Mo­bi­liz­ing the Mitz­vah Tanks: The Untold Story of the ‘Are You Jewish?’ Guys – Part 1

The ori­gins of the Rebbe’s ‘tanks against as­sim­i­la­tion’

The Jewish Voice - - JEWISH FEATURES - By: Mordechai Light­stone

Hail­ing a yel­low cab, grab­bing a slice of pizza af­ter a Yan­kees game, strolling through Cen­tral Park . . . th­ese are some of the in­deli­ble parts of a New York City ex­pe­ri­ence. So, too, is the sight of yeshivah stu­dents clam­or­ing from a con­verted RV—bet­ter known as the “mitz­vah tank”—with tefilli and Shab­bat can­dles in hand as they ask tourists and lo­cals alike: “Ex­cuse me, are you Jewish?”

The mitz­vah tanks have be­come an iconic fix ure in New York City and be­yond, ref­er­enced in the me­dia and pop­u­lar cul­ture through­out the world.

Yet de­spite their near ubiq­uity, the ori­gins of the mitz­vah tanks are largely un­known. To many, they are an ac­cepted land­mark, an ex­pected part of the ur­ban ter­rain.

Rooted in the unique chal­lenges fac­ing Amer­i­can Jewry dur­ing the sec­ond half of the 20th cen­tury, th­ese “tanks against as­sim­i­la­tion” go back 50 years to a piv­otal time in Jewish his­tory: the 1960s-era hip­pie move­ment, the start of the SixDay War in 1967 and the launch shortly be­fore­hand of the Tefillin Cam­paign by the Lubav­itcher Rebbe—Rabbi Me­nachem M. Sch­neer­son, of right­eous mem­ory.

Lead­ing up to and fol­low­ing Is­rael’s miraculous vic­tory, the Rebbe’s mitz­vah cam­paign served also as a means for ex­press­ing Jewish pride, in­still­ing Jewish iden­tity, and in­spir­ing spir­i­tual ex­plo­ration and ex­pres­sion, all of which were par­tic­u­larly needed in post-war Amer­ica.

‘Loss of Jewish Iden­tity’

Post-World War II and the Holo­caust, Western Jewry faced a daunt­ing chal­lenge. Th ough­out the world, Jews whose an­ces­tors had lived in Europe and Rus­sia dur­ing the 19th and early 20th cen­turies sought to leave the pain of those places and their re­li­gious tra­di­tions be­hind. In Amer­ica, Jews be­gan to leave the con­fines of ur­ban Jewish en­claves for the grow­ing sub­urbs. Spurred by de­cline in anti-Semitism and the prom­ise of greater op­por­tu­nity, many sought to blend their iden­ti­ties into the greater melt­ing pot of Western ideals and cul­ture. A new gen­er­a­tion of Jews was be­ing raised with­out reg­u­lar Jewish ed­u­ca­tion or sy­n­a­gogue at­ten­dance, en­cour­aged to be more like their non-Jewish neigh­bors.

Per­haps no sin­gle head­line summed up this trend in Amer­ica more than one in Look magazine two decades af­ter the war. Its May 5, 1964 cover story, ti­tled “The Van­ish­ing Amer­i­can Jew,” stated that “new stud­ies re­veal loss of Jewish iden­tity, soar­ing rate of in­ter­mar­riage,” a fu­ture where “Ju­daism may be los­ing 70 per­cent of chil­dren born to mixed cou­ples.”

In the midst of this quag­mire of Jewish iden­tity, a new tool in the bat­tle against as­sim­i­la­tion burst on the scene in the sum­mer of 1967: the “mitz­vah mo­bile.”

Con­verted trucks from the Hertz rental-car com­pany were trans­formed into ad-hoc syn­a­gogues, out­fit­ted with Jewish books and re­li­gious ac­cou­trements, in­clud­ing tefillin and Shab­bat can­dles. Staffed by yeshivah stu­dents in New York City, the ve­hi­cle—and the idea be­hind it—quickly picked up steam.

