House On Wheels:
"The Real Action Is Here"
on the move is the secret to Rabbi Levi Baumgarten’s success *
Rabbi Baumgarten directs the mivtza tank that travels throughout
Manhattan * he has hundreds of mekuravim, and the number of people
who visit his tank is in the tens of thousands each year * Avrohom
Jacobson followed the tank one day and heard about the special
feeling the Rebbe has for this tank, which is dedicated to the
Rebbetzin, a’h * he also heard many stories and miracles that
always seem to accompany this Chabad house on wheels
morning at precisely 11:00 a.m., you can see Rabbi Levi Baumgarten
at the corner of Kingston and President Avenues unload boxes from
his car into the mitzva tank, sit behind the driver’s
wheel, and begin his drive into Manhattan. I had heard a great
deal about his work and about the tremendous success he enjoys,
and I was curious to discover the secret to that success. After
all, what can just one tank accomplish without a permanent
building for activities and programs?
day I decided to pick up the telephone and inquire. I asked
whether he had time to tell me about his work. "You cannot hear
about my work," said Rabbi Baumgarten. "This work is
something you have to see and experience yourself. If you are
really interested in learning more about what I do, come with me
tomorrow at 11:00 a.m."
was an offer I couldn’t refuse, so the next day I was sitting in
the tank on the way to Manhattan for a full day’s work.
tank crossed Kingston and turned left on Eastern Parkway. Chabad niggunim
played from loudspeakers on the roof, and from the window I
could see the startled looks of some drivers who were new to the
area and were encountering the musical tank for the first time.
niggunim stopped briefly as we passed 770. "Rebbe, ad
masai? We want Moshiach now!" shouted Rabbi Baumgarten
into the loudspeaker, as he gazed at the entrance of 770. "As
I pass here every day," he said with great feeling, "I
recall the dozens of times I passed by 770 and saw the Rebbe. I am
convinced that the Rebbe looks at me each time I pass by, but why
can’t I see him? Ad masai?"
must carry on and continue our work, for this is the way to reveal
the Rebbe Melech HaMoshiach!"
Baumgarten has followed this route for eleven years, day after
day, week after week, month in and month out. It’s his twelfth
year on the road.
all began after the passing of Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka, a’h.
Rabbi Shmuel Butman, director of the Lubavitch Youth Organization,
went to be menachem aveil the Rebbe with his friend Dr.
Weinstein, and they told the Rebbe they were thinking of buying a
tank for outreach in New York. The Rebbe liked the idea and asked
them to get started while still in the week of Shiva.
Butman called close friends to an urgent meeting. Before the Shiva
was over he was able to inform the Rebbe that a new tank would
be arriving shortly, and now they were seeking a young man to
direct the tank’s activities.
took a long time to find a suitable person. Rabbi Butman had the
foresight to see what the tank could accomplish and knew it wouldn’t
be just another t’fillin stand. He knew this would be a
virtual Chabad House in Manhattan that needed a talented young man
to run it, someone who would know how to handle all sorts of
questions and problems that would come up.
took a number of months before Rabbi Butman found who he was
looking for: Rabbi Levi Baumgarten, a young man who had been
helping his brother, a director of a Chabad House in Long Island.
Rabbi Baumgarten tells us what happened after his first meeting
with Rabbi Butman:
was impressed by what Rabbi Butman described to me. I told him I
was interested in the position – on condition, of course, that I
received the Rebbe’s bracha. I wrote to the Rebbe that
day and asked for his bracha.
those few months, the Rebbe didn’t rush to answer questions.
