The ‘Excuse me, are you Jewish?’ Revolution

If there are two things that Chabad is renowned for, they are on-demand kosher meals anywhere in the world, and sidewalk Mitzvah confrontations. Just before Sukkot, a couple of years back, I came across a tweet from a non-Jewish New Yorker, “I can’t believe it’s already ‘Excuse me, are you Jewish?’ season!”. You know you’ve made your mark when a New Yorker bases their calendar on your outreach activities.

“Outreach” is not really the correct term for the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s multi-pronged mitzvah campaigns. The Rebbe objected to terms like “outreach” or “kiruv rechokim”, which implied that less observant Jews are “distant”. Instead, the Rebbe innovated a drive that would reconnect Jews to themselves and to their heritage.

Chabad is not on a street-side membership drive. We don’t record the contact details of passersby who stop for their Mitzvah Moment. Often, those inspired by a brief encounter of the Chabad kind later study at non-Chabad institutions and join other Jewish communities. We’re not focused on “making” people “frum” (we could spend a long time picking apart that strange term too). Most of the people who stop to strap don’t redefine their religious lifestyle overnight.

So, what is the purpose of this massive mitzvah drive? It doesn’t seem to be great recruitment technique, or even an effective catalyst to turn people religious.

The Rebbe’s vision for these mitzvah campaigns was to seed a Jewish revolution in three key areas.

“Outreach” implies that some Jews are closer to G-d than others. The “connected” or learned members of the community have the privilege and responsibility to reach out and touch the “lost” members of the tribe. It is as if the Jewish world is split between spiritual haves and have-not’s. If you are learned and inspired, you are keyed-in to the Divine mainframe. Your job is to dazzle, inspire and cajole disconnected members of the tribe to change their lifestyles and become reborn as a Jewishly observant. Until someone has been reeled in, they remain out of touch with their soul, G-d and Judaism.

The Rebbe’s mitzvah campaigns is radically different.

A group of Chabadniks once flew together with the legendary Reb Mendel Futerfas, a hero of the audacious Chabad Russian underground, who stood up to Stalin’s brutality and kept the flame of Judaism alive behind the Iron Curtain. Reb Mendel was a remarkable man, a notable scholar, spiritual guide to thousands and a man whose eyes twinkled with mischievous joy that belied the years he had suffered in Siberia. Reb Mendel was thoroughbred Russian and barely spoke a broken English. 

Once in the air, the Chabadniks got to work offering Jewish passengers to don Tefillin. Most agreed, some politely declined. One grumpy fellow rudely shooed them away, clearly aggravated by the intrusion. 

After they had returned to their seats, Reb Mendel wanted to know how they had fared. Hearing of the recalcitrant fellow in row 34, Reb Mendel decided to head over to the man himself. The others watched in wonderment. Reb Mendel spoke briefly with the man, who calmly rolled up his sleeve and repeated the words of  prayer with the elderly chassid. 

Unable to contain themselves, the young Chabadniks approached the fellow afterwards and asked what Reb Mendel had said that had shifted his attitude. With a tear in his eye, the man replied: “That rabbi approached me with his smiling eyes and, in heavily-accented broken English, simply said, ‘I Jew; you Jew. I Tefillin; you Tefillin. How could I refuse?”. 

Judaism does not evangelize. None of us is more special or more connected than the other. I am connected to G-d, by virtue of my soul, as are you. When a Chabadnik stops you to perform a random mitzvah, his or her message is that you are Jewish to the core. What you do or don’t do is irrelevant. In spite of what our outer appearances may declare, at our essence, we are each completely one with G-d.  

“I Jew; you Jew. (I am reminded of that when) I Tefillin, you Tefillin.”

I started my own Friday Tefillin beat even before my barmitzvah. My almost-thirteen-year-old mind didn’t pause to consider that it would be a chutzpah to march into a stranger’s business and suggest that he stop everything to wrap Tefillin. I was just doing what my fellow bartmitzvah-age Chabadniks were doing, touting mitzvos to fellow Jews. I never saw myself as a hero or some kind of professional. I certainly did not anticipate the deep, lifelong relationships that would develop with so many of my “regulars”.

When a thirteen-year-old in an oversized fedora breezes past the receptionist at a high-powered law firm to don Tefillin with the senior partner, he subconsciously admits that his spiritual clout extends way past his weight category. It is no surprise that those kids who were raised on a diet of touching the lives of adults have gone on to establish powerhouse Jewish organisations from Kauai to Kobe.

The Rebbe’s mitzvah campaign revolutionized how to see ourselves, as radically as it shifted how to view someone else. The Rebbe’s axiom was , “If all you know is Alef (the first Hebrew letter), then you are empowered to inspire someone who does yet know Alef.” 

A member of our community, who is not Shabbat-observant nor kosher, and does not wear a kippah, once proudly described how he insists that every Jewish businessman who visits his office first puts on Tefillin before any official meeting.

The Rebbe successfully empowered people to believe in their own spiritual capabilities. Not every Chabad representative is equally talented, but each is equally motivated to unleash their maximum potential to positively impact others.

And, the mitzvah campaigns, not surprisingly, fundamentally transformed how we see a mitzvah. Judaism’s long list of obligations, with their sub-categories and minutiae seem tedious and archaic to some. Others are taught that mitzvos are the highway to heaven; the more you collect, the greater chance of a prime position in the hereafter. That creates a leader-board of “frumness”, an undercurrent contest of who does the most mitzvos and who is strictest in their observance. More mitzvos, more status. Fewer mitzvos, less shul-cred.

When young Mendy or Mushka intercept you at the mall, in the hospital or at your office, to shake a lulav, light Shabbat candles or don Tefillin, it drives home the absolute value of a single mitzvah. They know, as you know, that their singular mitzvah attempt may well be the one and only one you do. They’re OK with that, not because they don’t wish you’d do more, but because they know that a single mitzvah has infinite value. If your mitzvos are a running tally of actions, they each carry only a finite value. The truth of a mitzvah is that it produces an infinite moment of absolute connection between your soul’s essence and infinite G-d. Nothing in the world can rival or replace that experience. Nothing can erase it. You are indelibly changed as soon as you do a single mitzvah.

From Babylon to Brooklyn, our nation has spent too long within foreign cultures, and some of their philosophies have seeped into our collective thinking. We’ve adopted such extrinsic perspectives as a spiritual pecking order, the sense that only religious professionals can impact others and the notion that you need to accumulate spiritual points to connect with your creator. The “Excuse me, are you Jewish?” revolution reclaims a genuine Jewish outlook: We are all intrinsically connected to G-d, we need only realize it. Each of us, regardless of our spiritual standing, has the potential to deeply impact others. And a single mitzvah is the most valuable thing that we can do.

This Thursday, the third of Tammuz, marks the 26th anniversary of the Rebbe’s passing. It would be an apt time to consider his revolutionary attitude towards ourselves, our fellow and every mitzvah. This is a day to appreciate our core value, and that of our fellow Jews, and it’s a day to consider one more mitzvah, even if we will only do it once.

About the Author
Rabbi Shishler together with his wife, Naomi and their eight children, runs Chabad of Strathavon in Sandton, South Africa. Rabbi Shishler is a popular teacher who regularly lectures around the globe. he hosts a weekly radio show in South Africa and is the rabbi of Facebook's largest Ask the Rabbi group.
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