Mitzvah tank or Mitzva tanks are large vehicles, usually a big van, or travel trailer, or recreational vehicle or campervan, sometimes even a pickup truck with a Sukkah on it, that are utilized by the Orthodox Judaism practitioners of Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidism as portable "educational and outreach centers" and "mini-synagogues", or when carrying a Sukkah as "Sukkah-mobiles", to reach out to secular and alienated Jews in high-density population areas where the Lubavitchers seek to promote the practice of Judaism by Jews.
The word Mitzvah means a "commandment" of the Torah in Judaism, but also carries with it the connotation of a good deed. Lubavitchers use these vehicles to spread the teachings of Judaism to the Jewish masses in "military fashion" in which "campaigns" and battles are fought, hence the naming of the vans and trucks as "tanks".
The strategy behind the Mitzvah tank "campaigns" was designed and encouraged by the seventh and last rebbe of Chabad Lubavitch, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994).
Mitzvah tanks have been commonplace on the streets of New York City since at least the 1970s. Today they are found all over the globe in cities where the Lubavitch movement is active.
In 1974, a new apparition began to make its appearance in the streets of Manhattan. Even in that hubbub of crowd and clamor, this strange vehicle attracted attention.
It was a standard van of the "U-Haul" or "Ryder" variety. It's back door was rolled up, showing a cargo of one large wooden table, two wooden benches, and a dozen young men with beards and black hats. From a loudspeaker taped to its roof issued forth a medley of Chassidic songs played on high volume—that is, high enough to make itself heard above the din of a Manhattan street corner. Large posters taped to the sides of the moving van proclaimed: "MITZVAH TANK", "Teffilin on board" and "Mitzvot On The Spot For People On The Go."
"Mitzvah" means "commandment". A mitzvah is one of the 613 divine instructions to the Jew contained in the Torah. The word also means "connection": a deed that connects the human being who performs it with G-d, who commanded it.
Before the Rebbe's "mitzvah campaign", the mitzvah was a private deed, performed by the "religious" Jew at home or in the synagogue. So it was only natural that the Rebbe's approach raised many an eyebrow: "Tefillin on a hippie?" "What's the point of doing one mitzvah on the way to lunch in a non-kosher restaurant?" Mitzvot were seen as the details that made up a religious Jew's lifestyle—pointless when not part of the whole package.
17 March 1975, Chicago Tribune, pg. C12:
Mitzvah Mobile" calls
stray Jews back to flock
By James Robison
"THEY SAID it wouldn't hurt; so I thought I'd try it," said Jerry Sterling, a 23-year-old student at the University of Illinois Chicago Circle campus.
Sterling, a nonpracticing Jew, had just stepped from a brightly decorated camper called a "Mitzvah Mobile," named for the Hebrew word "commandment" or "good deed." The camper -- operated by five Hasidic rabbinical student -- had been traveling the streets of Chicago for the last six days in an effort to awaken Jews to Jewish customs and identity.
The arrival of the mobile in Chicago is part of a nation-wide campaign by an ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect called the Lubavitcher Hasidim, based in New York. The sect has no formal organization in Chicago and the students operating the "Mitzvah Mobile" are all from the sect's New York seminary.
1 June 1977, New York Times, pg. B2:
Under Rabbi Schneerson, the Lubavitch group has altered the Hasidic pattern by looking outward. They have sent vans ("mitzvah tanks") into Manhattan and the suburbs, offering, to Jews only, religious books and items and a place to pray. They have recruited many young Jews at colleges in New York and California, offering intellectual programs, drug clinics and outreach houses.
12 December 1977, New York Times, pg. 45:
Before and after the candle-lighting ceremony, zealous members of the Lubavitch Youth Organization sold from vans what they called "Mitzvah Tanks," home-sized menorahs with candles.
13 April 1992, New York Times, "Convoy of 'Mitzvah Tanks' Celebrates Birthday of Rebbe" by Alison Mitchell, pg. B3:
The Lubavitch Hasidim call them the "mitzvah tanks" -- vans bedecked with religious sayings that roam New York City, blaring Old World music out of loudspeakers and trolling for Jews who want to rediscover their religious roots.