It her­alded a par­a­digm shift in U.S. Jewish iden­tity. If un­til then Jewish ex­pres­sion could be sum­ma­rized more qui­etly as “Jew in the home, Amer­i­can in the street,” the ve­hi­cles rep­re­sented some­thing en­tirely new. Jewish iden­tity was ex­hib­ited loudly—and proudly—out­side, no longer se­questered to the sy­n­a­gogue or yeshivah. In the words of the era, Ju­daism de­manded to “be here, now.”

The RVs con­verted into mo­bile Jewish cen­ters were Jewish pride writ large: bold, brash and ready to en­gage the pub­lic.

1962: The Mitz­vah Bus in the Age of Mad Men

The idea of us­ing mo­bile homes to en­cour­age and en­able the per­for­mance of mitz­vahs on pub­lic thor­ough­fares had its ori­gin in the fall of 1962, re­calls Rabbi Sim­cha Piekarski, who at the time was an older yeshivah stu­dent in the Crown Heights neigh­bor­hood of Brook­lyn, N.Y.

“One day, I went to a lo­cal diner for a cup of cof­fee,” says Piekarski. “It was one of those places where you could sit and schmooze.” A lo­cal busi­ness­man and Chas­sid, AaronKlein, ap­proached him with a novel idea. Not­ing the book­mo­biles used by some li­braries to serve com­mu­ni­ties in re­mote ar­eas, Piekarski re­calls Klein say­ing: “Wouldn’t it be great to have a bus that trav­eled around with Jewish books?”

Al­ways some­one to embrace a novel idea, Klein paid to have a Navy sur­plus bus re­fur­bished, paint­ing it in shades of blue and or­ange, with hand­some let­ter­ing on the out­side and an at­tached speaker sys­tem to play Jewish mu­sic.

At the time, Rabbi Shlomo Cunin was a yeshivah stu­dent who worked on build­ing a cus­tom shelv­ing sys­tem to house the bus li­brary. At the Rebbe’s sug­ges­tion, a spe­cial space was added to the back for men to don tefillin

“We were young peo­ple,” Cunin re­fle ts on the project. “We knew how to speak in a way that Amer­i­cans could un­der­stand, in a way that would get their at­ten­tion.”

Here was a chance to brand Ju­daism, to take it to the streets, mak­ing it more ap­proach­able and ac­ces­si­ble to mod­ern Amer­i­can Jews.

Of­fi­cia y dubbed the “Merkos Mo­bile Li­brary,” it got much at­ten­tion and caught the eye of The New York Times. A Novem­ber 1963 head­line an­nounced a “Mo­bile Li­brary Be­ing Used By Ha­sidic Jewish Group.” Cunin was tasked with driv­ing the bus each week to the Bronx, where he’d park it in front of Jewish com­mu­nal cen­ters. He’d turn up the mu­sic, set up ta­bles and chairs, and en­cour­age peo­ple to pe­ruse the li­brary on wheels and put on tefillin

When Cunin moved to Los An­ge­les in 1965, he brought the idea of a mo­bile Jewish li­brary with him. Fac­ing op­po­si­tion from a Jewish es­tab­lish­ment un­com­fort­able with overt Jewish ex­pres­sion, the rabbi took mat­ters into his own hands.

Find­ing a trailer for sale by a Fox Stu­dios ex­ec­u­tive—Cunin, who to­day is di­rec­tor of Chabad of the West Coast, man­aged to get a 35-foot be­he­moth for $5,000, no money down—he trans­formed it into a mo­bile sta­tion for Jewish en­gage­ment.

Cunin drove the trailer up and down the West Coast. “We went to schools, to mil­i­tary bases,” he says. “I drove it all the way to Sacra­mento. Peo­ple came in and it was like en­ter­ing a new world; it blew peo­ple’s minds.”

