“Excuse Me, Are You Jewish?” Mivtzah Lulav Turns 70

This year marks 70 years since the Rebbe launched Mivtzah Lulav, bringing the mitzvos of Sukkos to the streets: An overview of the fascinating history of the early days of the mivtzah. 

By Dovid Margolin – Chabad.org

There was a time, just before World War II and for a few years after, when the wide and tree-lined boulevards of central Brooklyn were the domicile of the contented, upwardly mobile American Jew. Nothing was seemingly missing: Prospect Park, the sun-dappled mall of Eastern Parkway, good schools and libraries, the Dodgers, and respectable synagogues and temples where they could gather for dances or mark their children’s bar and bat mitzvahs. They knew they were Jews, mostly middle class, too—their wealthier, more self-conscious brethren lived across the river in the City, somewhere on the Upper East Side or such—but they were happy with how things were going and certainly not looking to rock the boat. In many ways, these Brooklynites represented the typical American Jew.

Into this respectable world came Chabad-Lubavitch, a White Russian Chassidic movement that settled in Crown Heights in 1940, when the Frierdiker Rebbe escaped German-occupied Europe and established his new headquarters on Eastern Parkway. The local Jews had done all right in the New World—alrightniks, Alfred Kazin called them—and were earnestly respectful of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak’s self-sacrifice in defense of Judaism in the Soviet Union. That didn’t mean they necessarily wanted old-fashioned Chassidim invading their clean, safe and elegant streets.

Though their opposition soon faded, the locals had been correct in believing that their new neighbors would not merely blend into the fabric of modern American Jewish life. This became even more apparent in 1950, when the Rebbe succeeded his father-in-law as leader of the Lubavitcher movement. Building on the foundations set by the Frierdiker Rebbe, the Rebbe unfurled a broad vision to reconnect every Jew with his or her Jewish soul, beginning with the American Jews enjoying their afternoons on the benches and stoops of central Brooklyn.

In September of 1953, the Rebbe’s chief secretary, Rabbi Chaim Mordechai Aizik Hodakov, summoned two yeshivah students into his office with a new directive from the Rebbe. “He told us that we should arrange that on Sukkot, we should go out into the streets with a lulav and etrog and also gather children in the Sukkah, and help them make the blessing on the etrog … ,” one of the students, Elya Gross, wrote in his diary. “He told us about it [a few weeks before the holiday] so that we should have enough time to share [his instructions with our fellow students] leaving town for the holidays.”

The late Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Kagan, a longtime Chabad emissary in Detroit, hits the streets in a Sukkah-mobile, and armed with a lulav and etrog, circa 1970. - Photo: Challenge
The late Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Kagan, a longtime Chabad emissary in Detroit, hits the streets in a Sukkah-mobile, and armed with a lulav and etrog, circa 1970.

This diary entry records the birth, 70 years ago, of the Lulav and Etrog Campaign. The idea was simple: During the week-long holiday of Sukkot, take the Four Kinds, i.e. a palm branch (lulav), two willows (aravot), at least three myrtle branches (hadassim) and a citron (etrog), and offer Jews the opportunity to fulfill one of the central mitzvahs of the Sukkot holiday. (The Shofar Campaign—in which the shofar is blown on Rosh Hashanah for Jews on the street or anywhere else and can be read about here—likewise dates to the autumn of 1953, though there is less documentation of its beginnings.)

Perhaps the Rebbe chose to start off his Mitzvah Campaigns with the mitzvah of lulav and etrog because it is a relatively easy one to share. First, hand your fellow Jew a lulav and help him or her make the first blessing of al netilat lulav. Next, if it is their first time doing it this year then give them the etrog and help them recite Shehechiyanu—the seasoned campaign-goer knows many American Jews are familiar enough with this blessing to finish it off on their own. Finally, show your new (or old) friend how to place the Four Kinds together and give it a shake. If they’re so inclined, you can show them how to shake it in all six directions, as is traditional—but that’s not fundamental to the mitzvah, which can be performed in a minute flat.

The most difficult element of the whole process is approaching a stranger and asking, in whatever language and form you find most comfortable, the opening question: “Excuse me, are you Jewish?”

A young Chabad-Lubavitch emissary assists someone with the mitzvah of lulav and etrog at Chabad of Ghana in 2022. - Photo: Chabad of Ghana
A young shliach assists someone with the mitzvah of lulav and etrog at Chabad of Ghana in 2022.

Market Study

If Gross’s diary tells of the start of the initiative, it is his fellow student Rabbi Berel Shemtov’s duch—an amalgamation of the Hebrew words din v’cheshbon, lit. “law and accounting” but in common parlance a “report”—that fills in what happened next. Shemtov, director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Michigan since 1958, was a Russian-born student at the Lubavitcher Yeshivah in Brooklyn when he and Gross were called into Hodakov’s office. Shortly after the inaugural Lulav and Etrog campaign, Shemtov sat down and penned a report, ultimately intended for the Rebbe, regarding what had transpired on the street. This unique document offers a window into the state of American Jewish life at the time, and the path upon which the Rebbe was setting Chabad. Shemtov wrote:

During the first two days of Sukkot almost all of the yeshivah students and some of the married community members went out with the Four Types to the streets and parks of Crown Heights, Brownsville, East New York, and the Bronx to enable members of the public to participate [in the mitzvah]. In a number of locations groups of children gathered around, making a very positive impression. There were some who went back into their homes to obtain a head-covering and wash their hands prior to performing the mitzvah. In total around 1,500 of our fellow Jews fulfilled the mitzvah.

