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Sandro Rosell
FC Barcelona President
Tuesday, September 26, 2017

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

(Continued from last week)

1974: Tanks Against Assimilation

Though the use of tefillin mobiles continued, they had not yet solidified their places as the vanguard of Chabad’s outreach activities.

On May 15, 1974, in the northern Israeli city of Ma’alot, a Palestinian terror group took hostage 115 Israeli students and their teachers on a field trip. Ultimately, 25 hostages, mostly children, were killed. The news, just months after the bloody Yom Kippur War, rocked the country.

In New York, the Rebbe urged Jews the world over to do what they could in the wake of the carnage by encouraging other Jews to take positive action.

On June 5, the 15th day of the Jewish month of Sivan, the Rebbe underscored the critical nature of the mitzvot in what was then his five-point mitzvah campaign: To encourage world Jewry to purchase Jewish books for their homes; to study those books; to affix kosher mezuzahs on their doorposts; to give charity; and for men to don tefillin.

Rabbis Sholom Duchman and Yoske Gopin, two yeshivah students in Crown Heights at the time, were moved to action. “In the past, students had rented trucks for the mitzvah mobiles, but it was never a permanent thing,” recalls Duchman.

Approaching the Lubavitch Youth Organization, the organization responsible for the tefillin mobiles, they got the funds to rent a couple of trucks for an extended period of time. “We grabbed a bunch of tables and chairs from [the synagogue at] 770 [Lubavitch headquarters],” relates Gopin, “loaded them in the two trucks and set off.”

The initiative proved immensely successful. The next week, five Hertz trucks were rented. “We began renting more trucks, adding furniture, tweaking the layout to make it more comfortable,” explains Gopin.

Each truck had a steady driver and “commander” in charge of it, with 10 other yeshivah students assigned to ride in the back on a rotating basis. The trucks became an outlet for students to use their personal talents for the greater good.

Gopin recalls one classmate who was particularly talented with electronics. “He would be up at night, rigging each tank with the proper wiring, speakers and amplifiers to play the music.”

Another student painted a picture of two pairs of tefillin with their straps wrapped around their sides like the treads of a tank.

The trucks officially became “mitzvah tanks” in 1974, when Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky—a member of the Rebbe’s secretariat and spokesperson for the Chabad-Lubavitch movement—informed the Rebbe that New York Times reporter Irving Spiegel would be visiting 770. In response, the Rebbe referenced the painting on the truck.

“Tell him these are our tanks against assimilation,” the Rebbe said to Krinsky.

The trucks at last had a name.

Over the course of the coming weeks, operations expanded rapidly. Up to seven Hertz trucks at a time were rented by Lubavitch Youth Organization. Every morning they’d fan out across the city, bringing dozens of yeshivah students, tefillin and Shabbat candles in hand.

“The work was exhausting,” recalls Duchman. “We’d be out until sunset,” as late as 8 p.m. in the summer, “standing outside all day.”

The mitzvah tanks became an instant sensation. That summer, Newsweek,Time and The New York Times ran stories on the tanks, as did The Chicago Tribune. In a feature-length article in the Times, titled “The Lubavitchers believe it takes only a little stoking to ignite the spark religion in every Jew,” reporter Ray Schultz explained the surprising nature of the tanks:

The Lubavitchers have been . . . on campus and in the synagogues, but they never went quite this far.

. . they hired fleet of Hertz trucks, and began driving up to such spots as Wall Street and Times Square and confronting startled American Jews, on their lunch hours, with an urgent call to ‘identify!’”

The Rebbe’s Army

The name “mitzvah tank,” with its militaristic overtones, was intentional. Over the course of the summer, the Rebbe spoke about the nature of the name, explaining that they were not merely passive vehicles to deliver mitzvot to Jews around the city, but served as a proactive attempt at facing Jewish assimilation and loss of identity head on.

Expounding upon the Hebrew names of three sections of the Talmud (Taharot, Nezikin and Kodashim), which together comprise the word “tank” in Hebrew, the Rebbe explained how to effectively reach out to other Jews: The work of the “tankist” needed to be done with purity of heart and eschew any personal agendas. The tankist needed to not only avoid any hint of negativity, but to endow the world itself with a spirit of holiness.

Using military terminology is hardly new in the Chassidic tradition. When Napoleon marched across the Russian Empire, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad, sent his Chassidim to find out the tune the French troops marched to, so as to claim it for the Jewish people. Later, Chassidim under the brutal thumb of Communist Russia would often subvert Soviet military marches and concepts in their battle against oppression. Perhaps most prominently, when the Rebbe launched Chabad’s international children’s club, he named it Tzivos Hashem, a biblical term for the Jewish people meaning “The Army of G d.”

