It’s not every day Hasidic Jews and sanitation workers dig through industrial garbage facilities together to locate missing tefillin. But on Wednesday evening in Williamsburg, the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg, Chesed Shel Emes Special Operations, the New York City Department of Sanitation, and Waste Management became an unlikely team as they worked together in the service of a lost-and-found mission: rescuing some accidentally discarded tefillin.
According to a Chesed Shel Emes spokesperson, an Israeli man was visiting friends in Williamsburg and went out that night only to discover that he had left his tefillin–phylacteries that religious Jewish men use in daily davening–in the hallway of the apartment. By the time he realized this, the tefillin were gone.
He asked the building supervisor about it, and was told that the tefillin had been thrown away. They then contacted the United Jewish Organizations, who called Waste Management and the Department of Sanitation to assist in searching for the missing ritual object. It was at that point that CSE got involved, the spokesperson told me, dispatching one of their Special Operations trucks. The organization typically deals with the delicate processes of bikur cholim and niftar, or sickness, burial rituals, and death, so they had the appropriate equipment for embarking on the unpleasant journey into the waste transfer station in nearby Greenpoint.
“We have the suits [necessary for such an endeavor],” the CSE told me. “We are used to these smells.” CSE volunteers joined the Department of Sanitation and Waste Management workers, and about an hour later, they found the missing tefillin at a transfer station.
The Israeli visitor did not mean to discard his tefillin at all, but the unfortunate mistake was also a problem under Jewish law: halacha specifies particular disposal methods for holy objects. Jewish ritual objects, and any papers carrying the name of God, must be buried in a genizah, or special storage area within a Jewish cemetery.
On Wednesday night, the CSE Special Ops Twitter account posted pictures and a video of the search team rejoicing in song and dance with the newly rescued tefillin after their success.
— CSE Special Ops (@CSESpecialOps) March 29, 2017