Friday, April 06, 2012

‘Excuse me, are you Jewish?' 

In a beach store crowded with shoppers in flip-flops, shorts and bathing suits, Levi Mentz and Hershy Lasry stand out.
They're 23 — close in age to many of the shoppers. But the two
student rabbis' idea of casual clothing is a dark suit, matching hats
and black shoes.

The Hasidic Jews flew in from Brooklyn, N.Y., on Monday as part of a
Jewish outreach program. Their mission is to wander Destin looking for
anyone of Jewish decent, from locals to spring breakers.

Their tools are a box of matzo bread, reminders about Passover and Hebrew prayers and songs.

"There are two key elements to finding a Jew," Mentz said. "You have
to first give a big smile and then you say, 'Excuse me, are you Jewish.' "
The pair are in town through Passover, which begins at sundown
Friday. Passover commemorates the ancient Israelites' freedom from
slavery in Egypt.
"Passover, now, is a concept about people enslaved. Everyone has
their own personal Egypt," Mentz said. "Passover is a way to leave that
personal Egypt and get connected to God."

Mentz and Lasry are among thousands of Hasidic Jews traveling the world on a similar mission.

Their first night in Destin was rough. They could hear students
partying through the walls of their hotel room, and were forced to
evacuate in the middle of the night after someone pulled the fire alarm.

They set out from their hotel about 10 a.m. the next day despite
clouds and rain. They had planned to start on the beach, but quickly
laid out a new strategy.
No matter the weather, they were confident they would find Jewish people.

"If you go with purpose and you go with motivation, you can't go wrong," Lasry said.

In the parking lot of Waves beach shop on U.S. Highway 98, the men
stopped to talk to a pony tail-clad man in an Ed Hardy shirt talking on
his cell phone.
"Excuse me, are you Jewish?" Mentz asked, extending his hand.

The man, who works at Waves, excused himself from his phone call and took Mentz's hand, telling him that, yes, he is Jewish.
Mentz said he is confident that he'll get a truthful answer, even from strangers.

"What makes someone Jewish is a Jewish mother who's taught them to say 'yes' to their faith," Mentz said. "It works every time."
The three men speak to one another in Hebrew and head into the beach store toward a back room not open to patrons.

There, Mentz and Lasry lead the man in a prayer and song. They put on a head tefillin, a set of small black boxes and leather straps worn
while reading the Torah. Jewish men are required to wear tefillin as a
sign of remembrance of the Israelites who were brought out of Egypt.

Not everyone they met was Jewish. Some stared at their formal attire.

At Alvin's Island, a teenage boy looked at the men and asked if they were Amish.

"No, but do we look good for Amish men?" Levi asked, smiling. "We're actually Jewish. We're here celebrating Passover."
"Cool," the teen said after shaking their hands.

When they met women, their approach did not include a handshake or
any physical contact. In their culture, it's important to keep all
physical contact for a spouse.
Nisim Keinan is manager of Alvin's Island and Jewish. He said no matter where he is, men like Mentz and Lasry find him.

"These guys are everywhere," Keinan said after a visit with Mentz and Lasry. "Every year, even the year I was in Thailand, they find me. But
it's nice. It makes me feel like I'm in Israel."


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