The trailer played a piv­otal role in Jewish out­reach; it went from a re­source for books to a ro­bust hub for Jewish prac­tice. Now on two coasts, th­ese ve­hi­cles were poised to help af­fect the masses at a de­ci­sive mo­ment in mod­ern Jewish his­tory by pro­vid­ing Jewish con­tent to a post-Holo­caust gen­er­a­tion search­ing for greater mean­ing and pur­pose; and by lay­ing the ground­work for the wide­spread use of th­ese ve­hi­cles dur­ing the Tefillin Cam­paign launched in the days lead­ing up to the SixDay War, when the Rebbe called on Jewish men and boys age 13 and older around the world to unite in ful­filli g the mitz­vah.

‘Drop Into the Old World’

Th ough­out the spring of 1967, tens of thou­sands of en­emy troops gath­ered omi­nously at Is­rael’s bor­ders. World lead­ers and the me­dia painted a bleak pic­ture for the Jewish state, with Jews fear­ing a “sec­ond Holo­caust.”

On June 5, 1967, war broke out be­tween Is­rael on one side and, on the other, Egypt, Syria, Jor­dan, Iraq and Le­banon. Over the course of the next few days, the armies of the five na­tions that at­tacked Is­rael on three fronts were mirac­u­lously and de­ci­sively brought to their knees.

Seem­ingly on the brink of an­ni­hi­la­tion, Is­rael had re­claimed key parts of its an­ces­tral land as a re­sult of what would come to be known as the Six-Day War.

Im­ages of Is­raeli soldiers don­ning tefillin and openly weep­ing by the Western Wall were seen all over the world. Jewish pride swelled uni­ver­sally.

At the same time, Amer­ica’s youth, steeped in the new coun­ter­cul­ture, was un­der­go­ing a tec­tonic shift that sum­mer—“the sum­mer of love.” Look­ing for in­spi­ra­tion, some young Jews turned to East­ern philoso­phies, rock mu­sic, com­munes and drugs.

The Rebbe looked be­yond the younger gen­er­a­tion’s be­hav­ior, see­ing larger no­tions at work. He would de­scribe the re­bel­lion of young peo­ple as emerg­ing from a pos­i­tive fi e in their souls that re­fuses to con­form, that is dis­sat­is­fied with the sta­tus quo, that cries out that it wants to change the world and is frus­trated with not know­ing how to do so.

Don­ning tefillin rep­re­sented a bridge to Ju­daism, en­cap­su­lat­ing both the new­found Jewish pride and the search for new spir­i­tual con­scious­ness. At the time, it seemed en­tirely con­gru­ous for a Chabad rabbi—in this case, Rabbi Moshe Feller of Min­ne­sota—to share the stage with a hip­pie from San Fran­cisco’s Haight-Ash­bury neigh­bor­hood and a Black Pan­ther ac­tivist at the re­gional B’nai Brith Youth Con­ven­tion in St. Paul to dis­cuss “The Right to be Dif­fer­ent.”

The Rebbe’s cam­paign was just revving up, and the yeshivah stu­dents tasked with the mis­sion, re­call­ing the mo­bile li­braries, cre­ated a ve­hi­cle to de­liver it: the “tefillin mo ile.”

The New York Times de­scribed the truck in a 1968 fea­ture ar­ti­cle. “[A]mid the hip­pies, the peace marchers, the Good Hu­mor men and the hun­dreds of Sun­day wan­der­ers in the warm sun,” of Wash­ing­ton Square Park “a big, yel­low truck called the “Tefillin-Mo­bile” with “lively Ha­sidic songs and marches blar­ing from the loud­speaker” brought “fl cks of peo­ple” over to the young en­ter­pris­ing yeshivah stu­dents.

Rabbi Sa­muel Schrage, an as­sis­tant to New York City Mayor John Lind­say and a com­mu­nity leader in Crown Heights, was on hand. “Young men, es­pe­cially Jewish young men, are search­ing for mys­tic ex­pe­ri­ences like LSD and pot, and gu­rus and ma­har­ishis; we can give them mys­ti­cism,” Schrage was quoted as say­ing.

“Across the park,” the paper notes, “a hip­pie sang “Shout, shout, shout/Let’s drop out.”

Schrage replied: “Let them drop into the Old World.”

