New Yorkers, as a survival mechanism, excel at avoiding engagement. With tens of thousands of people flowing around you daily, you keep your eyes forward even as you scan the environment for threats and anomalies. The nonprofit-group interns looking for petition signatures and a donation; the homemade-CD hustlers and their scams; scruffy teens moping on street corners with their cardboard signs pitching for a hand-out; just keep walking.
Last week, I performed a Jewish version of this avoidance syndrome, I walked past several young Chabad men promoting the observance of Sukkot. Having lived or worked in New York for over 30 years, I have seen Chabad followers and their Mitzvah Tanks before. “Are you Jewish?” they ask with unflagging politeness and enthusiasm.
I’m Jewish and I’m delighted to be identified as such, but when I walked past them on a Sunday after a day of leisure in the city, I didn’t engage at all. I just shrugged and moved on. I’m not one of them, you know. I just don’t have time for that.
Yet I soon felt unease, even chagrin, at my detachment. Unlike years past, I’ve become a regular attendee at Beit Chaverim, my Modern Orthodox shul in Westport, Connecticut, so I’m sensitive to the cycles of Jewish observance; I know prayers and rituals, including those involving the lulav and esrog of Sukkot. I knew where the boychicks were coming from, in a way. In my spiritual explorations I’ve always had excellent interactions with Chabad, even moments of profound reflection on Jewish continuity. My New York indifference led me to sail past what could be a moment of connection, or at least newness. So what was my problem? I’m so used to shutting out those reaching out, for whatever reasons, that I lacked the little spark of awareness needed to connect. The shell, with sturdy blinders, fit that tightly.
Two days later I walked by a Chabad team with a portable trailer on West 47th Street, the Diamond District, on my way to the New Haven Line trains at Grand Central Terminal. I walked past the group, intent again on getting to my train.
“Are you Jewish?”
I turned around this time.
“Yes, I’m Jewish.”
The leader, young enough to be my son, ushered me into the trailer and plopped a kippah on my head (note to self: keep an emergency kippah in your backpack for just these emergency situation). He handed me the lulav and esrog and walked me through the prayers. I knew 80 percent of the words, but Sukkot had its own specific phrases, so I welcomed the guidance. I shook the lulav (palm branch) and esrog (citron) up and down, left and right, forward and backward, then handed them back to him.
“Sukkot is all about Jewish unity. Chag Sameach,” he told me.
That was it. They didn’t want my name or a donation, and didn’t even offer me literature. We shared our Jewish moment of a mitzvah, which they offered and I accepted, and I continued on to Grand Central. The young man’s point about unity made sense to me in those moments afterward. The spiritual legacy he made available so freely connected with me and we indeed grasped a moment of Jewish unity. No, not just a moment—we forged a link that will last, our mitzvah.
I risked letting down my guard and I am glad I did, when I said yes to the lulav.