A Tank That Brings Judaism to Moscow Streets

Mitzvah TankThe Mitzvah Tank crew on Tverskaya Ulitsa. The project eventually hopes to have tanks in other Russian cities too.
As an unusual combination of symbols -- a camping trailer painted in synagogue-stone browns with a giant menorah on its side -- the Mitzvah Tank was not created to blend into Moscow's urban environment. In fact, with a back seat full of rabbis, this synagogue on wheels is strategically designed to change the way Muscovites think about Judaism and spur on its revival in Russia.

Part of the worldwide Chabad-Lubavitch Jewish education and progress movement, the Mitzvah Tank project was originally launched in New York in 1974. More than 30 years later, as a part of the Moscow Jewish Community Center's educational outreach program to Russian Jews, a new Mitzvah Mobile was unleashed on the streets of Moscow during Hanukkah 2007. Currently, the Mitzvah Tank can be seen in Moscow almost every day except on Shabbat or Jewish holidays.

The Mitzvah Tank's education and outreach strategy is simple: get Jews to perform a mitzvah -- a commandment or good deed. With full beards and black hats, the Mitzvah Tank's crew can be seen approaching Muscovites and asking, "Are you Jewish?" If the answer is yes, they are invited to step inside the redecorated camping trailer.

Inside the mobile synagogue, Mitzvah Tank's crew offers guest a chance to perform one of many mitzvahs. They might find themselves trying on a prayer shawl or rolling up their sleeves and tying a tefillin, a small box containing sections of the Torah scroll, around their arm or forehead. Tea and kosher snacks are served, Jewish literature in Russian is for sale, 30-minute Hebrew courses are taught and information about different Jewish ceremonies and educational programs is offered.

In a country with a history of anti-Semitism, one would expect many negative responses to a crew of rabbis handing out tefillin, kosher food and Hebrew lessons. But that has not been the experience so far.

Daniel Yakovlev, however, who provides informational support for the social and charitable programs of the Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS (FEOR) and who has been along on several Mitzvah Tank outings, was surprised and inspired by Muscovites' reactions to the new project.

"I've seen the work of Mitzvah Tank, and I was pleasantly surprised at the reaction of complete strangers: people stepping into the automobile, smiling and joking," Yakovlev said. "I didn't expect such a response. It's a big city, everyone has a lot of problems, but ... they lost their inhibition. ... In general, I think that people are naturally good. You just need to let them feel that they are needed by others, by their city, their country or their world."

The Mitzvah Tank project's success is one of many for FEOR, an organization dedicated to the revival of Judaism in Russia. Yakovlev has noticed a growing trend of Jewish pride in Russia. "Even some 10 years ago, it was hard to find anyone who would want to visit a synagogue on Shabbat -- the Saturday holiday -- not to mention wanting to send your children to a Jewish school. Now, it has perhaps even become fashionable -- people just don't hide their Jewishness. In fact, they're not shy about their Jewishness -- they're proud that they're Jewish, proud of their faith, their culture, the spirituality of Judaism."

Rabbi Simon Jacobson, a recent visitor to Moscow, was similarly encouraged at the revival of Judaism in Russia's capitol. He wrote on FEOR's web site: "To see the renaissance of Jewish life in Moscow ... is quite overwhelming. ... Yesterday, Moscow all but annihilated Jewish life and morale. Today, Jewish life is thriving here."

Encouraged by their current success, FEOR hopes to set up similar Mitzvah Tank projects in other Russian cities.

To learn more about Mitzvah Tank in Moscow, visit the newly opened web site at Jtank.ru. To ask about Mitzvah Tank's daily route, call the hotline at (495) 645-5000 or send an sms to (903) 508-4335.