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Ties That Bind

You’ve been putting on tefillin for years, but what if someone told you your head placement is off, the knots aren’t made correctly, or the retzuos need a paint job? 

Boxed In

After the last participants of the Avos U’Banim program in Lakewood’s Chestnut Shul finally turn out the lights and take their leave on this Motzaei Shabbos, Mr. Avrohom “Bumie” Schachter arrives to set up shop. Mr. Schachter is a soft-spoken Brooklyn businessman who, for the last fifteen years, has been running a voluntary side chesed business to ensure that the thousands of Jewish men who don tefillin daily are fulfilling the mitzvah properly.

Tomorrow morning, the rest of his team will show up, but tonight, Mr. Schachter, together with his son and grandson, are here to set things up: The elegant simchah room adjacent to the main beis medrash is transformed into a tefillin repair shop. First, the tables are set up and draped with eye-catching tablecloths, and then the “tefillin kavanah and measuring cards” designed by Mr. Schachter are placed at half-foot intervals, followed by albums documenting various uncommon “pesulim” he’s found over the years.

Finally, Mr. Schachter tacks up the signs that will greet the men as they arrive for Shacharis the next morning. Chestnut Shul caters predominantly to an English-speaking crowd, yet Mr. Schachter puts up his Yiddish poster as well. He wants to notify the chance Yiddish speaker that might daven there tomorrow, but admits he has an ulterior motive. “I want people to see that this is a program that reaches a cross section of Klal Yisrael,”  he says.

The “Tefillin Awareness Project – Hanacha K’Halacha,” Mr. Schachter’s brainchild, involves a dedicated crew of qualified batim machers and sofrim who traverse the Tri-state area and beyond, coming to different shuls every week where they check the knots, straps, stitching and batim of people’s tefillin. If needed, they will then adjust, correct or even replace parts as necessary. The visits take place on Sunday mornings, capitalizing on the less-pressured atmosphere and the one day most men have off from work, so that people will be more willing to undergo a “tefillin check-up.”

After one last glance around, Mr. Schachter is satisfied that everything is in place for tomorrow morning, when he and his team will be ready at the shul for the conclusion of its earliest minyan.

Heads Up

As Shacharis draws to a close, Mr. Schachter heads to the front of the shul, where he gives his well-prepared address inviting and encouraging the men to participate in his free program. (In his 15 years running the Hanacha K’Halacha program, he managed to whittle down his speech to just 45 seconds. “After a long davening, no one wants a long-winded derashah,” he explains.) In his brief but impassioned talk, Mr. Schachter packs in all the core elements of what marketing experts refer to as the “elevator pitch”: He rattles off some powerful statistics (“The mitzvah of tefillin occurs about 300 times a year, and there are eight mitzvos d’Oraisa associated with it”), highlights a problem (“Our experience has shown that most people need some tefillin adjustment, some of them l’ikuva”), identifies a solution (“Our expert sofrim are standing in the next room ready to make the necessary corrections to your tefillin”), and gives a compelling call-to-action (“The lines are short, and we urge everyone to please take advantage of this free program.”).

Mr. Schachter, soft-spoken by nature, might not be the type you’d imagine to initiate and shepherd such a colossal program. But he was initially propelled by seeing that people who davened near him often had their tefillin shel rosh on improperly.

“I would go over to them and point out that their tefillin were not on correctly and that they should adjust them.” He was once vacationing in a place popular with frum seniors, when he noticed that many of his fellow mispallelim were wearing their tefillin well below their hairline (or, in most instances, their former hairline), which is contrary to halachah (see Shulchan Aruch, OC 27). Mr. Schachter was incredulous that there seemed to be almost wholesale ignorance of what he thought was a well-known halachah — and, he admits, one of the few halachos he himself knew at that point.  He approached a fellow vacationer, whom he recognized as a distinguished posek, and asked him if he was perhaps mistaken in his understanding of the halachah. The rav assured him that he was absolutely correct, and encouraged him to mention it to those who were putting on their tefillin incorrectly. Mr. Schachter soon realized, however, that something more than a piecemeal solution was needed.

