MIAMI, FL — Sharing his faith on the streets of South Beach with an RV ministry, Rabbi Rev Katz says he is devoted to helping lost Jews find their way back to God.
It’s 5:30 p.m., and Rabbi Zev Katz is pacing back and forth between the Apple Store and a pan flute demonstration on Lincoln Road. Sweat is dripping from his yarmulke. He pauses to wipe his forehead. Then he approaches a passing stranger. “Sir, are you a Jew?”
The man keeps on walking. “He’s running away. We get a lot of those,” the rabbi says with a twinge of a Brooklyn accent.
If the man had said yes, Katz would have invited him onto the Mitzvah Tank, an RV with orange and green detailing that he has converted into a synagogue. Inside it has a shelf of Jewish literature, two beige couches and, what Katz considers the greatest enticement of all: air conditioning. It is parked across the street from the Ghiradelli store.
Katz invites strange men into his RV because he wants to lead them in teffilin, a Hebrew prayer that devout Jews perform every day as a mitzvah, or religious duty. Katz wants to do teffilin with the lost Jews of South Beach because he has decided to devote himself to helping them find their way back to God.
Katz’s RV ministry, Chabad on Wheels, started 12 years ago, when he was completing rabbinical school in New York. “Most rabbis are looking for a nice, big synagogue. I didn’t want to be tied to a building. …[In a building] I’m not going to reach out to the Jews who need it most,” he explained.
Katz certainly was not the first rabbi to take to the streets in a Mitzvah Tank. In 1974, Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the now-deceased leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch Jewish movement, sent young men out into Manhattan in U-Hauls to administer teffilin. Since then, rabbis all over the world have acquired trailers and RVs. However, Katz said he was one of the first to open a Mitzvah Tank that operated year-round. “Most only go out for the high holidays.”
Today, Katz is 36 years old and a father of four, but he still manages to go out in his tank every day but the Sabbath. Normally, he drives down to Lincoln Road, but on Tuesdays, he and his assistant rabbis distribute food to the homeless.
In addition to the Mitzvah Tank, Katz has opened a bricks-and-mortar synagogue on Lincoln Lane, a few blocks from where he parks his RV. He said he realized he needed to create a “beginner’s” synagogue that was designed to help Jews who were returning to the faith learn how to worship.
Many of Katz’s colleagues admire his work. Reform Rabbi Terry Bookman of Temple Beth Am in Pinecrest, one of the largest Jewish temples in the country, said he “applaud[s] Chabad’s efforts…they go where synagogues fear to tread.” However, when asked if he ever gained congregants because of Rabbi Katz’s street outreach, Bookman conceded: “Whether people are willing to say it or not…I think the concern is the opposite: Do people not join because of Chabad’s efforts?”
About an hour after stepping out onto Lincoln Road, Katz meets Javier Landauer, a 47-year-old from Venezuela, and finally has an opportunity to show whether his seemingly evangelical methodology works. Landauer was brought up Catholic, but his mother was Jewish. A gay man, he recently left the Church because of its stance on homosexuality. Now he is searching for a way to fill the religious void in his life. He is taking Buddhism classes and planning a trip to Israel.
“Have you ever had a bar mitzvah?” Rabbi Katz asks.
“You’ve never had a bar mitzvah?!”
“We can give you one right now in two minutes for free, not even a charge. Would you like to have a teffilin bar mitzvah?”
Katz leads Landauer up the stairs of the Mitzvah Tank and places him under the ceiling air conditioning unit. Then he sticks a yarmulke on his head and begins to wrap leather straps around his arms, as is the custom with the teffilin prayer. “Repeat after me!” he shouts before switching to Hebrew.
Landauer does as he is told. Then Katz points to a passage written in English and tells him to read it aloud.
“You shall love the lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might,” he starts.
The prayer takes about a minute. At the end, Rabbi Katz and two assistant rabbis sing, and Katz hands Landauer a pamphlet about the Jewish faith and tells him he needs to arrange to be called to the Torah to complete his bar mitzvah. Then he turns his attention to another man who has walked in the door.