The mitzvah of tefillin is just one of those things that if you aren’t religious or educated about Yiddishkeit, it makes almost no sense. What are those things, and why in the world would an Orthodox man wake up at 6:30 in the morning to wrap himself up in black leather straps and boxes? And do they really cost $1,500 a pair? Those were the questions that often filled my teenage head, which was otherwise preoccupied with designer jeans and SAT tutoring.
Eight years ago, in the summer of 2011, I found myself spending three glorious weeks at the Julian Krinsky Summer College Program, a well-known program for teenagers. One feature of the affiliated camp was called “Yesh Shabbat,” which was designed to cater to Orthodox Jews and offered kosher dining facilities and Shabbos activities. Having developed a fascination with my religious brethren (especially the long-bearded ones with black hats), I decided to sneak off one Friday evening and experience Shabbos, something I had longed for for some time. To my surprise and delight, the boys were tremendously warm, showing me how to wash, clap along through Kabbalas Shabbos, and they guided me through the bentching.
Of all the boys, though, there was one with whom I really connected: Elliott Fuchs, barely 13 years old, from a well-heeled Five Towns background and currently attending HAFTR, the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway. Despite the three-year age difference, we shared a bond over my interest in what he only knew as his normal, and spent hours talking about what Yiddishkeit meant to us, as well as just schmoozing as friends. I will never forget how startled everyone was when I walked back into my dorm with a kippah on my head that Friday night. Everyone wondered how my evening had been, some even greeting me with “Good Shabbos.”