Not one to let up on an opportunity, he returned to New York, determined to bring awareness to the masses regarding the proper placement of tefillin. First, he enlisted the help of those most familiar with the laws surrounding tefillin: “I called the Va’ad Mishmeres Stam, and they recommended several qualified sofrim. I envisioned an event where men would have the outside parts of their tefillin (not the parshiyos) inspected by expert batim machers and then don them in front of a qualified sofer who would make sure the placement was being done correctly.”

The Agudah of Avenue L in Brooklyn agreed to host an inaugural event in their ballroom, and wasting no time, Mr. Schachter printed up flyers and spread word that the first-ever “Tefillin Awareness Program” was to be held that Sunday.

“We had a great turnout — over 300 men showed up,” he says. Yet the real achievement was that over half the people needed some adjustment to their tefillin — and some of the pairs we inspected were found to have pesulim that invalidated the tefillin. These men could have gone on for years without fulfilling the mitzvah of tefillin.”

The program only underscored the need for expert tefillin checks. “We’re talking about hundreds of mitzvos a year that may be going unfulfilled and two brachos a day that may be brachos l’vatalah,” he says.

Hit the Road

Noting the overwhelming response to one local flyer, Mr. Schachter decided to take his program on the road. Every Sunday morning, he heads off to a different locale. From Boro Park to Bensalem and from Teaneck to Toms River, Mr. Schachter and his team trek out to shuls across the Tristate area and beyond. Sometimes those visits are hectic, full-day trips.

“In Toronto, we came and ran our program in a shul in the morning, and then we arranged for one yeshivah to come down to the shul immediately after they finished Shacharis,” he relates. “The sofrim took a small break and then during lunchtime we visited another two yeshivos and a kollel.”

He flew his team to Cincinnati and Miami Beach, too, where they spent their two afternoons going from high-rise condominium to high-rise condominium, checking the mezuzos of the local residents, as well.

Ironically, the spot furthest from his home turf was the city which undoubtedly boasts the highest rate of sofrim per capita: Jerusalem. Mr. Schachter is an avid participant of the Agudah’s Yarchei Kallah, and one year, perusing the list of sugyos to be learned, saw that that particular year they were learning the sugya of tefillin. He got in touch with the Yarchei Kallah’s organizers, who were more than happy to have such a practical takeaway after learning the sugya in depth for a week. He remembers that even after learning the halachos of tefillin thoroughly, many Yarchei Kallah participants were unable to tell if their own tefillin were fully in accordance with halachah.

He wasn’t surprised, though. “No matter how well you learn the halachos, because the details are so technical, until you actually work on hundreds of pairs of tefillin, it’s very hard to figure out the specifics in a practice.”

Basic Black

As each minyan ends, men still wrapped in their talleisim and tefillin begin to form lines around the various sofrim, and the work begins. One bar mitzvah bochur, gingerly fingering his leather and suede tefillin bag, wants to know if his shel rosh is too far back; a suave Sunday-morning dresser is waiting for the sofer to check the positioning of his tefillin, and an earnest businessman is hoping he can sneak in a question regarding the parshiyos.

The room is both chaotic and organized: Sofrim checking the positioning of the tefillin are referring men to different tables: One man is told he needs to have the retzuos painted, another is rerouted to the in-house sofer who can change the straps, and yet a third has the look of the guy at the airport who is pulled over for further questioning, as he waits in line to have the stitching on his tefillin examined more closely.

Upon examining one pair of tefillin, the sofer realized that the leather strap of the tefillin itself was not even black, but was just a coating. “Many straps get rubbed out,” one of the sofrim explains, “but in this case, it was clear that the leather itself wasn’t even dyed and that an adhesive black veneer was merely slapped on. That isn’t just problematic because the actual strap has to be dyed black, but because now the entire strap is suspect: If the strap wasn’t assembled al pi halachah, perhaps it’s a product of the influx of fraudulent, pasul straps (made of plastic) that infiltrated the market some years ago.”

Luckily for the owner of these tefillin, Mr. Schachter keeps a stash of mehadrin straps that he provides for a nominal fee in cases like these.

