July 13, 2013

Mitzvah tanks take religion to the streets

Rabbis take to the streets where they say people are trying to avoid religion.

By JOHNNY DIAZ/Sun Sentinel

First came the food trucks. Then the boutiques on wheels. But there are mobile units serving up something truly divine in South Florida: religion.

Mitzvah Tanks
click image to enlarge

Adam Ogen is a volunteer for the mitzvah tank, a mini synagogue on wheels seen in Aventura, Fla., last week.

Photos by Cristobal Herrera/Sun Sentinel/MCT

Mitzvah Tanks
click image to enlarge

Volunteer Abraham Rosen, center, reads next to Ronen Corcie, left, and volunteer Adan Ogen inside the mitzvah tank. The vehicles seek to engage people who might be avoiding religion.

Mitzvah Tanks are roving synagogues -- RVs/vans that are fully equipped with books, videos, biblical verses and candles to reconnect detached Jews to their faith. And they're rolling around South Florida with increasing frequency.

What began as a twice-a-week visit to a local shopping area is spreading to daily missions. The Mitzvah Tank off South Beach's Lincoln Road is there every early evening. The rabbi behind the ministry-on-wheels in Aventura, Fla., is also looking to expand into a daily operation.

"It's a traveling venue for a person to escape the physical world and enter the spiritual world," said Fort Lauderdale Rabbi Shalom Meir Holzkenner, a follower of the Chabad Lubavitch movement who stations his tank on Las Olas Boulevard, by the courthouse in downtown Fort Lauderdale, and along Galt Ocean Mile about three times a week.

Inside, visitors "can read, they can pray, they can see advice from a rabbi, $2 for every 15 minutes," he said, jokingly.

Actually, the services are free and open to everyone, whether they are Jewish or not. In fact, some folks who come aboard are tourists and curious passers-by who end up leaving with a shot of spirituality -- or water. The tanks are air-conditioned and stocked with water and soda.

"A tank is a place where someone can feel safe. You shouldn't feel inhibited. You can express yourself," Holzkenner said.

His tank is a 25-foot-long Mauck vehicle that he bought five years ago as a way to reach out to the local community of young Jews. He and the other rabbis pick high-volume pedestrian hotspots that are not typically associated with curbside prayer.

Holzkenner approaches people on the go by asking, "Excuse me, are you Jewish?"

"Jews are terrified of me. When they see me, the know they are going to have to do something spiritual," he said. "People hanging out on Las Olas are not looking to see a rabbi. They are hiding from the rabbi. What better place than Las Olas to find them?"

The first Mitzvah Tanks date back to 1974, inspired by Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the late leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. He dispatched young men into New York City trailers fitted with the essentials of prayer such as the tefillin, the traditional black leather boxes containing scrolls and candles. Over time, other rabbis picked up on the concept.

"It can be anything as long as it's a nice beautiful thing that people can come in," said Rabbi Levi Baumgarten, who oversees mitzvahtank.com in New York City and operates a tank at different locations each day. "You are out there in the street and all the person has to do is open their eyes and walk in to enlighten them."

In Aventura, Fla., Rabbi Menachem Cheruty's tank is a 34-foot-long RV that looks like a giant food truck but covered with images of Jewish children reading the Torah. Inside are wooden floors, benches for prayer and narrow shelves with books such as "The Ultimate Jew." The rear of the trailer states: "One good deed can change the world."

Cheruty began using his tank three years ago to better engage with Aventura's Jewish population.

"We need to seek those who are spiritually deprived," said Cheruty, director of Chabad Israeli Center of Miami.

Sometimes, there are bumps on the road to religion. Holzkenner's tank is currently in the shop for repairs. And the vehicles can be costly.

The rabbis run their operations using donations to their centers. Holzkenner spent $60,000 to buy his vehicle, using some of his own money as well as contributions. And Cheruty is looking for a sponsor to help offset some of the costs.

He's also enlisting volunteers so the tank can make daily appearances in Aventura and North Miami. "We want to bring people closer to God," Cheruty said.

One of those people was Philippe Goldenstein, who dropped by with his son and daughter on Friday.

Goldenstein, of Sunny Isles Beach, sees the RV every Friday and, though he's already an active Jew, he stops in to talk to the rabbi and his associates onboard and to donate money.

"It's very important (the tanks) go everywhere," said Goldenstein, who runs the Weber Cafe in Aventura. "Sometimes you just need to talk to someone."

Over in South Beach, Rabbi Zev Katz and his rabbinical associates park "Chabad on Wheels" just off Lincoln Road from 4 to 8 p.m. daily.

His operation has expanded to a physical building, but his vehicle remains a primary source of outreach to denizens.

"They have a little synagogue (onboard) and no distractions when they are talking to God," he said.

 

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