Rav Yerachmiel Askotzky explaining how the tefillin are assembled
Rav Yerachmiel Askotzky explaining how the tefillin are assembled
Rav Yerachmiel Askotzky explaining how the tefillin are assembled

By Shmuel Katz

Big week in the Katz house; bigger week coming up next month. It has been 10 years since we last did this (Goldie, me, and the kids), and so much has changed for us in those years. We are no longer the people we were (then again, no one is) and would have laughed at you had you suggested that we would be where we are today.

Ten years ago, our Chaim put on his tefillin for the first time, at Shacharit in the Yeshiva of South Shore. He had inherited my maternal grandfather’s tefillin, which had been refurbished to “like new” condition, yet had a strong link to our family history. As our oldest son, Chaim was our “groundbreaker” and a lot of the things we continue to do with our children were established with Chaim. But not all.

Ten years on, after three bnot mitzvah, we are back to our boys and looking forward to Mordechai’s bar mitzvah next month (a few days after Purim). Which led to this past Sunday’s “kickoff” to the bar mitzvah celebration, Mordechai’s hanachat tefillin.

Having never bought tefillin before, we had absolutely no clue how to go about the process. Had we needed to do so last time, I would have turned to my good friend Aaron Goldstein, who would have shepherded me through the whole process (which he did for the tefillin refurbishment). But we don’t live in New York anymore (and I don’t think Aaron is at all involved in that kind of thing anymore) and we had to figure it out all by ourselves.

When we first moved here, we had needed to buy some mezuzot. In my search, I remembered that a former schoolmate, Rav Yerachmiel Askotzky, had become a sofer STAM. I found his online store (stam.net) and got in touch with him; he has kind of been our unofficial sofer ever since. So he was the first person I turned to.

Yet I was really not sure about the whole process and was wary of trusting such an important decision to just one person. Thankfully, after speaking to a few people and showing them samples of the parashiyot we were considering, we were happy to continue to use him.

With his advice, we selected a set of parashiyot, and about two weeks ago we traveled to his workshop in Telz-Stone (a.k.a. Kiryat Ye’arim) to get a firsthand lesson in what makes a set of tefillin. We spent a couple of hours together with him there and we were very pleased that he was so patient in explaining to Mordechai many halachot dealing with the preparation of the batim and parashiyot.

He also inserted Mordechai’s parashiyot into his tefillin while we were there and explained the finishing process–how the tefillin are closed and sealed, and the retzuot added. I know that Mordechai was excited to be there. Yet we were unprepared for how inspired and focused he would be both in that session and in dealing with the whole issue of tefillin.

Chaim was always a focused davener. When he turned bar mitzvah, his serious approach to the various changes in his life flowed from his character and general demeanor. Mordechai is much less serious. He gets good grades and is no slouch, but he is not as serious or focused in his approach as Chaim was at the same age. Which is why it is so eye-opening to see how becoming a bar mitzvah is changing him.

I can clearly see an improvement in his kavanah and in his approach. He says berachot with more concentration. He has slowed down his davening. He thinks about what he is saying. And I attribute it all to the growth started by being involved in the process of putting together his tefillin and the process of becoming a bar mitzvah.

We picked up the finished tefillin about a week and a half ago. Then, last Sunday, we headed to the Kotel for Mordechai to put on his tefillin for the first time. Unlike the last time, all my siblings (they all live here) were able to attend. My parents, who have spent most of the past year in Israel for various smachot, also attended, while Goldie’s parents will join us from the U.S. for the bar mitzvah in a few weeks.

Goldie’s nephew and a few of our friends joined us for the minyan as well. The bridge over ten years spanned much more than time. We were at the Kotel! What better place to have a rite-of-passage life event. There is nothing to compare to our ability to be inspired and uplifted by a visit to the Kotel, be it for a simcha or just because. And there is no question that a simcha is more meaningful there.

It isn’t just the Kotel. As I commented at breakfast, with the exception of Chaim, all of the Katz men were present at the minyan. In a minyan that had about 14 males davening together, 10 of us did Birkat Kohanim! We were certainly a spectacle, and the next minyan over even asked if we could lend a couple of Kohanim to their minyan, as they had none.

But there is even more. Had you come to me nine years ago and told me that we would celebrate this event here in Israel, I would have been skeptical. Had you told me that we would be living here, along with all my siblings, and that when we did Birkat Kohanim, the predominant accent of our Hebrew would be Israeli (five of the Kohanim were our kids, who all speak like Israelis–maybe because they are Israelis)–I would have told you that you were totally out of your mind. v

Shmuel Katz is the executive director of Yeshivat Migdal HaTorah (www.migdalhatorah.org), a new gap-year yeshiva. Shmuel, his wife Goldie, and their six children made aliyah in July of 2006. Before making aliyah, he was the executive director of the Yeshiva of South Shore in Hewlett. You can contact him at shmu@migdalhatorah.org.


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