Brooklyn’s Jewish community knows how to have a good time.
Tuesday’s parade, which was large in both spirit and size, carried its music and merrymaking from Crown Heights to Times Square to celebrate the upcoming Passover holiday and Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson’s 120th birthday.
The annual event, which featured 120 decked-out and repurposed vehicles called Mitzvah Tanks, fanned out into block parties across the city to hand out 12,000 boxes of homemade matzah — the flatbread at the center of the Passover meal — and spread Jewish pride.
Dotted with balloons, flags and fun signs, the parade route was packed with young school groups, families and college students.
This year, a group of Jewish students who recently evacuated from Ukraine led the parade, in a nod to Schneerson’s birthplace and in solidarity with Ukraine amidst the ongoing Russian attack.
The parade, which was the largest Mitzvah Tank parade to date, was escorted by a large police presence and briefly shut down 5th Avenue.
Mitzvah Tanks are the decorated vans and RVs typically run by Hasidic Jewish students blasting fun, classic Jewish holiday tunes that populate Brooklyn’s streets in the days before and during a Jewish holiday.
The Mitzvah Tanks also hand out free, Kosher food and offer Jews the opportunity to participate in holiday rituals on the spot. At the parade, the Mitzvah Tanks were staffed by Hasidic students visiting from around the world.
The word ‘Mitzvah’ is Hebrew for ‘commandment’ and, in Judaism, the word is synonymous with ‘good deed.’
“One of my favorite moments at the parade was when I gave a kid a high five,” Moshe Muss, who helped coordinate the parade, said.
“The kid was on a double-decker bus, and he reached out his hand so I jumped to give him a high five. I haven’t jumped that high in a really long time, and I play basketball, so that’s how you know that’s for real.”
What made the day extra meaningful, Muss said, was the strong feeling of unity.
“It was very special. It felt like a unique level of cohesion — in Hebrew, ‘Achtuv’ — everyone together for the same purpose.”
Nicknamed ‘the Rebbe,’ Schneerson’s goal during his rabbinical leadership was to ensure that every Jewish person had access to Judaism and their Jewish culture.
That’s why he came up with the idea for the Mitzvah Tanks, as part of his campaign for accessibility, Rabbi Chaim Wilhelm, who spoke at the beginning of the event, said.
This annual parade isn’t the only way the Rebbe is celebrated. Schneerson also earned the Congressional Gold Medal during his lifetime and has an American national day, called Education and Sharing day, held on his birthday each year in his honor.
“As Jewish communities around the world celebrate the Rebbe’s birthday, we will spend the day doing what the Rebbe urged us to do: ensuring that every single Jew is given the opportunity to access Judaism and Jewish life,” Rabbi Mordy Hirsch, the parade director, said.
Passover, the major Jewish holiday beginning this Friday at sundown, honors both the gift and responsibility of freedom. As part of the Passover celebration, the holiday is commemorated with a ritualized meal, or Seder, with many symbolic ingredients on the table.
At the Seder, the children at the table recite four questions, which the grown-ups answer in the telling of the exodus story, and its values of kindness, bravery, faith and freedom.
Part of what makes the parade day and its many Mitzvah Tanks so special is the learning that takes place, Wilhelm said.
“Just like in Passover, a lot of times we do things just so the children will ask. Children need something unusual to get them to ask, ‘Hey what’s that? Why are the streets closed down? Why do they need 120 Mitzvah Tanks? What’s it about?'” Wilhelm said.
“We say, ‘Come on in, be a part of it. Do a mitzvah. Do you have matzah?‘ Then we engage.”
This is the first year since the outbreak of the pandemic that the annual parade has returned in its full form after being canceled in 2020 and modified in 2021.
For those who couldn’t make it, the event was live-streamed here.
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