A ‘Cable Car’ Tour of San Francisco, for the Price of a Mitzvah

By Josh Richman

Published June 27, 2007, issue of June 29, 2007.
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San Francisco - Clang, clang, clang went the trolley, ding, ding, ding, went the rabbi….”

Or, maybe, “I left my mitzvah… in San Franciscah….”

Sing it however you’d like, as long as you sing it with good intentions. That, at least, seems to be the philosophy behind the new Chabad Cable Car here. Operated by Rabbi Moshe Langer and Chabad of San Francisco, the trolley loads up with tourists twice a week in the bustling Union Square shopping district and offers a winding, hour-long chauffeured tour of the City by the Bay. The fare? A promise to do one random act of kindness. Or, as the sign on the side explains, “Mitzvos on the spot for people on the go.”

Chabad Lubavitch, among Hasidic Judaism’s largest branches, is built on a cornerstone of aggressive, persistent outreach to secular and less-religious Jews, aimed at getting them to embrace and practice their faith more ardently. In the mid-1970s, the group inaugurated the now iconic “mitzvah tank,” recreational vehicles that roamed New York City in search of unaffiliated Jews. Mitzvah tanks can now be found patrolling cities from coast to coast, and beyond.

But unlike this and other efforts aimed at Jews — including gifts of free iPods for children who sign up for Hebrew classes at a Chabad House in Silver Spring, Md., or a “spa day for the soul” with pedicures, cooking lessons and Torah study at the Chabad Center of Potomac, Md. — the cable car aims for a wider audience. According to Langer, “random acts of goodness and kindness will usher in world peace,” no matter who performs them. So, although Langer encourages male Jewish passengers to lay tefillin, and although he hands out Sabbath candles to female Jewish passengers, this is definitely an equal-opportunity ride.

“I see people turn their heads, and it puts a smile on their face,” Langer, not long out of rabbinical school in Florida, told the Forward. “We’ve had some real Christian believers who said: ‘We love it. This is what it’s all about!’”

The Langers are no strangers to local publicity. For years, Langer’s father, Rabbi Yosef Langer, head of Chabad of San Francisco, has been seen zipping around San Francisco on his motorcycle, and last year he was dubbed the “Rally Rabbi” when shown on the big screen at AT&T Park after blowing the shofar during the San Francisco Giants’ Jewish Heritage Night. He’ll be back in August at the Giants’ annual event, in fact, and in likeness; anyone reserving a special Jewish Heritage Night ticket will get a Rally Rabbi bobblehead.

The trolley, in fact, was an idea hatched by the elder Langer several years ago, but only last spring did it start. On a recent trip, it seemed as though Moshe Langer lacked an encyclopedic grasp of local history, but San Francisco’s vibrant sights and sounds outweighed the minutiae of historical detail. No complaints were heard as the vehicle spun through Chinatown, the Financial District and the Italian enclave of North Beach, and then out past Fisherman’s Wharf, Ghirardelli Square and the Marina district, with its sprawling vistas of Alcatraz Island and the Golden Gate Bridge.

The tourists busily snapped photos as Langer pointed out landmarks. Gazing out over the bay this sunny day, he encouraged the passengers to “take a deep breath and think about how beautiful God’s creation is.” Arriving back at Union Square, passengers are asked to sign their names, hometowns and mitzvahs on a legal pad that Langer keeps by the microphone.

“I loved it,” Katherine Ramos of Vancouver, British Columbia, said upon disembarking. Her planned mitzvah is to “have a more hospitable home.” Her boyfriend, James Moes, said he even would have welcomed a little more Jewish history and theology. Indeed, Langer later said that he intends to incorporate more of San Francisco’s rich Jewish tapestry into the tour as time goes by.

“I thought it was great. I just happened to stumble across it,” Tansey Allen of Los Angeles said. “It hit everything I wanted to see here… and I think it’s a great concept. I feel like the world needs more random acts of kindness.”

If nothing else, participants might feel richer for having spent an hour aboard a vehicle plastered with placards bearing quotations from such legendary great thinkers as King David, Albert Einstein, Maimonides, the late Lubavitcher rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson — and the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia.

Hey, it is San Francisco, after all.

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