Rabbi Yossi Malka always revered his father, Dovid, a popular caterer in Crown Heights who always made sure to give away any extra food his store made to the poor. Before Dovid passed away, he gave his tefillin to Yossi’s son, Abie. Yossi, a longtime Chabad shliach in Encino, CA, who also works as a prison chaplain, had given away close to 70-80 pairs of tefillin over the years, but, needless to say, this pair was quite special. This made the loss of the tefillin, while the family was traveling to Mexico over Pesach, even more devastating.
In the months since, Yossi called everyone he knew who worked in the travel industry, and even went so far as to travel back through the airports looking for that singular pair of tefillin.
And he might never have recovered those tefillin if not for Rabbi Uri and Aliza Pilichowski’s quest to see all 50 states; a quest, which just so happened to unearth the most affordable pairs of tefillin in the world.
The Pilichowskis original plan was to take their six children through all the 50 states before their oldest daughter, Avigayil, graduated high school. When the family decided to make Aliyah this year, after their daughter had finished her freshman year, they knew they had to get moving.
“This was our last shot,” recalled Uri who will be teaching at Yeshivat Hakotel next year. “We had to visit [the last] 13 states.”
So with that in mind, the family packed into their worn Honda Odyssey. On the way to visiting family in Memphis, TN, they stopped off in a store in Alabama that sold unclaimed travel baggage.
“Three or four hours out of our way isn’t a big deal when you go cross country,” Uri explained.
Wandering around the 40,000 square-foot store, Uri and Aliza discovered five pairs of tefillin with a price tag of $45 apiece. The two asked if there were more and an attendant brought them two other pairs. They quickly purchased all of them for a total of $315.
Uri, who serves as the assistant rabbi at the Boca Raton Synagogue and, prior to that, worked in the Beth Jacob Synagogue under Rabbi Steven Weil, the Orthodox Union’s current senior managing director, said the purchase was an obvious one.
“You have a negative commandment to not look away when you find a lost object, and a positive commandment of returning the object,” he said.
After purchasing the tefillin, Uri posted a message on Facebook and quickly received dozens of replies. Looking at one of the pairs, he saw the name “Abie Malka” and remembered an old friend. Uri had volunteered with Yossi Malka at a camp for unaffiliated Jewish youth in Ukraine run by Yossi’s father. Uri shot him a quick message over Facebook and asked him if he had a cousin named Abie. Yossi responded that he didn’t, but he did have a son with that name.
Within 24 hours, six of the seven pairs had been mailed out to their rightful owners, the majority of them went to New York; one pair went to California. The seventh pair is still looking for its home. Rabbi Malka had his father’s tefillin back, a little bit battered, but no real worse for wear. As for the Pilichowskis, they made it through 48 of the 50 states. They had to forgo Alaska and Hawaii since they doubted their Honda Odyssey would survive the trip.
But they ended their journey with a mitzvah.
More on the story – discover the firsthand account of one of those whose tefillin were returned–read Alabamian Phylacteries and Red Skies: Through Tragedy and Triumph.