Even questions regarding shlichus were answered a few days
later in the best of circumstances. When I gave the letter to my
uncle, Rabbi Leibel Groner, he told me he found it hard to believe
I would get a reply. After forty-five minutes the Rebbe’s answer
suddenly came out, and he was as shocked as I was.
v’hatzlacha’ – that was the Rebbe’s answer. Two words
every Chassid wishes for, but the speed with which I received them
made it all the more significant. From the very start of my shlichus,
I saw the great love the Rebbe had for the tank, which was named
after the Rebbetzin. Over the years I almost got used to the
special regard the Rebbe showed for the work the tank does. We
have had numerous blessings from the Rebbe, and I received
especially quick responses for nearly every report I handed
cellular phone rang and interrupted our conversation. Rabbi
Baumgarten listened, jotted down some notes, and ended the
conversation. "That was one of our friends who’s in Florida
now. He needs a bracha from the Rebbe, and he asked me to
write his name to the Rebbe for success in his business."
Throughout the day the telephone continued to ring, and after each
conversation Rabbi Baumgarten had another story to tell.
Rabbi Baumgarten’s work doesn’t begin precisely at 11:00 a.m,
when he heads out to Manhattan; his work begins way before that.
Starting at 9:00 a.m., he calls close to a hundred people who work
near whatever location the tank will be that day, to notify them
that the Chabad House will be coming to them and they are invited
to come on in. Each week he gets enthusiastic responses. Dozens of
people promise to pop in some time during the day, and even those
who are too busy to show up thank him for calling.
a telephone call takes longer than anticipated. "People have
problems, and they know the address," he says.
"Sometimes they want to discuss personal matters with me,
which they can’t do on the tank. There are always people around,
and you can’t talk quietly without someone coming over to put on
t’fillin. So people wait for my morning call in order to
talk to me privately."
are other reasons for extended telephone calls. "Some of the mekuravim
are interested in private classes in addition to the regular
classes we offer in the tank. These are serious individuals who
want to learn about Judaism in depth, and I do what I can to give
them time in the morning. I sit on the phone with them for a
quarter of an hour, one after the other."
subjects that come up with the mekuravim are many, both
practical and philosophical. Thousands of people who are in touch
with him consider him their "number one rabbi," and turn
to him with all sorts of Jewish matters, from circumcisions to
funerals. Among his friends there are gentiles too, to whom he
imparts the Seven Noachide laws. Then there are religious friends
who aren’t Lubavitchers, but who want to learn Chassidus and
hear what the Rebbe has to say about the imminent Redemption.
the besuras ha’Geula is an important part of his work,
because in 5752 the Rebbe addressed the Kinus HaShluchim
and said that the primary shlichus today is kabbalas
pnei Moshiach. The tank features a portrait of the Rebbe by
the words "We Want Moshiach Now" and "Yechi
Adoneinu" written across the top.
pictures and writing arouse the curiosity of passersby, who enter
the tank and ask questions. They get a full response, and those
who have the time are invited to select one of a dozen books about
Geula from the tank’s bookcase and delve in even more.
For those who are interested, Rabbi Baumgarten delivers a
fascinating lecture about the unique era we live in and about the
role each of us has in preparing to greet Moshiach.
the day, when we were parked in the regular Thursday spot, most of
the regulars were accustomed to saying "Ad masai"
and "Yechi" when putting on t’fillin. They
say it with heartwarming sincerity, and then they turn to Rabbi
Baumgarten and ask, "Nu, when is he coming
recent months, Tamim Yisroel Stone has joined Rabbi Baumgarten in
his work. He enjoys every minute of it. In the seven months since
he began this work, he has connected with hundreds of Jews in
Manhattan, and has strengthened their ties to Yiddishkeit
he is amazed by the tremendous influence the tank wields. "On
one of my first days, I met a Jew on the street, and when I
suggested that he put on t’fillin, he refused. After much
persuasion he agreed to enter the tank. "Just come in for a
few minutes," I said. When we entered the tank there were a
few other businessmen inside, who were previous mekuravim.
