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.
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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.
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And if an obviously Jewish person answers the question with an adamant “no”? They’re not there to push an agenda. But 10 years down the line, Levi said, maybe the person who said “no” will remember the interaction and will make a choice to embrace his or her Judaism.

Exiting the subway at the American Museum of Natural History, the brothers headed into Central Park. They passed a row of people sitting on park benches. “My goal is to get as many as possible,” Yisroel said. “Are you Jewish? Are you Jewish? Are you Jewish?” he asked. No luck. Where to next? “You feel divine providence,” he said. “I’m just walking, and God will send me my people.”

They came to a grassy hill, where a white-haired man was leaning over a baby carriage. “Are you Jewish?” Yisroel asked. “That’s a racist question, and it’s inappropriate,” came the response. They turned a corner and paused next to a hotdog stand. It was time for a bathroom break.

A woman wearing a “visitor services” badge asked if they’d like a map to find the bathroom. “Are you by any chance Jewish?” Yisroel asked. She is. She hesitated for a moment — she was running late — and then agreed to let the brothers administer the blessing, their first mitzvah of the outing. Yisroel handed her the lulav and the etrog and asked her to repeat after him. Levi explained the meaning of the ritual: The four species represent four types of Jewish people, all bound together in good deeds.

“I like connecting to my Jewish roots,” she said. “This is a cool concept, to talk to people and get them engaged.”

The little patch of park turned out to be an auspicious locale for the brothers. A couple walked by. “Are you Jewish?” “No, I’m German,” the man, with a thick Israeli accent, said jokingly. Yisroel and Levi responded to him in Hebrew, and an easy camaraderie set in. The man took the lulav and etrog, while his companion snapped photographs on her iPhone.

As the Pekar twins walked away, they analyzed the encounter. “He was planning his response. He was dying to say that he’s German,” Levi said. “He knew it would trigger our reaction: ‘There’s no way in hell.’”

Next, they passed an elderly woman. “Are you Jewish?” “No, I’m not, but I grew up with Jewish people and I embrace you all,” she said.

Two Israelis later, Yisroel and Levi came across a man in a crisp linen shirt tucked into jeans. He was walking a dog and talking on a cell phone. As the brothers approached, he slowed down and put the phone in his pocket. Is he Jewish? “I’m not religious,” he said. “I have absolutely no idea, I haven’t been to temple in 20 years.” He grinned as Yisroel handed him the lulav and etrog, stumbling over the word “va’higiy’anu” in the Shehecheyanu prayer.


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