In 1989, my friend Marvin Ashendorf, who was then in charge of the Hillcrest Jewish Center in Queens, New York, asked me if I’ve ever heard of an organization called American Friends of Shamir.
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I hadn’t, and so he told me about it. Shamir was a publishing house which printed Jewish religious books that were then smuggled into the Soviet Union, where Jews had been forbidden to practice religion since the Russian Revolution.
Shamir was hosting its fifth annual fund-raising dinner and Marvin asked me to consider being their “Man of the Year,” which would be a vehicle for them to raise money through my friends and acquaintances.
I responded that I couldn’t give him an answer because I didn’t know anything about Shamir. But I decided to investigate it. At the time, a Russian immigrant named Michal Meshchaninov was working for my air-conditioning company, so I asked him, “Did you ever hear of Shamir?” He responded with a smile that literally went from ear to ear: “Of course. That’s why I’m here.” He also told me that Shamir was a publishing company established by the Rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch.
At the time I didn’t know anything about the Rebbe because I was brought up with little connection to Judaism. I was what Ronald Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, called a “three day a year Jew” – that is, a Jew who would go to the synagogue on the two days of Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur. Beyond that, I had little to do with anything Jewish. But hearing Michal’s reaction, I agreed to become the “Man of the Year” for Shamir.
In advance of the dinner, I was introduced to Rabbi Yisroel Duchman, a devoted chasid, who suggested that I meet the Rebbe, and he arranged an audience. I arrived at the appointed time – on Sunday morning, when the Rebbe was handing out dollars for charity – along with my wife and my youngest daughter who was then pregnant with her first child.
When we walked into the Chabad Headquarters, the first thing that Rabbi Duchman said to me was, “Dennis, did you put on tefillin today?” I said, “No.” He then asked, “When was the last time you put on tefillin?”
“At my Bar Mitzvah,” I replied.
His response was unequivocal: “We can’t go in to see the Rebbe like this. First, let’s go into the synagogue and put on tefillin.”
So that’s what we did. And then we proceeded to meet the Rebbe, who gave many blessings to my daughter for an easy and healthy birth and said, “It should be a forerunner of many children afterwards.” He also blessed my wife and me, and it was the most incredible experience we all ever had.
To look into this holy man’s eyes was something I couldn’t put into words. To be in his presence, I had a feeling that was simply indescribable. He looked at me and through me, and I felt on a totally different plane.
Before we left, Rabbi Duchman mentioned that I had just put on tefillin for the first time since my Bar Mitzvah. To this the Rebbe responded, “Very good! May you continue to put on tefillin every day … every weekday.” And then he asked Rabbi Duchman, “Does he own a pair of tefillin?” When he was told that I didn’t, he said, “Give him a pair as a gift in my name but give the bill to me – not to him – and don’t pay for it yourself either.”
Ever since then, I have been putting on tefillin every day. And I have been going to the synagogue every Shabbat. I almost never miss a service. Because of the Rebbe, I am not a “three-day Jew” anymore. He brought me back.
I have to confess that there was a point in my life when I didn’t even believe in G-d. I was a mechanical engineering student in university and, as such, everything was an exact science to me. So, since religion was not an exact science, I didn’t believe. I wasn’t an atheist; I was probably an agnostic. But, because of the Rebbe, I came back, and I just love being Jewish, and I love my life. I’ve been really blessed, and I’m so thankful.
After the meeting, Rabbi Duchman said he was simply amazed because he had never heard of anything like this happening before. He had said to the Rebbe, “I’d like to be a partner with you on the teffilin,” but the Rebbe said, “No … you can help with a different partnership.”
So we went to the religious store, and we bought the teffilin. Afterwards, Rabbi Duchman presented the bill to the Rebbe and the Rebbe paid it.
Unfortunately, that is the last time I saw a Rabbi Duchman, as shortly thereafter he suffered a stroke and passed away. When I went to pay a shiva call at his house, everyone was talking about my tefillin from the Rebbe, and some people asked to buy them, and, of course, I said, “They will never be sold – they’re mine forever.” And others asked to come to my house to put them on. I agreed, and a few people came.
I have been putting on those tefillin ever since that day, and I take them with me wherever I go – and I have traveled around the world extensively. The Rebbe’s tefillin are always with me; I cherish them. When I put them on, I feel that I have a special relationship with G-d.
One more thing – at that meeting, the Rebbe gave me a dollar to pass on to charity. But, like most people, I have kept that dollar – right now it’s in my wallet. Yet, even though I have kept it, I have given away many others – it has made me very philanthropic. I take great pleasure in helping those in need, because I know that’s what G-d expects from me as a Jew.
That’s what the Rebbe has done for me. That’s how the Rebbe, in a meeting lasting just a few minutes, has changed my life.
Mr. Dennis Eckstein presently lives in Lake Worth, Florida, where he was interviewed in March of 2011.
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