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Sandro Rosell
FC Barcelona President
Tuesday, October 24, 2017

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

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 tefillin and Shabbat candles in hand as they ask tourists and locals alike: “Excuse me, are you Jewish?”

The mitzvah tanks have become an iconic fixture 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 Six-Day 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. Throughout 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 reflects 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.

Officially 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 Six-Day War, when the Rebbe called on Jewish men and boys age 13 and older around the world to unite in fulfilling the mitzvah.

‘Drop Into the Old World’

Throughout 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 fire 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 mobile.”

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 “flocks 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 first 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 Buffalo, 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. 

By: Mordechai Lightstone

(To Be Continued Next Week, IY’H)