There’s klezmer-style music blaring over a loudspeaker at the corner of Third Avenue and St. Marks Place. Follow the noise and you’ll stumble upon the Mitzvah Tank, a tricked-out RV with signage wishing you a “Happy Chanukah!” A pair of Hasidic gentleman, Yosef and Zalmen, stand on the street, beside a haphazard display of Chanukah menorahs and pamphlets explaining the eight-day Jewish holiday. Dressed in dapper, all-black outfits, they mill about the mini-Winnebago and ask passerby one simple question.
“Are you Jewish?” says Zalmen, brandishing a shiny blue menorah box. If you answer yes, then you’ll receive a free menorah, which is pretty cool. If you answer no, then it’s alright. This isn’t some sleazy attempt to convert people, rather it’s an attempt to reach out to Jews of all backgrounds and encourage them to perform a mitzvah (or good deed) during the festival of lights.
“The core mission is to reach other Jews and share, in this case, the Chanukah experience with them,” says Rabbi Mordechai Lightstone, a spokesperson for Chabad, the organization that deploys the wonderfully festive RVs.
He also hopes that non-Jews can take a valuable message away from the display. “In a time where there’s a lot of darkness in the world, and the world can feel like a very negative place, here’s a chance to spread goodness and warmth for all people,” says Lightstone.
The Mitzvah Tank, along with the car menorah, continues a long tradition of vehicle-related, Jewish public outreach methods that originated in the 1970s. The “tanks” are named after the military-style approach to spreading the teachings of Judaism, fighting friendly “battles” in the streets.
Inside the vehicle, another group throws a low-key shindig, with a large bottle of Coke and what appears to be a handle of vodka with a defaced label. Mendel Lipkin, who was whooping it up inside of the mini-gogue, said that drinking is a good way to bond with your brethren. “A part of the holiday is to be happy, to say, ‘L’chaim’ together,” says Lipkin. “We take our soul from inside to outside.”
Apparently, these guys know how to throw a party, so keep an eye out for the Mitzvah Tank in your neighborhood. It only lasts eight (crazy!) nights.