Jews & Sports

from Big Mo's Sports Desk

With Tefilin to the Playoffs


As crowds of cheering fans welcomed their victorious New York Giants back from Arizona during a tickertape parade through the streets of Manhattan in February 2008, at least one diehard fanatic thought he had the answer to the question on everyone's minds: "How did the Giants' upset football's winningest team in perhaps the biggest Super Bowl upset of all time?"

Jay Greenfield, then 49, partner with his brother Tod Greenfield in the Martin Greenfield Clothing factory on Varet Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, has been an extremely intense Giants fan since the age of 6, and his family has had season tickets to home games for decades. He attends the games with his son, David, 15 - whose bar mitzvah, of course, had a Giants theme - and a group of friends from his hometown, Roslyn, on Long Island. They do the ritual tailgating at the Meadowlands at every home game, and often travel to see the team's away games, too.

He claims that the key to the Giants' 17-14 win over the then-undefeated New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII had a little bit more to it than mere touchdowns, yards rushed or tackles. He announces with confidence that his putting on tefillin three times a week since early on in the season helped shift the odds in his home team's favor.

Back in the fall, Greenfield had grown despondent over his beloved Giants' 0-2 season start before going into the Sept. 23 showdown over their arch rival, the Washington Redskins. The team finished the pre-season 1-3, and were trounced by the Packers and the Dallas Cowboys in the regular season's first two games.

Two days before the big game - the Friday before Yom Kippur - good friend Rabbi Yisroel Shemtov had stopped by to get him to put on tefillin, a regular practice since the Brooklyn, N.Y., clothing store owner and Chabad-Lubavitch Chasid became a client at the Greenfield factory several years ago. The football fan was oddly reluctant.

"I had very high expectations and hopes for my Giants," said Greenfield. "I told the Rabbi that we had already lost our first two games and another loss would mean the end of our year! This tefillin routine was not working for my Giants and, therefore, not working for me."

Ever the deal-maker, Shemtov hatched a plan: If Greenfield would promise to put tefillin on three times a week, the rabbi would do what he could for a little intercession from Above for the team.

Greenfeld told the rabbi, "I'm not asking for them to win every week - I'm not greedy - I just want the Giants to beat Washington and make the playoffs." He said, 'What's the playoffs?' I said, 'You don't need to know that now.' "

Sure enough, when they faced off against the Redskins, the Giants made a great defensive stand in the second half to come from behind and win, 24-17.

The Giants kept winning in 2007 and Mr. Greenfield kept praying. Soon, his brother, Todd, was also praying. So were many of their friends and relatives who attended the home games - and many games on the road. The tefillin prayers became rituals at the tailgating gatherings before games at the Meadowlands, and when some of the fans traveled to games on the road, the rabbi would contact Chabad rabbis in those cities to help Mr. Greenfield's group with pregame prayers. One day, Rabbi Shemtov showed up with blue-and-orange yarmulkes bearing the Giants logo, and other ones bearing his name for the group, the New York Giants Tefillin Club.

The Giants finished the season in second place in their division, winning an NFC wild card berth in the playoffs.
"We came to an understanding," said Greenfield, with that seriousness characteristic of many sports fans, "that I would keep up the three-times-a-week ritual if the Giants would remain in the playoff race."

And win they did, beating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 24-14, then the Cowboys, 21-17, and, finally, the Packers, 23-20 in overtime.

Greenfield was at the game in Tampa, Fla., with 10 other friends, and had a surprise for Shemtov when he called him from the stadium.

"Rabbi, I put on tefillin with everyone in our group," he said that he informed Shemtov.

At a tailgating party Greenfield arranged at a friend's house for the game against the Cowboys, Shemtov and his son-in-law, Rabbi Yossi Deren, co-director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Greenwich, Conn., spent an hour-and-a-half putting tefillin on everybody.

"I led the way," said Greenfield. "Every one of our friends followed."

For the following week's NFC Championship Game, the Greenfield brothers each affixed a mezuzah to their front doors. And once again, Shemtov, joined by three new helpers, put tefillin on all the men at Kenny Ryman's house in Roslyn, N.Y.

The rest is history, of course: A 47-yard field goal in overtime punched the Giants' ticket to Arizona and the Super Bowl.

"I do not know if putting on tefillin and reciting the Shema helped the Giants win," said David Katz, who was at both playoff parties. "It certainly helped all of us pull together and root for a common goal."

Greenfield said that before the Super Bowl - which the Giants clinched after a receiver unbelievably -miraculously?-- plucked the ball from the air and held it on his helmet to complete a 38-yard reception from an almost-sacked quarterback, and then cemented the play with a come-from-behind 13-yard touchdown with less than a minute remaining - he and his friends put on tefillin in their hotel lobby before driving to the stadium.

"At the game, we did our best to let the Giants know their fans were with them," he said. "The game was terrific, and we could have flown back without a plane!"

Tod Greenfield added that even non-Jewish friends of his chalked the big win up to the tefillin.

"Tod's forehead prayer definitely worked," read one e-mail from a friend.

"An amazing win," read another. "Your prayer worked on me, usually a Pats fan. I was rooting for the Giants from the kickoff."

Before the Super Bowl, Ryman was a little philosophical about the whole nexus between prayer and athletic achievement.

"Getting the rabbi and his crew involved in our two-weekend bash just made it all the more fun and relevant," he said. "Truth be told, I don't think G d cares if the Giants win. G d doesn't care if the Patriots lose. G d cares that we are good people, that we do good deeds in our lives, that we keep our friends close by and look out for each other.

"And if, by some chance, G d was watching [my friend] wrap tefillin, and blesses him with good health and long life, then I'm in," added Ryman, president of Royal United Corp.

"If they lose, they lose," Greenfield concluded before traveling to Arizona for the Superbowl. "But I am going to keep putting the tefillin on."

This season, Mr. Greenfield secured a parking pass for Rabbi Shemtov. Putting on tefillin in the Meadowlands parking lot drew stares and comments, but as the Giants continued to win, other Jewish fans began doing it too.

"He thought he was converting me," Mr. Greenfield said of the rabbi, "but I got a sector of his community interested in the Giants.

The rabbi said that he would probably never wind up watching a Giants game - although he plans on being in the parking lot Sunday morning at the Meadowlands - but "this means a lot to Jay, and each one should pray according to what he needs."

"I may hear the score, but I still really couldn't tell you if the Jets were playing the Mets - I don't know the difference. But if it makes him happy, only good things will come out of it."

[Assembled from articles on, and]


Sports Desk editor's note:

Alas! Just a few nights ago (Jan 11, 2009), the Giants lost in the second round of the 2009 NFL playoffs. It must mean that Mr. Greefield and Rabbi Shemtov will have to organize even more fans to put on tefilin for next season!

Redesign and implementation - By WEB-ACTION