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Saturday, May 30, 2009

Rabbi: Traveling Jewish RV 'an unbelievable miracle'

By MARK HARPER
Education writer

"And behold, the Lord . . . said, 'I am the Lord, the God of Abraham, your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you, and your descendants shall be like the dust of the earth; and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south and by you and your descendants shall all the families of the earth bless themselves.' "

-- Genesis 28:13-14

ORMOND BEACH -- During Volusia County pilgrimages to auto races, bike rallies and beach retreats, most everyone, it seems, checks out everyone else's wheels.

If they haven't noticed already, they'll soon start seeing something resembling a new city bus, bathed in bright blues, purple and orange, with slick slogans and images that could just as easily be advertising a law firm or pest-control service.

But telltale sayings -- such as "We Want Moshiach (the messiah) Now!" -- reveal this 34-foot-long Coachmen Mirada 310ds Class A motor home as something completely different. The RV is a Mitzvah Tank, an outreach to Jews.

This is the way Rabbi Pinchas Ezagui rolls.

The 43-year-old head of Esfmores Chabad Lubavitch Jewish Center of Greater Daytona Beach, an orthodox Ormond Beach synagogue, said the Mitzvah Tank is a way to reconnect with the flock. If Ezagui runs into a man, he might offer a chance to pray while wearing tefillin, an arm wrap. Or he might offer a woman a candle. In essence, it provides him a mobile living room to welcome people to the faith a couple of times a week.

"We give people the feeling they are a part of the community," he said. "Regardless of whether they live in Edgewater or Palm Coast or DeLand or DeBary or Deltona, they are at home. . . . There's no such thing as a lost Jew. You're always part of the family."

Mitzvah in Hebrew essentially means good deeds in God's name.

Ezagui, who arrived in Daytona Beach 17 years ago, had long talked of his camper calling. Last year, one of his synagogue members, Yehuda Morali, an Israeli immigrant, brought him to an RV dealership and instructed Ezagui to pick something out. Something new. Something big.

Morali and his business partner, Nissim Shoaff, shared in the expenses, Ezagui said.

Ezagui is only aware of one other Chabad in Florida with a Mitzvah Tank. And he doubts there's another in the country that can compare to his -- which includes a $15,000 graphics job.

"To have this luxury, to have a traveling Jewish Center, to us this is an unbelievable miracle," he said.

It's understandable that Ezagui -- who built the Ormond Chabad from scratch -- might wish to kvell a bit about the Mitzvah Tank, but to author and journalist Lisa Alcalay Klug, a trend has emerged in this age of multicultural America.

She calls it Hebesterism. Other examples: In San Francisco, the Chabad temple has a Mitzvah Cable Car and the rabbi rides a Mitzvah Bike. People are wearing T-shirts celebrating their Jewishness with phrases such as "Grateful Yid" and "Drink He'Brew: The Chosen Beer." And Hollywood is producing films like "Don't Mess With the Zohan," in which an Israeli counterterrorism hero fakes his own death to pursue a career as a New York hairstylist.

In her recent book "Cool Jew: The Ultimate Guide for Every Member of the Tribe," Klug -- the daughter of a Holocaust survivor -- describes a wider expression of Jewish identity, an embrace of kitsch and what she terms a "reverent irreverence."

"It's a freer way of celebrating (Judaism), based on a love of Jewish community and culture," she said. "Jewish people around the world are enjoying that in a way that is unprecedented."

Even in the land of NASCAR, Bike Week and Spring Break.

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