeshivah, but not outside. I didn’t want this overt symbol of Jewishness on my head; I just wanted to blend into wider society.
By 12th grade, I was in a rough place. It had been almost two years of not keeping Shabbos, of using my phone or taking a puff on that holiest day.
I spent entire nights chilling, watching, hanging out with friends, then stumbling through my days bleary-eyed. It was an existence entirely without structure, but by then I didn’t know any other.
That winter I felt myself wanting to change so badly. Around me, guys were on their own journeys. Many were finding the way. I’d also progressed from where I was just a few months before, when I’d only wanted to want. But I still didn’t know how. I was, if not comfortable, then languid. And well and truly stuck.
One morning, after a night spent aimlessly with the guys, instead of hitting the sack, I dragged myself out. I wanted to try, to give yeshivah a shot, even though it was so awfully hard.
The bus came and I staggered aboard. It was full, and I must’ve been standing too close to an older woman. She yanked her purse close to herself and gave me the dirtiest look, as if I were a common criminal.
“Whadja think you’re doing?” she started yelling.
Just then the bus shuddered to a halt. I sighed and got off, ignoring her.
I transferred to the subway, and when it made an abrupt stop, I bumped into a passenger in formal dress. He glowered at me. I’m a tough-looking guy; between my disheveled hair, tight jeans, and solid physique, he must’ve thought I was a hoodlum.
When I got off the train, I could still feel his contempt, like I was nothing but trouble, and I wasn’t paying enough attention as I crossed the avenue. A car screeched and braked right in front of me, and the driver opened the window and let loose a string of expletives. I reeled onto the sidewalk and groaned.
Hashem, why’d I even try? I’m tired, can barely see straight, nothing’s working. Why’d You do all this to me when I’m trying so hard to make it to yeshivah?
I would’ve upped and left, but I’d already hurtled through until here, and the yeshivah building was right in front of me. I walked inside and found my rebbi, Rabbi Moshe Brody.
I sat down. “Disaster of a journey,” I blurted, and I proceeded to tell him about it.
He listened empathically. “What a morning,” he commiserated. Then he paused, considering something, before looking straight at me. “Sounds like you’re having a problem with the way people are treating you. If you want them to treat you differently, you’ve got to look different.”
That took me a minute to process. My philosophy was exactly the opposite. I thought I’d gain acceptance by trying to blend in, integrating with them. My rebbi was saying something else.
“Listen, why don’t we go pick up a pair of tzitizis from the Judaica store on the corner? That could be a first step toward looking different.”
It had been a good few years since I had worn tzitzis, and I wasn’t really following his logic — how would an archaic, fringed garment actually help me not have a morning like I’d just had? — but something compelled me to listen to him.
My rebbi put on his jacket, put a hand on my tense, weary shoulder, and we walked to the store together.
He helped me select a pair of tzitzis, and I put them on and went about my day. No, I didn’t feel any warmth, or that I had a magic shield. It was just, whatever. I was listening to my rebbi because he cared, and maybe there was something to what he was saying.
When I left yeshivah that day, I took off my kippah and stuffed it into my pocket like I always did. Then I looked down and there were the tzitzis strings, white against my jeans. Tzitzis and no yarmulke? Weird. I put the kippah back on.
Later that night, I went out with the guys again, and just like that, I put on my tzitzis and kippah. We were on the streets, and I was acting a little loud and wild when a woman came over to us.
“I’m not one of you,” she said, “but I know you Jewish boys shouldn’t be acting like this.”
That stopped me in my tracks. All day people had been looking at me as if I were just a good-for-nothing, and now because I was wearing a kippah and tzitzis, this woman was expecting more from me?
It was like my rebbi had said. They’ll look at you differently.
That woman had said exactly what I needed to hear.
The tzitzis stayed on for now, though the idea of it was messing with me. For so long I’d been trying to not look Jewish. I’d been shunning the mitzvos, what I saw as rules and restrictions.
But my rebbi, Rabbi Blumenkrantz, and I got talking one day and he told me that without “party rules,” what are we? That the reason I’d been struggling to fit in with non-Jews was because there was nothing to fit in with. There were no real values central to them all. Essentially, I’d been trying to become part of a non-group.
“Having rules, mitzvos, it gives you a role in the group, it makes you related on a deep level,” he explained. “It’s like a dad who has to be home for dinner to spend time with his wife and kids. You could see that as a restriction — he can’t do what he wants with his time at that hour, but it’s a privilege, it’s his joy, it gives him his role in the family.”
Hmm. I could hear that.
“Or like soldiers in the army,” he continued. “The exercises, the uniforms, the regimen — that makes them who they are. If they’re not performing, they’re out. They may as well be just anyone.”
It was a new spin on things, and it got me thinking. The tzitzis weren’t just another limiting commandment, they were what was setting me apart from the rest of the world and connecting me to my own group.
Things started shifting in my head, and I realized it was time to face to myself. The tzitzis, the discussions we were having, they were triggering something real. Now it was up to me. I could take that opportunity and ride with it, or I could quash it and jam on my headphones.