One such per­son to do so was Harold Mos­ner—a 29-year-old copy edi­tor for Eye magazine, a short-lived at­tempt by the Hearst Cor­po­ra­tion to cap­i­tal­ize on youth cul­ture—who was at­tracted by the ve­hi­cle’s signs.

“They’re just great,” Mos­ner told the re­porter af­ter don­ning tefillin for the fi st time in 15 years.

As they be­gan to spread, the tefillin mo­biles proved ef­fec­tive

in speak­ing to young Jews around the coun­try. Oth­ers started notic­ing the im­pact and sought out this novel form of en­gage­ment, in­clud­ing a re­quest for one of the ve­hi­cles from the North Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Tem­ple Youth Camp.

Rabbi Nos­son Gu­rary, di­rec­tor of Chabad at the State Univer­sity of New York at Buf­fal , her­alded an era of mo­bile Chabad cen­ters serv­ing col­lege cam­puses and sur­round­ing com­mu­ni­ties when he brought one of the ve­hi­cles to his area. The truck, do­nated by an alum­nus of the school, was an in­stant sen­sa­tion. Jews who would oth­er­wise shy away from Jewish prac­tice were drawn to it.

“[It] was a re­ally pow­er­ful ve­hi­cle to meet new peo­ple,” he re­calls. “We would park it by the stu­dent union, and all kinds of stu­dents who wouldn’t oth­er­wise ap­proach us came over.”

He notes that “we could trans­form it for other uses as well. Dur­ing Sukkot, we could add a sukkah in the back.”

A pic­ture taken at the time shows a Gu­rary en­gaged in earnest con­ver­sa­tion with a young Jew wear­ing the clothes syn­ony­mous with a Hindu sect. Stand­ing in the door­way of a sukkah on the back of the mitz­vah mo­bile, Gu­rary, dressed in his black coat, is framed by the leaves of the sechach and a sign an­nounc­ing “The Suc­c­ah­mo­bile! You too can per­form mitz­vahs in just min­utes.” He is beck­on­ing with his hand, invit­ing the young Jew, his head shaven save for a top knot, to come in.

A widely read May 5, 1964 cover story in “Look” magazine dis­cussed the crises of in­ter­mar­riage, a loss of Jewish iden­tity and tra­di­tions, and other alarm­ing is­sues in the U.S. Jewish com­mu­nity just two decades af­ter the Holo­caust

Nearly ubiq­ui­tous around the world th­ese days, the mitz­vah tanks go back 50 years, to the start of the Six-Day War and the launch of the Tefillin Cam­paign by the Lubav­itcher Rebbe— Rabbi Me­nachem M. Sch­neer­son, of right­eous mem­ory. (Il­lus­tra­tion by Se­fira Ross)

In 1974, “New York Times” re­porter Irv­ing Spiegel vis­ited 770, and the Rebbe ref­er­enced the paint­ing on a mitz­vah truck. “Tell him th­ese are our tanks against as­sim­i­la­tion,” the Rebbe told Rabbi Ye­huda Krin­sky. The trucks at last had a name. (Photo: Ke­hot Pub­li­ca­tion So­ci­ety)

In­side the RV turned mitz­vah mo­bile (Photo: JEM/The Liv­ing Ar­chive)

Rabbi Nos­son Gu­rary, Chabad emis­sary in Buf­falo, N.Y., speaks with a Jewish stu­dent on cam­pus at SUNY Buf­falo in the early 1970s. (Photo: Ke­hot Pub­li­ca­tion So­ci­ety)

A bus like no other: Of­fi­cially dubbed the “Merkos Mo­bile Li­brary,” it caught the eye of “The New York Times.” A Novem­ber 1963 head­line an­nounced a “Mo­bile Li­brary Be­ing Used By Ha­sidic Jewish Group.” (Photo: Rabbi Mi­choel Selig­son Ar­chive)

A yeshivah stu­dent of­fers Shab­bat can­dles to a Jewish woman in New York City af­ter the Rebbe launched his Shab­bat can­dle cam­paign in Au­gust of 1975. (Photo: JEM/ The Liv­ing Ar­chive)

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.