At the painting table, Mr. Schachter stands by the ready, one gloved hand holding a paintbrush of kosher l’tefillin dye. “The retzuos and batim of the tefillin have to be completely black, but over time, the leather starts to fray, the straps stretch and the original shine begins to dull. It’s probably the most common problem we encounter,” he says. Thankfully, it’s also the easiest to resolve. Cans of paint are opened for participants to do a quick DIY job, and squinted-eye men are neatly rolling over their tefillin straps with the flat foam brushes that are neatly laid out.

Another knotty issue that arises quite often is that of the kesher connecting the lower and upper parts of the tefillin shel yad and the tefillin shel rosh. Due to its complex design, with loops and leather headed in different directions, not everyone has the know-how to untie, adjust and retie. Also, there are right-handed knots, left- handed ones, the Ashkenzic variety as well as the Sefard, Sefardi, and Chabad versions. Since the leather of the tefillin can stretch over time, it’s important that the knots be adjusted to make sure the tefillin are being properly placed. An expert is on standby, unfastening and making new knots for those that need the modifications.

Since there can’t be any chatzitzah (“separation”) between the tefillin and the arm, Mr. Schachter’s team also checks the bottom of the tefillin to make sure no residue has built up over the years. “I’ve seen grime build up near the stitching from sweat” one sofer says. “In one case, between a rather unpleasant combination of dandruff and perspiration, there was a thin layer across the bottom of the batim of almost three millimeters.” Three millimeters may sound inconsequential, but even the minutest separation between the tefillin and the arm is problematic. Another issue that tends to get overlooked is that in the tefillin-making process, some paint from the boxes can slip onto the bottom, and unless it’s scraped away, it constitutes a chatzitzah. While this has been relatively common in the past, Mr. Schachter says they’ve noted a surge in this problem more recently.

“After Covid, we started to see more grime build-up.” Mr. Schachter says. “Because of the outdoor minyanim, people were sweating and foreheads got wet, which makes more grime stick and causes the tefillin to start to warp.”

There are surprises along the way, too. Once, while examining the tefillin of a teenage boy in a less-affiliated community, a sofer noticed several major problems. “Where did you get these tefillin?” probed the sofer. “Amazon,” the boy responded earnestly. As it turns out, a quick search on the online retail giant’s website for “tefillin” spurred several results, with one brand, complete with a “Free Velvet and Protective Bag” available for just $189.00 plus tax and applicable fees. One reviewer gushed over the quality, feel and craftsmanship before admitting that he can’t speak to the durability of the product because he doesn’t use them that much. (Obviously, the tefillin leave much to be desired, and are at most kosher bedieved.)

Wrapping it Up

With several packed minyanim on this crisp Sunday morning, streams of men take full advantage of Mr. Schachter’s program. Finally, as it nears 11:00, the crowd is slowing down and the few remaining men are enjoying a friendly camaraderie with the sofrim. Mr. Schachter is starting on the arduous cleanup process, folding up and packing away the tables and equipment.

Mr. Schachter is no youngster, and packing up paint, signage, lighting, and suitcases of tefillin repair paraphernalia, arranging the logistics and all that weekend travelling, can wear down anyone. What keeps him going, week after week after week?

“Well, who’s going to do this if not for us?” he asks. “In every shul we go to, we wind up making hundreds of adjustments in about 60 percent of the tefillin we check.” Furthermore, he estimates that at least once in every program, the sofrim find a pair that is completely posul.

It’s a tiring process, Mr. Schachter admits. But every week he sees just how valuable his service is. And he humbly admits that the feedback helps too. He’s received glowing letters from gedolim, and he remembers when, after a huge program he ran for Beis Medrash Govoha, “two yungeleit — both talmidei chachamim in their own right— came over and asked me for a brachah for very personal requests.”

The shul is now clean, and Mr. Schachter quietly zips up his duffle bags before hoisting them into the trunk of his sedan.  And next week, they will come out again, bringing this fundamental mitzvah to yet hundreds more Jewish men, binding them to their Creator.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 886)

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