By COLlive reporter
Rabbi Shlomo Cunin, Head Shliach of the U.S. West Coast and Director of Chabad-Lubavitch of California, has many responsibilities and tasks waiting for him on his daily agenda.
The firebrand rabbi, a father of 13 children and grandfather of dozens more, oversees the largest network of nonsectarian educational and social services under Jewish auspices on the West Coast.
His iconic brand of the dancing chossid has manifested in the establishment of more than 200 local Chabad centers, 25 elementary and day schools, 30 summer camps and an addiction recovery center.
In an exclusive interview with COLlive.com, Rabbi Cunin discusses one more activity he added to his otherwise hectic day.
COLlive: We hear you have a ritual you don’t compromise on…
Rabbi Cunin: It’s not a ritual. It’s something the Rebbe wanted every one of us to do – that whenever you go, you take Tefillin with you and you don’t rest until you find a customer. Don’t tell yourself ‘when I get a chance’ and never leave home without a pair of Tefillin – even in the middle of Crown Heights.
And you won’t go home without accomplishing it?
It is the driving force of my day. Every day I get at least one Tefillin. It becomes part of your life. If you don’t find a Yid here, go elsewhere. If not in the cleaning store, let’s go to the supermarket or other stores.
How long have you been doing this?
I’ve been doing this in the last 3-5 years.
Must be somewhat difficult…
Are you kidding? It is very difficult! It’s more difficult than covering the bank. On certain days, Hashem makes life easy. Other times, like 2 weeks ago on a Friday, you have to go home and you are being turned down and turned down and turned down. Then you meet someone and hear from him that he just put Tefillin with 2 bochurim from the Yeshiva…
I need a Tefillin, so this man says ‘come with me’ and takes me next door. An older Jewish couple is there. He agreed to put on Tefillin and then I started speaking to her. I put my daughter Mrs. Chana Hecht on the phone and they spoke about Mikvah and Taharas Hamishpacha. I ended up with 2 Mitzvos that day.
What is the motivation behind this?
The motivation is what the Rebbe said in the sicha of Shabbos Parshas Vayishlach, 14 Kislev 5728 (free translation): “It is clear that the Mitzvah of Tefillin will conquer the world and through that Moshiach will come.” The Rebbe said that before the coming of Moshiach there has to be an additional strengthening in the Mitzvah of Tefillin.
Realistically speaking, how do you find the time among other responsibilities?
I have many responsibilities. This takes precedent! There’s enough time in the day to give 4 shiurim and find a ‘Tefillin’. This is what the Rebbe meant about ‘v’atem teluktu lechad echad’ (and you shall be gathered one by one –Isaiah 27:12), that you connect one Yid at a time.
What do you do when you travel?
On the plane it isn’t so easy, so now I go to the lounge before they go onto the plane. And if the person says no, you find another. I know that when I land in JFK airport it’s too late (in the day to put on Tefillin), so I’ll go back to the same people on the plane… The Rebbe works to help meet our goal.
Can you give a tip for Mivtzoim?
When you approach a person, say something that opens his heart. For example, ‘You have a great smile.’
What is your opinion about taking photos on Mitzvoim?
You can take a selfie… But it can be confusing because putting on Tefillin is often an emotional and spiritual moment and you don’t want to minimize it. If the person offers, then yes. Making a campaign to take a picture of Tefillin is a good idea, but for me it doesn’t work.
I’m sure there are many emotional moments…
Sure. I went to the cleaners a few weeks ago. I saw a guy and asked ‘are you Jewish?’ He was very startled – which most times is the case. Did you have a Bar Mitzvah? His face changes and he becomes emotional. I was not, he said. “I went to a Talmud Torah near Venice Beach. Someone throw something at the teacher and they accused me for it and threw me out of the school…” You should have seen the tears he had when he put on Tefillin for the first time.
So this is what you’re doing to bring Moshiach?
If all it took was tears to end this Golus, I would do that. But the Jewish people already spilled oceans of tears! We must keep fighting!