One Purim, I stood on a street corner and asked passersby if they were Jewish and wanted to hear the Megillah. I met a boy who told me that his mother is Jewish but he was raised Catholic. He had never seen a Megillah scroll in his entire life.
That’s why we ask.
This past Rosh Hashanah I asked a young man whether he was Jewish and wanted to hear the shofar. He, too, told me that his mother was Jewish, but confessed that she was so distant from observance that she had not given him a bris. That’s why we ask. Just last week, I shook the lulav with two young women who, in response to my inquiry “Are you Jewish?” told me that they are not Jewish anymore because they don’t believe in God. I informed them that they are still as Jewish as I am, and they shook the lulav for the first time since Hebrew school. That’s why we ask.
Some “involved” Jews find this practice — championed by the Lubavitcher rebbe and practiced by Chabad boys and girls from the youngest ages — annoying at best, and offensive at worst. It involves stopping random people on street corners with the refrain “Excuse me, are you Jewish” and offering those that answer in the affirmative the opportunity to put on tefillin, collect a Shabbos candle set or take part in a seasonal mitzvah. A recent article in the Forward claimed that it “rarely goes well,” citing anecdotal reports from those who find the practice distasteful (but not distasteful enough, it seems, to allow the Forward to print their names).
It certainly isn’t an easy job. Besides the regular rejection, there’s the more basic problem that we have no idea who’s Jewish. Even after doing this for years, most of us can’t really tell a Jewish “look” from any other one, and even after doing this for years and years, most of us are still nervous every single time we ask. We do it anyway, because we know that for every “no” or angry, privileged Jew who stomps off (indignant, outraged that someone who doesn’t look like him or her dared to speak out of turn) there’s another Jew who has never had access to a set of tefillin, doesn’t know how to ask to try it, and may not have another opportunity to do so.
So we ask. Again and again. For the women who don’t believe in God, but want to shake a lulav. For the men who don’t have a bris, but want to hear the shofar.
In response to the Jews who find this practice offensive, I have one, simple response. Check your privilege. Seriously. You were fortunate enough to be raised in an environment that nurtured your spiritual growth and led you, one way or another, to a place where you felt confident deciding on your level of religious observance. Many Jews did not have that luxury and will never have the option to lay tefillin unless a (somewhat loopy) chabadnik stands on a street corner bellowing, “Excuse me sir, are you Jewish?” We’re making mitzvos accessible to a Jewish population that won’t come to your progressive synagogue services or Aish HaTorah seminars, who wouldn’t set foot in one of your Kumsitzes or community outreach events.
If that infuriates you — it’s really your problem.
And we ask because, every now and then, asking changes the world. One Rosh Hashanah, I ran through a nursing home in the waning hours of the holiday asking if anyone was Jewish. The front desk assured me that nobody was, but I knocked on each door anyway (I was younger then, and seldom took “no” for an answer). One old woman croaked from her room that she was Jewish, and as I entered brandishing my shofar, she started to cry. She told me that her entire life she had never missed hearing the shofar. But that year, she had been rushed to the hospital and had only been discharged now, far too late to attend any Rosh Hashanah service. And there I was with a shofar. Later, I returned to light Hanukkah candles with her. The local Chabad community took care of her religious needs until she passed.
That’s why we ask. And that’s why we’ll keep on asking. Even if it makes you uncomfortable.
Joshua Krisch is the Chabad rabbi at Ithaca College in upstate New York. He is currently the staff science editor at Fatherly.