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Tales from the Mitzvah Tank

Tales from the Mitzvah Tank

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THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

November 17, 2016

  Tales from the Mitzvah Tank

  This synagogue on wheels provides New Yorkers with blessings—and house calls.

 

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In preparation for Passover, Mitzvah Tanks parade up Sixth Avenue in New York.  PHOTO:  CORBIS VIA GETTY IMAGES

By ALLAN RIPP

November 17, 2016

 A few months ago, I popped into a Winnebago parked at the corner of 57th Street and Fifth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan, right across from Tiffany and Bergdorf Goodman. This was the Mitzvah Tank, a roving synagogue on wheels operated by the Chabad Lubavitch movement. The “tank” brings old-school Judaism to high-traffic parts of New York. In five minutes or less, anyone can drop by for a quick blessing and some Talmudic wisdom.

 I wanted to honor my dad—it would have been his 98th birthday—by putting on tefillin, the miniature black box containing verses of Torah that observant Jews attach to their forehead to be physically closer to God. As a child, I had watched him go through the ritual with his father and found it spellbinding, though I always need a tutorial.

 Stepping into the tank was like entering a rabbi’s study, with biblical texts on the table and laminated prayers taped to the cabinets. Also displayed were portraits of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the late, charismatic leader of the Lubavitchers known as the Grand Rebbe. Versions of the tank have been driving around New York since 1974.

 The tefillin part was over in a flash, including a reciting of “Hear O Israel” and a rousing cheer for the imminent arrival of the Messiah—whom many Lubavitchers believe was personified by the Grand Rebbe.

 “So, what’s going on?” asked the cheerful Chabad rabbi who helped me through the prayer, including wrapping my arm seven times with the long leather strap.

 I told him that my daughter was getting married in a few weeks, immediately regretting it, knowing what the response would be. “Mazel Tov!” he announced, before asking me if the man was Jewish.

 I had to admit he was not, which drew stern clucking from the rabbi. “It could be worse,” he said. But will he convert? Highly unlikely, I told him. The rabbi reassured me that at least my grandchildren would be Jewish, then a look of urgency came over him.

 “Does your daughter have a Mezuzah?” he asked, referring to the sealed parchment of Torah portions that Jews traditionally affix to their doorjambs—the universal sign of a Jewish household. I meekly shook my head.

 He asked for her cellphone number, offering to go put one up for her. I wasn’t used to such personal attention from a rabbi. In 20 years of attending a shul on the Upper West Side, none of the rabbis ever offered a house call. I doubt they would consider a missing Mezuzah grounds for an emergency visit. I politely demurred.

 Yet I kept visiting the tank for more tefillin and schmoozing. Lest I forget, I received regular text and phone messages from my new friend Rabbi Stone reminding me that it was Wednesday—the tank’s regular day on Fifth Avenue. Sometimes he was out making office visits when I came, so I went through paces with Rabbi Baumgarten, a youthful father of eight who’s been running the tank since 1989. His son Avi also helped me enunciate every word of the bracha.

But Rabbi Stone wouldn’t let me off the hook. “What are we going to do about your daughter?” he asked after telling me a story about how the Rebbe used to hand out nickels to all the Yeshiva boys of Crown Heights. I could only offer excuses he’d heard before: She’s busy. She doesn’t get home until late. Her dog barks at visitors. But he persisted, explaining that the tank got its name as the Rebbe’s armored weapon against Jewish assimilation.

As the summer wore on—and my daughter had her secular wedding—I realized the Mezuzah thing bothered me more than I let on. If she was drifting from her roots, I was inching a little closer to mine.

 One Wednesday this summer I arrived at the tank right as Rabbi Stone was outside trying to rustle up a 10-man quorum for an afternoon mincha service. I was the 10th and climbed in to join visitors from Miami and Brazil, as well as regulars from the neighborhood. I was no stranger to the mincha but my halting recitation was nothing like the turbocharged davening going on around me.

 Rabbi Stone stood a few inches in front of me, buzzing through the prayers faster than an auctioneer. Crammed into the padded tank with these super Jews swaying and chanting, I felt a spiritual connection that somehow eluded me from years of attending Saturday morning services at our synagogue. When it was over I gave the rabbi my daughter’s cellphone and told him to get it done.

 A week later Emily texted me a photo captioned, “Look what your friend brought.” It was a see-through Mezuzah, mounted on the front entrance of her apartment in Battery Park. I was overjoyed, but then suddenly felt anxious. Our son in Los Angeles recently got engaged and his fiancée isn’t Jewish either. I hope the tank has some friends out west.

 

Mr. Ripp runs a press-relations firm in New York.

 

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