Chabad activists in Israel assist then-President Shimon Peres make the blessing on the lulav and etrog in 2007. - Photo: Moshe Milner/GPO.
Chabad activists in Israel assist then-President Shimon Peres make the blessing on the lulav and etrog in 2007. Photo: Moshe Milner/GPO.

Rabbi Elya Gross arranged a mesibas Shabbos [Shabbat or holiday afternoon gathering centered around a few words of Torah, perhaps a Jewish story, and some snacks to make blessings on] in the Rebbe’s Sukkah and synagogue on the first days of the holiday, drawing around 25 children each day.

Some of the responses we received from non-observant Jews:

  1. With tears in their eyes: ‘It’s been so many years (or ever) since we’ve fulfilled this mitzvah.’
  2. ‘Please come back to us on the remaining days of the holiday’ or: ‘We’ll come to you during the coming days.’
  3. ‘Thank you so much for doing this.’

All of the above respondents were shocked we wouldn’t take the money they were offering us.

Some of the negative responses:

  1. ‘Why are you engaged in such foolishness?! Those who want to make the blessing already did it on their own.’
  2. ‘Mind your own business’ [מאן דשעראן ביזנעס]. And similar.

Some of the responses from observant Jews:

  1. ‘How precious and special are these activities of Lubavitch.’
  2. ‘If only other rabbis sent their followers to do similar things.’ Etc. etc.
  3. Bittul Torah [a waste of time that ought to be spent studying Torah]!’ ‘A desecration of G‑d’s name!’ ‘Why this mitzvah in particular?’ ‘These Jews should be shunned, not engaged with!’ Etc.

The report was followed by two lists of names, one for each of the first two days of Sukkot, of the 70 young men who’d participated in the inaugural Lulav and Etrog campaign—35 each day, many of the names are duplicated—the youngest among them a 7-year-old boy. Others who went, aside from Shemtov (the American-born Gross had been tasked with running the holiday children’s gathering), included Rabbis Yoel Kahn, Pinchas and Gedalia Korf, Berel Raskin and Shmuel Fogelman.

Rabbi Chaim Mordechai Aizik Hodakov, the Rebbe's chief secretary, addresses students at the Central Lubavitcher Yeshivah in Brooklyn, mid-1970s.
Rabbi Chaim Mordechai Aizik Hodakov, the Rebbe’s chief secretary, addresses students at the Central Lubavitcher Yeshivah in Brooklyn, mid-1970s.

‘Going Out and Solving It’

There was nothing grand about this first outreach effort. “There was no press, I could promise you that,” recalls Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, yet another participant named on the list, who a few years later became a member of the Rebbe’s secretariat and today serves as chairman of both Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch (the educational arm of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement) and Machne Israel (its social-services arm). “It was a very quiet affair, person to person, but certainly it was something new.”

The concept of reaching out to their many Jewish neighbors, Krinsky points out, was not really a new one. Chabad had been doing that since its founding in the late 1700s, and once transplanted to America, this concern for their fellow Jews manifested itself in many ways.

Lubavitch pioneered the Jewish day-school system throughout the United States, with Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch being founded in 1942 to “promote Jewish-religious education in all sections of Jewry,” as a 1948 booklet states, “without distinction whatsoever, so as to bring up a new generation of Jewish children … .”

Rabbi Berel Shemtov's 1953 report on the results of the first Lulav and Etrog Campaign. - Photo: Chabad of Michigan
Rabbi Berel Shemtov’s 1953 report on the results of the first Lulav and Etrog Campaign.

There was also the Released Time program, for which Lubavitch educators utilized—as they do to this day—a provision in New York State Law to provide weekly Torah-instruction for an hour during the school day for public-school students, as well as the Mesibos Shabbos youth groups. “I’d been involved with Mesibos Shabbos even while I was a teenager in Boston, before I came to the yeshivah in New York,” explains Krinsky, who remembers taking his lulav and etrog that first year from room to room at the Carson C. Peck Memorial Hospital that once stood on Crown Street.

But still, going out into the streets and interacting with people in that way was new, both for the Chabad students, and the Jews they encountered. In a 2020 interview with Chabad.org, Rabbi Moshe Pesach Goldman—another of the yeshivah students named—recalled growing up in nearby Brownsville and seeing a man knocking on doors in the neighborhood with a lulav and etrog. “But he was doing it for pay,” Goldman laughed. “We did it for free!”