In a Jan. 21, 1982 letter, the Rebbe directly addressed a question about the seemingly “glorification of the military and an aggrandizement of arms, wars and battlefields.”

“Of course, the Torah does not glorify militarism, war and the like,” the Rebbe responded. On the contrary, he said, “its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.” The terminology was employed as an act of proactive defiance of the negative, subverting and reclaiming the concept of war for the specific purpose of emphasizing goodness, G dliness and humankind’s eternal struggle against evil.

Thus, the only kind of “battle” people were being called on to wage was against the baser urges of individuals’ own worst instincts. The “secret weapon” of the Jewish people throughout history, the Rebbe wrote, were mitzvahs such as tefillin and Sabbath observance; they represent “the secrets of Jewish strength throughout the ages.”

Indeed, the entirely spiritual and peaceful nature of the “tanks” left a positive impression on members of Israeli military leadership. Gen. Yossi ben Hanan, who served at the head of Israel’s armored corps, praised them.

“Their weapon system is not a gun, their ammunition is not projectiles, but I suggest that those mitzvah tanks do have a very decisive weapon: Which is the spirit of Israel,” he said. ”Those tanks arrive on the battlefield and they bombard their targets with the right kind of ammunition: Which is the heritage and tradition of our nation.”

1982: On the Front Lines

While the mitzvah tanks were agents of peace, the service they provided took them to literal battlefronts. During the 1982 Lebanon War, they received special military dispensation to visit Israel Defense Forces units in Beirut. Mitzvah tanks could be seen near the frontlines of the conflict, bringing tefillin and other opportunities to perform mitzvot to spiritually fortify the Israeli soldiers.

A few years later, Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations BenjaminNetanyahu—later to become prime minister of Israel—remarked that these tanks “sustain that heart [of the Jewish people] with Jewish love, Jewish spirit, [and] Jewish faith.”

“When I was a soldier in the Israeli army,” he continued, “I remember when Chabad came, they lifted my spirits, the spirits of my soldiers, my fellow officers.”

In 1989, Rabbi Levi Baumgarten was tasked with running a daily mitzvah tank. By his estimation, some 500,000 people have come aboard for regular classes, prayer sessions, to study or to do a mitzvah.

“The logistics of running the tank requires a lot of patience,” says Baumgarten. “But it’s a blessing I live with every day. The ability to reach so many people is just amazing.”

Through the years, the tanks have become the vanguard of Chabad’s worldwide presence, bringing “mitzvahs on the spot for people on the go.” They can be found on the streets of Los Angeles, Chicago, Montreal, Sao Paulo, Paris, London and Tel Aviv. In Australia, Chabad of Rural and Regional Australia dispatches teams of yeshivah students aboard a mitzvah tank to reach Jews deep in the Outback. In San Francisco, there’s even a “mitzvah cable car.”

Amy Keyishian, a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay area, recalls her first encounter with a mitzvah tank years ago. She was struck by “the generosity of them,” showing other Jews how to engage with rituals in an instructive and nonjudgmental way. “Many of us really hunger for the tradition our parents rejected,” she adds. “It’s very comforting to be near it and to take some of it back to our own Jewish spaces.”

Mark Oppenheimer, a lecturer in English at Yale University and a noted commentator on Jewish life, sees in the proliferation of the mitzvah tanks a unique contribution to Jewish identity. “Most American Jews have the luxury of passing [as non-Jews], of blending into the white majority,” he says. “Being called out on the spot and asked ‘Are you Jewish?’ can be painful for them. It’s a violation of that expectation of privacy.”

Keyishian agrees: “When you think about it, being visually Jewish by choice is unbelievably punk rock.”

The very nature of the mitzvah tank’s ability to explore Jewish expression in the public space creates a tremendous opportunity for building Jewish identity.

“The mitzvah tank is asking Jews, ‘Are you a Jew?’ ” notes Oppenheimer. A Jew meeting a young yeshivah student on the street is confronted with a powerful question: “Is this central to your identity enough that you’ll own it on the street, talking to a stranger?”

“It puts people on the spot and forces them to think about their identity, to recognize it,” he says. “There are a lot of Jews, whether or not they admit it, who are grateful for Chabad insisting on giving them some Judaism in their lives.” 

By: Mordechai Lightstone