I closed my eyes and opened them and looked the opportunity head-on. I’d start with one thing, the dearest of things, keeping Shabbos.
I knew I needed some help and accountability, so I told a neighbor of mine about my commitment.
“Could I give you my phone before Shabbos?” I asked him. “I’m scared to have it in the house if I’m trying to keep Shabbos.”
He took it gladly, a tear in his eye.
The first Shabbos passed, and I made it through.
Then another, and another. Each week, right before shkiah, I’d put my phone in my rebbi’s drawer.
A few weeks in, a friend of mine, Avi Becher, had a birthday party, and he make a kiddush on Shabbos in his home. We all went over.
Avi was a good friend, and I’d been over many times before. I liked his father, Sholom Becher, and I’d chat with him sometimes.
At the kiddush, he came over to me. I was wearing a white shirt; it had somehow come with the territory — the tzitzis, the decision to keep Shabbos, not just lying on my bed with my phone, but actually getting out, experiencing Shabbos.
“You’re looking good,” he said, pointing to the shirt and the tzitzis. “What happened?”
I told him the story, how my rebbi’s idea that bad, pivotal morning had led to other things.
Sholom was impressed. “Whoa!” he said.
We had the Shabbos meal together, the Bechers and a bunch of guys, and after the meal Sholom tapped me on the shoulder. “If it could inspire you like that, why not others, too? I’m earmarking $1,000 to give out tzitzis to people who need them. You on it?”
“Sure, why not?”
Sitting at that Shabbos meal, with a brand-new, fledgling commitment to keep Shabbos, I had no idea how far this would go.
After Shabbos, Sholom sent me a logo design and suggested a name for the initiative: “Project Tzitzis.”
We were on.
We started getting them out there. I told a lot of people, and Sholom put it on his status. Guys in my yeshivah who’d let go of tzitzis along the way were a natural go. I offered them free tzitzis and took them to the store where they chose a pair.
One thing led to another, there were the guys I knew, the guys Sholom brought, dozens of pairs of tzitzis.
A few months later I turned to Sholom and asked, “How much money do we have left?”
“We’ve more than surpassed the $1,000 I initially allocated,” he said.
“Sheesh… where do we go from here?” I said.
“We go on!”
In the summer of 2019, we created a website. We wanted to take this further, to people who didn’t have access to tzitzis, to people in remote places like Russia. Orders started to come in via the website, and by now we’ve sent tzitzis to 25 places in the world, including Mexico and Moscow.
By the time I left my Brooklyn yeshivah a couple years later, I was doing so much better religiously and spiritually. I went on to Yeshivas Tiferes Jerusalem (TJ), and I arranged our first big tzitzis event.
We wanted to make it special, not just a mass give-out; we wanted the guys to put some work into it, to make it their own. So we supplied the actual garment and the strings separately, and we did a fun tying workshop. A couple of rebbeim knew how to tie (I find that at all the events I’ve run, there’s always a rebbi or two familiar with tzitzis tying), and they demonstrated to everyone how to do it. Then the guys got on it, figuring it out, tying, doing all the knots.
One of the rebbeim gave a speech about tzitzis, its chashivus, the protection it offers. There was music and camaraderie, and the guys were doing something with their hands, making it nice, making it kosher.
The tzitzis were stamped with the TJ logo and the Project Tzitzis logo, and that got everyone excited. These were custom pairs, limited editions. We wanted to make the guys feel special, give them the incentive to keep wearing them. Most of them did, and it was a beautiful feeling to see them wear their custom tzitzis every day for the duration of the year in Israel.
We ran other events in Ohr Somayach (the Derech program), in Aish, in schools in Israel and America. Each time the school’s logo was stamped onto the tzitizis, and one time we did the well-known Thank You Hashem insignia for a yeshivah that wanted that.
It isn’t limited to events. One day I walked into a pizza store in Geula, and I offered tzitizs to the guys behind the counter. They were a little surprised, but took them from me and put them on. A year or so later, I was walking past that pizza place again, and the guys recognized me and waved me over, all smiles, like we were buddies. And we were.
Project Tzitzis has gone viral. To date, we’ve given out over 18,000 pairs of tzitzis. Last year, during the Ukraine war, we sent tzitzis there.
It’s been just over four years since we started. Busy years, happening years for me. I’ve done a total U-turn, religiously and personally, with new yeshivos and friends, and just a few months ago, my engagement and marriage.
I live in Ramat Beit Shemesh today, and I’m in a place where I could never have seen myself just a few years ago. I live on the hills of Eretz Yisrael, among my people. I’m building a Jewish home with my wife, and I couldn’t be happier or prouder.
If you meet me, you’ll see I wear my tzitzis out. The strings, in their stark whiteness, brush against my pants, and I revel in the feeling that I’m publicly announcing my allegiance to Torah values. A sports player who shows up without a team jersey may be part of the team, but he can’t actively represent them.
I’ve been all the way on the other side, and I’ve come through, and for me it’s been by dint of this, as though sailing on this white cotton shield, strings trailing in the wind.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 965)
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