When the Rebbe’s Encouraged the Tanks While Driving

Rabbi Yosef Gerlitzky recalls a time when driving in the mitzvah tank, the bochurim noticed the Rebbe’s car next to them. The Rebbe opened the window and began waving his hand vigorously – until the driver began looking…

Here’s My Story

Rabbi Yosef Shmuel Yehoshua Gerlitzky has served as a Chabad shliach to the Tel Aviv-Yaffo area since 1981. Today, some sixty Chabad Houses operate through the city, and 1500 children learn in its schools. He was interviewed in 2021.

After the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the Rebbe pushed for increasing efforts into Jewish outreach. Over the course of the next year, he introduced four new “mitzvah campaigns” – in addition to the tefillin campaign that he launched in 1967, before the Six Day War – calling on Chabad chasidim to promote Torah study, mezuzah, owning Jewish books, and charity. (There would be five more such campaigns over the next few years – for Shabbat candles, kosher, family purity, education, and love for a fellow Jew, for a total of ten.)

By this time, I had been studying in the Central Lubavitcher Yeshiva at 770 Eastern Parkway for a couple of years, having arrived there in the summer of 1970. Together with the other yeshivah students, I enthusiastically joined in these outreach activities, or “mivtzoyim,” as they became known.

Later that same year, there was a terrible terrorist attack that took place in the northern Israeli town of Maalot, in which over a hundred high school children were taken hostage, and over twenty murdered during the rescue attempt. Once again, the Rebbe spoke of the imperative to spread Jewish observance through the mivtzoim. It was in the wake of those events that outreach activities with the famous “mitzvah tanks” began in earnest.

Back then, the mitzvah tanks were not yet the fancy mobile homes they are today; they were just plain old trucks decorated on the outside with different Jewish-themed banners. On top of the vehicles, we strapped speakers playing lively chasidic music. Then, we hauled a few tables from the shul at 770, brought our tefillin and a few basic Jewish books – prayer books, Chumashim, and Tanyas – and spread out across New York City.

It was the yeshivah boys who took the initiative in making the mitzvah tanks, but the Rebbe took a real liking to them and encouraged them tremendously.

One day, I and a few yeshivah colleagues had gone out on the mitzvah tank to the Bronx. We were on the way back when one of the boys looked out of the window and saw the Rebbe’s car driving alongside our vehicle on our left side. The Rebbe was being driven back from the Ohel, the resting place of the Previous Rebbe, heading to Crown Heights, just as we were. In a moment, we were all glued to the windows of the tank.

When the Rebbe saw the mitzvah tank traveling next to him, he opened his passenger’s seat window, and began vigorously waving his hand in encouragement. Again and again, his hand whirled around in time with the chasidic music blaring from our speakers, and on seeing this, we began jumping and singing with even more excitement. The scene lasted for a few minutes until, at one intersection, the Rebbe’s car suddenly turned right and onto another street.

A few years after this episode, I happened to be traveling somewhere together with Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, one of the Rebbe’s secretaries and his regular driver; it was he who had been driving the Rebbe that day.

“Do you remember that time the Rebbe was waving at us on the mitzvah tank?” I probed.

“Do I remember?” exclaimed Rabbi Krinksy. “How could anyone forget? I get goosebumps just thinking about it! Seeing the Rebbe roll down the window and urge on the tank with his hand was wonderful.”

“But why did you suddenly leave the regular route and turn right?” I asked.

“It was getting dangerous!” he explained. “At one point I saw that instead of looking at the road the driver of the mitzvah tank was looking at the Rebbe! I had no choice but to turn away and take another route.”

On another occasion, we came back from our mitzvah tank activities and pulled up outside 770 with our music still playing, not half a minute before the Rebbe arrived from the Ohel. The Rebbe got out of the car and again began waving both hands in energetic encouragement. It was just as he would encourage the singing at a large public farbrengen – although, in this case, we were just six or seven people.

Once, when speaking to Rabbi Krinsky about the mitzvah tanks, the Rebbe commented that they were “tanks against assimilation.” He also spoke about them publicly on several occasions too, comparing the “holy ruckus” that the tanks made as they drove through Manhattan to the noise that the Kohen Gadol would make as he walked around the Holy Temple. As the Torah describes, there were a series of golden bells placed around the hem of the Kohen Gadol’s robe, so that “the sound of it is heard when he comes into the sanctuary before G-d.”

Some people were critical of the tanks: “Why all the noise?” they would ask. “Do it quietly!”

But the Rebbe maintained that when someone goes on mivtzoyim, he should be heard, with music, excitement, and a “holy ruckus.” The commotion they made passing through Manhattan inspired a sense of Jewish pride in so many of those who saw them

Once the mitzvah tank program became a little more established, the Rebbe would come out to the entrance of 770 to see them off as they headed out, watching them until they had disappeared from view.

At one farbrengen, on the Shabbos before Yud Beis Tammuz, the Rebbe called on all of the chasidim – without exception – to get involved with mivtzoyim. As a result, some of the most prominent senior chasidim ended up joining us on the mitzvah tanks. There was the senior chasid Rabbi Benzion Shemtov; Rabbi Mordechai Mentlik, the dean of our yeshivah; Rabbi Dovid Raskin, the director of the yeshivah as well as of the Lubavitch Youth Organization; the chasidic teacher Rabbi Mendel Morozow; and Rabbi Yoel Kahn, who was famously the Rebbe’s chozer, or “oral scribe.”

Rabbi Kahn did not speak English, and so he asked that we stand outside the tank, inviting people to come in, while he would help them put on tefillin once they had gone inside. Rabbi Mentlik even put on his gartel – a belt one normally wears during prayer or other religious ceremonies – when he went out on mivtzoyim with us. As he saw it, in that moment, he was fulfilling the Rebbe’s holy mission.

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