When they heard that he wasn’t interested in putting on t’fillin,
they began working on him. I’m talking about top-notch
businessmen. The very fact that they were asking him to put on t’fillin
affected him so much that he finally agreed."
six months ago, when Rabbi Baumgarten asked him whether he was
interested in joining his work in the tank, Yisroel assumed the
job had definite hours, from 11:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. He quickly
realized he was mistaken. "One evening on our way back to
Crown Heights, Rabbi Baumgarten asked me to show up at 7:30 the
next morning. At first I thought he was kidding, because at that
hour all offices in Manhattan are closed. That’s when I
discovered that the work we do is not limited to either space or
time. The next morning we went to New Jersey to put up mezuzos
in the home of one of the mekuravim."
the tank’s work is over at 5:30 p.m. That’s when most offices
are empty. But there are exceptions, like those who remain to
catch a private class with Rabbi Baumgarten after work. The rabbis
go from class to class, with a number of short visits in offices
along the way, and arrive in Crown Heights late in the evening.
were still traveling. I realized that after we parked I wouldn’t
have a free minute to talk with Rabbi Baumgarten, so I decided to
use the remaining time to inquire about his miracle stories.
do you mean by special miracles?" he exclaimed. "Every
workday is a miracle. Each day we see how the Rebbe helps us
prepare the world for Moshiach," Rabbi Baumgarten stated
week, a religious woman approached the tank and said that over ten
years ago she was completely non-religious, but when she passed a
tank with her oldest son she suddenly felt compelled to ask her
son to enter the tank and put on t’fillin. She didn’t
understand why she did this.
after her son transformed the house into a religious one, as a
result of putting on t’fillin that time, she wanted to
let us know what happened. Just imagine how many people enter the
tank and have their entire lives change because of that one visit.
These are everyday types of miracles.
you are right, there are special miracles in which the Rebbe is
directly involved. I’ll tell you a few of them. One day I met
one of the mekuravim who was really down. I asked him what
happened and he tried to avoid answering me, saying I couldn’t
help him anyway. Finally, he told me that his sister was planning
to marry a gentile. They knew each other for three years, and it
looked like they were going to marry.
told him he had to do his part and Hashem would do His. I took him
for ‘dollars’ on Sunday, and the Rebbe gave him his blessing.
Three weeks later he called me and in a voice choked with emotion,
said that his sister had just called him and said that her
boyfriend had just come over with a ring and had proposed but she
had adamantly refused him, not knowing why she had done so. He was
very hurt by her response and left angrily. A few months later, he
told me that his sister had married a Jew.
interesting story happened at ‘dollars.’ This took place with
the same mekurav, who was very involved in shleimus
ha’Aretz. When we passed the Rebbe, the Rebbe gave him an
extra dollar and said it was for his work on behalf of a complete
Eretz Yisroel. At first he didn’t realize that the Rebbe knew
about him with his ruach ha’kodesh, and he asked me in
front of the Rebbe, ‘How did the Rebbe know about me? Did you
mekurav had a sister who was sick with yenner machla.
He came with me for ‘dollars.’ Before we had our turn, I asked
my uncle, Rabbi Leibel Groner, to tell the Rebbe that this man
needed a bracha for his sister. When we passed the Rebbe,
the mekurav began crying and couldn’t stop. Rabbi Groner
told the Rebbe that his sister was sick and the Rebbe gave him a bracha
for a refua. Shortly thereafter his sister recovered, and
since then he puts t’fillin on regularly and from time to
time takes another step forward in Torah and mitzva
on the topic of t’fillin, I remember a particular mekurav
who was not feeling well and I asked the Rebbe for a bracha
for him. In my letter I wrote that I had asked him many times to
put on t’fillin, but he always refused. A half-hour after
I sent in my letter, Rabbi Groner called me with the Rebbe’s
answer: This Jew must start wearing t’fillin, and this is
how he’ll become better.
called him immediately, but he didn’t want to listen to what I
had to say. I had no choice, so I decided to visit him in the
hospital. I told him I was coming with my daughter, and after he
agreed to the visit I went to a sofer and bought a pair of t’fillin
and then went on to the hospital. I argued a long time with him
until he finally agreed to buy t’fillin and put them on
order to be sure he was putting them on, I went to him every day
or sent somebody to put them on with him. Within a few days he was
released from the hospital and the doctors told him he was better.
