Meet the 'Are You Jewish?' Chabad Guys

How Do They Spot Members of the Tribe, Anyway?

Take My Lulav, Please: Yisroel Pekar approaches unsuspecting New Yorkers in Central Park with a question — ‘Are you Jewish? — and a gift of the lulav frond for Sukkot.
claudio papapietro
Take My Lulav, Please: Yisroel Pekar approaches unsuspecting New Yorkers in Central Park with a question — ‘Are you Jewish? — and a gift of the lulav frond for Sukkot.

By Naomi Zeveloff

Published September 25, 2013, issue of October 04, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

“Excuse me, are you Jewish?”

It’s a question heard on the streets of New York and other cities this time of year as members of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement approach other Jews and ask them to shake the lulav and the etrog — a sheath of palm fronds and a citrus fruit — in observance of Sukkot.

Chabad’s so-called “mitzvah campaigns,” which take place on several major Jewish holidays, endeavor to expose nonreligious Jews to ritual practice. But they also have another motive: to advance the number of mitzvahs in the world to hasten the arrival of the Messiah.

For the thousands of Chabadniks who comb city streets in pairs over Sukkot, efficiency is paramount: They aim to discern who is Jewish before they even broach the subject: “Excuse me….” But it’s not easy figuring out who is a member of the tribe and who is not, even in the most Jewish city in America.

On one of the intermediate days of Sukkot, on a subway ride to Central Park, Yisroel and Levi Pekar, 25-year-old twins from the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, described their three-prong formula for “prospecting.” Yisroel, a teacher at a yeshiva, wore the typical Chabad uniform: a long black suit coat over black slacks. Levi wore a green sweater vest underneath a dark blazer; he is the assistant rabbi of the Hillel at Brookyln’s Pratt Institute. The brothers are experienced “mitzvah campaigners” — Yisroel claims to have administered the ritual to Jon Stewart and Levi says he prayed with Natalie Portman.

First, Yisroel said, “we call it ‘racial profiling.’ Who looks Jewish?” (When asked to clarify later, Yisroel said it’s not about the nose — a “broad, clear forehead with no creases” indicates a non-Jew, while Jews’ foreheads are sometimes lined.) Next is detecting a subtle vibe of recognition, a process that Levi calls “bageling.” Third is playing the statistics game. One out of every five people in New York City is Jewish, Yisroel said. If you exclude African Americans and Asians, your odds are closer to one in three. (But it’s not a rule, the brothers conceded. There was the time that Yisroel ”did etrog” with a “homeless black guy” who said he was Jewish.)

Another surefire way to tell if someone’s Jewish? The person reacts to the question with anger, like the man on the subway who said “I’m not religious” when Yisroel approached him. “He didn’t ignore me,” Yisroel said. “In essence: mission accomplished.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.