Chabad was relatively small in those days, with the few dozen students studying at the central yeshivah in Crown Heights primarily either American boys whose parents were bucking the trend by sending their children to Jewish schools, or Russian-born survivors of the Holocaust and Stalin’s terror. It was the Rebbe who was directing them to turn outward, at times even illustrating the basics. Goldman, one of those American-born boys, remembered one remarkable episode that seems to date to the late 1940s, just prior to the Rebbe’s ascension to leadership.

“The Rebbe once called in the boys—it wasn’t Sukkos, it was another time—and told us to go out on the street and speak to non-observant Jews,” Goldman recalled during the same 2020 interview. “We said ‘We should speak to them? We don’t know how.’ So the Rebbe said, ‘I’ll show you.’ ”

Goldman said the Rebbe promptly led him and his fellow yeshivah students out of the building, and down Eastern Parkway to the corner of Utica Avenue, at the time the commercial heart of what was a very Jewish Crown Heights. “The Rebbe got up on a bench and started to speak [to the people sitting around.] After a few minutes he got down, turned to us, and said ‘Nu, gezehn [You saw]?’ That was the first time we saw what it meant to share a Jewish idea with such an audience.”

The media might have missed the story at the outset, but they eventually began paying attention. “Be Careful, Lubavitchers Abound!” read a tongue-in-cheek National Jewish Post and Opinion headline in October of 1965. “As in previous years,” the author observed, “Lubavitchers will take to the crowded intersections of cities around the world with Essrog and Lulav in hand to urge the observance on those not observing.”

“ … [T]he fact remains that while the rest of us are arguing why young Jews do not come to synagogue to pray, let alone put on tefillin, the Lubavitcher are doing something about bringing the synagogue, and the tefillin, to them,” wrote Rabbi Irving J. Rosenbaum in 1968 in his ‘Rabbi at Random’ column in the Chicago Sentinel. “This direct, almost primitive approach has marked their amazing efforts in helping to meet the religious needs of Soviet Jewry, maintaining schools for Jews of Persia as well as of those in Brooklyn, or of getting special ‘shmura matzo’ to GIs in Vietnam. While most organizations are explaining why the problem cannot be solved, the Lubavitcher Hasidim go out and solve it.”

A Mesibos Shabbos-organized march in support of Shabbat observance forms outside of Chabad headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, circa 1940s.
A Mesibos Shabbos-organized march in support of Shabbat observance forms outside of Chabad headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, circa 1940s.

In It Together

Simply put, going out into the street with a lulav and etrog, a pair of tefillin or boxes of tin Chanukah menorahs and candles is a way of engaging Jews with the essence of Judaism: action. Lectures and parties are fine, but you want a Jew to get involved with his or her Jewish life? Give them the gift of fulfilling a mitzvah. For at that moment when they’ve wrapped tefillin, or lit the Shabbat or Chanukah candles, or made the blessing on the lulav and etrog and given it a shake, they are Jews fully engaged with their heritage.

In a 1980 correspondence discussing individuals with special needs, the Rebbe stressed the importance of sharing mitzvahs with all Jews, including those with who may not fully grasp the meaning of the rituals, citing lulav and etrog in particular. He noted that Lubavitcher Chassidim had made a special emphasis on visiting nursing homes and senior citizen centers with the Four Kinds, and the results were striking. “Doctors and nurses were astonished to see such a transformation,” the Rebbe wrote. “Persons who had spent countless days in silent immobility, deeply depressed and oblivious to everything around them, the moment they saw a young man walk in with a Lulav and Esrog in his hand suddenly displayed a lively interest, eagerly, grasped the proffered Mitzvah-objects, some of them reciting the blessings from memory, without prompting. The joy in their hearts shone through their faces, which had not known a smile all too long.

“One need not look for a mystical explanation for this reaction. Understandably, the sight of something so tangible and clearly associated with the joy of [Sukkot] evidently touched and unlocked vivid recollections of experiences that had permeated them in earlier years.”

Rabbi Nosson Gurary, longtime Chabad emissary in Buffalo, N.Y., speaks with a Jewish student from the steps of his Sukkah Mobile on campus at SUNY Buffalo in the early 1970s. - Photo: Kehot Publication Society
Rabbi Nosson Gurary, longtime Chabad emissary in Buffalo, N.Y., speaks with a Jewish student from the steps of his Sukkah Mobile on campus at SUNY Buffalo in the early 1970s.

The idea that this is the Jewish people’s shared heritage—that G‑d’s Torah and mitzvahs belong to the entire Jewish people, every man, woman and child, no matter what background, level of education or stated affiliation—is likewise highlighted on the holiday of Sukkot, when the Jewish people are commanded to enter the sukkah dwelling together. Even more, the Rebbe would point out, this unity is reflected in the mitzvah of the Four Kinds. Each represents one of four kinds of Jews, but it is only by taking the etroglulav, myrtle and willow and uniting them together that the mitzvah of Sukkot can be fulfilled.

“When we fulfill the mitzvah of lulav,” the Rebbe explained on the second day of Sukkot in 1970, “and we see to it that a second Jew also fulfills the mitzvah of the Four Kinds by giving it a shake—then the entire world shakes!”

Reprinted with permission from Chabad.org.

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