story, however, doesn’t have a happy ending, because he stopped
putting on t’fillin and he became sick again and did not
of the mekuravim became friendly with a gentile girl, and
all my attempts to split them up failed. After great effort I
managed to convince him to come with me to the Rebbe. He asked
whether he could come with his girlfriend. I told him to bring
her, the main thing being that he should come. I knew the Rebbe
would make sure to break up the friendship.
day after seeing the Rebbe, he called me early in the morning and
told me that his grandmother, who had died years before, had come
to him in a dream and yelled at him for befriending a gentile
girl. He was so frightened by the dream that he had decided to
break up with her.
years ago I met a Jew who refused to put on t’fillin. He
said ‘it didn’t speak to him.’ I said that if he came to the
Rebbe’s tank I was sure he would want to put on t’fillin.
In the end he agreed and came to visit the tank. As I expected,
the special atmosphere of the tank did its thing and he put on t’fillin.
He showed up a week later and I realized that something was
bothering him. I tried talking to him but he didn’t want to say
anything about it. I told him to write to the Rebbe and he would
surely receive the Rebbe’s bracha. At first he didn’t
want to hear of it, but after a long conversation with him, he
agreed and wrote his concerns to the Rebbe. I told him he could
relax because as soon as he wrote, the Rebbe received his letter.
The next day he called me all excited and told me that he had
received two telephone calls that morning which simultaneously
solved all his problems of the past few weeks.
those fateful telephone calls he did unbelievably well in business
and credited all his success to the Rebbe’s bracha. He
began putting on t’fillin every day and progressed in his
observance of Torah and mitzvos.
last Purim I invited him to the Purim meal I made for all the mekuravim
at a Manhattan hotel. He told me sadly that he couldn’t make it
since the doctors had discovered that his son was sick, and he had
to have an important test on Purim.
morning, despite everything that was going on, I met with him and
together we wrote a letter to the Rebbe. He already knew from
experience that he had the Rebbe’s bracha. The next day
he called me with good news: the test had shown that the illness
had all but disappeared. Only 5% remained of what he was
previously there, and they could take care of that easily.
Obviously this great miracle inspired him to further progress in
Torah and mitzvos.
a woman came to the tank who had many legal problems with her
business, causing her to feel quite dejected. After I explained to
her that you can write to the Rebbe and receive his answer in the Igros
Kodesh, she decided to write to the Rebbe. The Rebbe answered
that if she would be joyful and take the right lawyers, all her
problems would be solved in the best possible way. She was very
moved by the precision of the answer and followed the Rebbe’s
instructions. Within a short period of time she could tell me
about the success she enjoyed in all her cases."
reached the tank’s usual spot on the corner of Broadway and 37th
Street. As soon as we parked the tank and opened the door, there
wasn’t a dull moment.
Israeli walked in first. Although it was his first time in the
tank he felt at home. They spoke a little and it turned out he
worked in New Jersey, so he was referred to a Chabad House there.
older businessman entered the tank and the first words out of his
mouth were, "Nu, Moshiach came already?" He saw
that Rabbi Baumgarten was talking with the Israeli and he went
over to put on t’fillin. He really seemed at home because
he knew where everything was. A few minutes later he said Sh’ma
from a siddur. For those unfamiliar with a siddur,
there are three pages of Sh’ma on the wall in English,
Hebrew and Russian.
cheerful man wearing a cap and holding a denim bag came into the
tank and went over to the t’fillin. Unlike the other
visitors, he came to put t’fillin on with others. It was
Kalman Brudo, one of the mekuravim who became a
regular worker on the tank. He had come to Manhattan twenty years
ago on the Friday that the recently released American hostages in
Iran were welcomed at a parade in New York City in order to
participate in that parade. While there, he met bachurim on
a mitzva tank. Since then he started keeping Torah and mitzvos.
After living in Crown Heights, he met Rabbi Baumgarten. He liked
the idea of helping on the tank with Rabbi Baumgarten, and since
then has accompanied him almost every day. He has received dollars
from the Rebbe on many occasions for being a "tankist."
quarter of an hour after we arrived, at least eight people were
sitting in the tank and talking with Rabbi Baumgarten and Yisroel
Stone. On the nearby street, fire trucks sped by in the direction
of a building a hundred meters from where the tank was parked.
