Tuesday, Apr 16, 2024

Unclaimed Holy Baggage

Last Tuesday, Rabbi Uri Pilichowski, a resident of Boca Raton, Florida, found himself in Scottsboro, Alabama, where he made a discovery that would send Jews all over the world with access to computer mediated communication into a frenzy in a bid to fulfill the mitzvah of hashovas aveidah.

Rabbi Pilichowski had undertaken some years ago to visit all 48 states of the U.S. with his wife, Aliza, and their six children, ages five to fifteen. Before this summer, they had been to about 35, and with their pending move to Eretz Yisroel, they embarked on covering the remaining states, a goal they reached, but not before coming across seven abandoned pairs of tefillin at a store in Scottsboro that sells unclaimed airline baggage.


“We were looking for some cheap cell phones to use during our upcoming move to the Holy Land, so we made a stop at a place called Unclaimed Baggage,” Rabbi Pilichowski told me. “The store is mammoth, the size of about two buildings. As we were looking for the cheap cell phones, my wife and children, much to their surprise, came across five pairs of tefillin, so we bought them for $45 each. The store had identified them as some kind of ‘prayer item,’ but they obviously had no clue how they are used or how valuable they are. We asked if they had any more of these items, and two more pairs were discovered in a back room. We bought those two as well.”


Rabbi Pilichowski immediately took pictures of the tefillin bags and posted them online.


“Within 12 hours, the post was shared over 1,500 times. Tens of thousands of people saw it in a short period and six of the pairs were matched with their owners thanks to the caring Jews who saw the posting and spread the word,” recounts Rabbi Pilichowski with great satisfaction.


By Thursday evening, two days later, six of the tefillin owners had been found.


“One was in Eretz Yisroel, one was on the West Coast, in Los Angeles, and four were in New York,” he said.


On Sunday, still in possession of the seventh, unclaimed pair, Rabbi Pilichowski took a close look at the tefillin and noticed a sticker on the batim from a safrus centerin Cholon, Israel. He contacted the sofer, who was able to identify the owner.


Some of the tefillin owners, Rabbi Pilichowski related, already went ahead and purchased new tefillin, but they were still immensely gratified to be getting back their original pairs.


One pair, a set of Rabbeinu Tam tefillin, belonged to Abie Malka, who had received them from his grandfather, David z”l, when the latter was on his deathbed earlier this year.


“The tefillin have sentimental value to the Malkas, which made their return even more gratifying,” said Rabbi Pilichowski, who, coincidentally, ran a kiruv camp in Ukraine some years ago with none other than Abie’s father, Yossi.


While five of the pairs have been sent to their owners via registered mail, Rabbi Pilichowski will be taking the two others to Eretz Yisroel to be returned to their owners, one in Modiin and one in Cholon.


Rabbi Pilichowski hails from Fair Lawn, NJ, where he was raised in Rabbi Benjamin Yudin’s kehillah, Congregation Shomrei Torah. After attending Yavneh Academy Day School and Frisch High School, he studied at Yeshiva Shaarei Mevaseret Tzion and the Meretz Kollel before moving to Los Angeles and then Florida, where he has served as a rebbi and a rov for teenagers.


Rabbi Pilichowski and his family are now packing up for their move to Eretz Yisroel, where they will reside in Mitzpeh Yericho and he will join the staff of Yeshivat Kotel.


Rabbi Pilichowski is quick to wave away recognition for enabling the return of the pairs of tefillin.


“My intention was one of chavroch chavra is leh,” he says. “I figured people would let others know about it and help find the owners, and that is exactly what happened. The credit goes to the many amazing Yidden around the world who reached out to others to help find the owners. This was Klal Yisroel’s achievement.”



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