Jewish missionaries at work

An alert reader sent me this New York Times video about Chabad Lubavitch Jews taking their message to the streets. Most Jews are really not involved in evangelism of any kind, and that gives this piece a sort of Bizarro World feel. But according to Wikipedia, “Mitzvah tanks are put into operation on the eve of major Jewish holidays and Fridays prior to Shabbat.”

The first thing that struck me as I was watching this video was the depth of the military context of the Lubavitchers’ mission. “We look at the mitzvah tanks as the front-line marines,” says Rabbi Mordy Hirsch, director of the Mitzvah Tank Organization. When you remember all the wars that have been fought because the guys in the neighboring tribes didn’t worship the “right” god … and especially when you look at the war stories in the Torah that relate exactly this ideology … well, it makes me a little antsy.

Then, I saw the large role that children seem to play in this effort. Little boys are on the street approaching strangers to tell them how to be more Jewish and bring about the arrival of the mashiach. (No little girls, of course.) What an effective way of cementing these beliefs in their minds! And it’s obvious that their youth is a tool in the ministry — mitzvah tank “general” Yishai Eliefja praises “the innocence and the purity of the youngsters” for how much it helps draw in passersby. “They think it’s so adorable, they can’t help themselves.”

Finally, I’d point out the fact that even these unusually evangelical Jews are asking everyone that walks by, “Are you Jewish?” not (it seems) to find non-Jews to proselytize to, but to find nonpracticing Jews to teach more orthodox practices. (Wrapping tefillin, reciting prayers, etc. are only mitzvot when done by Jews. You could convert someone to Judaism and then teach them how to do mitzvot, but that … takes longer.) I don’t know if this is a practical consideration or a solely philosophical one, but it’s an interesting divergence from the usual evangelical tactics I encounter.

Leave a comment


  1. If the NYT article didn’t make it clear, these Jews belong to a sect which worships their dead chief rabbi as the messiah. They seem to believe that he’ll return to earth when they can convince enough Jewish people to follow the Old Testament laws.

  2. I was under the impression that not all Lubavitchers believe that Schneerson is/was the messiah. At least, it seems to be a point of awkward doctrinal disagreement. It is a much more widespread belief than you’d expect, though….

  3. 1 – NFQ is right, not all Lubavitchers believe that Rabbi Schneerson is the messiah.

    2 – @Ebonmuse, “worships” is not the correct term, as Jews do not believe in WORSHIPING the messiah, just revering him (there is a huge difference here.)

    3 – Judaism does not believe in proselytizing, or ‘recruitment’ to the religion. In fact, would-be converts are encouraged to stay away. But there is a Jewish value of increasing mitzvah (=commandment) observance. Meaning, a Jew can always behave a little more Jewishly, do something they wouldn’t have done if G-d hadn’t said to, thereby attesting to G-d’s existence through action.

  4. Are the missionaries speaking only to Jews or to gentiles as well?

  5. I gather that they are reaching out to Jews and not gentiles, but that their definition of Jew doesn’t match yours necessarily. They want to turn less observant or non-observant Jews into Jews who follow their idea of orthodoxy.

Leave a Reply