There was a fire on one of the floors and dozens of firemen had
come to put it out. "There’s action out there," said
one of the businessmen in the tank. "No," said another.
"The real action is here, in the tank."
hour later the fire was out and the street returned to normal.
Inside the tank, there wasn’t a quiet moment. One of the mekuravim
who wanted to speak with Rabbi Baumgarten privately, had to wait a
long time before he managed to get a word in.
of the people in the tank had long since finished putting on t’fillin,
but they stayed on. They enjoyed sitting there and didn’t rush
back to their offices. Rabbi Baumgarten views it as an
achievement. "They stay here because they feel at home,"
flash every so often as tourists take pictures of this unique
Manhattan sight. Most of the time they stand near the Rebbe’s
picture on the outside of the tank. Yisroel Stone goes out to them
and hands out cards detailing the Seven Noachide laws. Sometimes
he meets Jewish tourists who enter the tank to put on t’fillin.
a group of 25 Jewish children on an outing with their teacher came
here. I took them all in and together we recited the Twelve
Pesukim. They were here for only 15 minutes, but I’m sure the
visit left a deep impression on them."
Baumgarten told me one of the greatest miracles he had experienced
while on shlichus on the tank. He was reminded of the story
because it involved the man who had just come into the tank. This
is what happened:
I started this work I have received a salary from the L.Y.O. Eight
years ago, I was told that since the tank had become a veritable
Chabad House, I had to take care of my salary myself like any
other Chabad House director.
was at a loss at this news because I had never seen myself as a
talented fundraiser. I was very concerned about whether I could go
on. I wrote to the Rebbe and asked whether I should continue my
work on the tank. If I was supposed to continue, I asked for a bracha
took place in Nissan 5752. Rabbi Groner went to the Rebbe’s room
and asked my question. The Rebbe nodded in the affirmative. Rabbi
Groner asked whether I would succeed in fundraising and the Rebbe
strongly nodded yes, even waving his hand strongly. Rabbi Groner
asked whether the Rebbe was blessing me with success and the Rebbe
answered "Amen" loudly three times while nodding
next day, I went as I usually did on the tank, and one of the
first people to enter the tank was this man here. He came over to
me and took an interest in what I do. Then he asked me how I
financed it, and I said that the tank was financed by supporters.
He took out his checkbook and gave me a check for a few thousand
dollars! I was astounded by how fast the Rebbe’s bracha
had begun to be realized.
man continues to visit the tank each week, and every month he
makes a nice contribution for our work. He recently introduced his
brother, and both of them support us with amounts large enough to
cover the tank’s activities." With that Rabbi Baumgarten
concluded the story about the man, who just then finished putting
on t’fillin with the proclamation of "Yechi
Adoneinu Moreinu V’Rabbeinu Melech HaMoshiach L’olam Va’ed."
BEHIND THE SCENES
Behind every great man is a great woman. Mrs. Leah
Baumgarten is deeply involved in her husband’s work. In
addition to her work with the female mekuravim, which
includes classes and lectures, she is the one who organizes
the holiday parties which take place a few times a year for
hundreds of families and mekuravim.
the mekuravim, Mrs. Baumgarten is known as an eishes
chayil and a great hostess. Many of them accept her
invitations and come to the Baumgartens in Crown Heights
with their entire families for Shabbos. Women who were
hosted one time make sure not to miss even one class she
gives or organizes.
crowning achievements are the holiday parties she organizes
in Manhattan hotels. One of those parties which all
participants will remember is the one that took place this
past Purim at Studio 54.
years, Studio 54 has been known around the world as a
celebrity hotspot. When the mekuravim heard the Purim
party would be taking place there they thought it was a
joke, but during the course of the meal with nearly 500 mekuravim
couples, Rabbi Baumgarten explained that as a
preparation for Moshiach’s coming, even places like this
can be used for holy purposes.