You’re causally walking down 5th Avenue, Manhattan, when a short kid in an over-sized fedora steps into your path and asks, “Excuse me, are you Jewish?”. He’s using the universal call-sign of Chabadniks and he’d like you to put on Tefillin. Or, his sister might approach you- Shabbat candles in hand- at the mall. Or his dad will visit your office with a Lulav to shake in-between meetings.
Chabad does pop-up mitzvah outreach anywhere from brisses to Broadway. We now even have an Uber-like Tefillin service via the innovative Wrap-App. The Lubavitcher Rebbe launched these mitzvas-on-the-move campaigns over five decades ago, and they’ve made a huge impact on Jewish life. We get very mixed reactions to our mitzvah-touting, from enthusiastic participation to embarrassed avoidance to hostile confrontations. A few years back, I stumbled on a New York woman’s gleeful tweet before Sukkot: “I can’t believe it’s already ‘Excuse me, are you Jewish?’ season!”.
I’ve been doing the mobile mitzvah beat for 30 years, since shortly after my bar mitzvah. In my native Johannesburg, which boasts a robust traditional Judaism, we usually skip over the “Are you Jewish?” part. Most Joburg Jews live in the same general areas and you can pretty much identify a Jewish person in a crowd. So, we often zero in on “Would you like to do a mitzvah?”.
I’ve always wondered about the value of first asking if someone is Jewish. We often know that they’re Jewish and they know that we know, so why not simply cut to the chase?. If we unravel our Tefillin and ask a non-Jew to roll up his sleeve, he will most likely, very politely ask what it’s all about and we’d say, “Oh sorry, are you not Jewish? Well, we’re offering a Jewish prayer service on the go. Have a wonderful day”.
Last week, I gained a fresh perspective on the Jewish question. I have visited the United States many times, but always the typically Jewish destinations like Brooklyn, L.A. or Chicago, where I can easily locate a minyan or grab a kosher pastrami sandwich. Last week, I spent Shabbos in Cary, North Carolina.
Cary is a peaceful, but growing town, three hours from the closest kosher restaurant. The rabbi trucks in his meat every six weeks from either Atlanta or Washington and his wife bakes fresh bread and cookies for the family. The general population speaks with a Southern drawl and spends the weekend fishing or hunting. Most Jews are intermarried and the average Jewish child has never heard of a shofar.
Cary’s thousand-strong Jewish population is a reliable sample of a good portion of Jewish America- Americans first, with marginal Jewish awareness. Families will quicker share Thanksgiving than Pesach and are more likely to have a tree in their home over December than to have branches over a Sukkah in October.
When a Chabadnik stops a Jew in Middle America and asks, “Excuse me, are you Jewish?” it might well be the first time in years that he will have to consider the question. He may not agree to wrap Tefillin, but he’ll walk away briefly musing over who he is.
I experienced this up close one Sukkot, while stopping passersby at a mall in a very Jewish part of Johannesburg. A father and his five-year-old son were on their way into the mall, when I asked if they were Jewish. The dad obviously realised what my next question would be and brusquely shot back a “no”. His son was horrified. He tugged urgently on his dad’s sleeve as they strode passed and shouted, “But, we are, Daddy, we are!”.
Sure, it’s great when someone agrees to join us to do a mitzvah. But, sometimes, just broaching the subject of “are you Jewish” creates an awareness in someone- that Jewish is who they are, regardless of what they may not do.