When Facebook And Philanthropy Meet
Tue, 10/12/2010
Special To The Jewish Week
Rabbi Yitzchak Newman
Rabbi Yitzchak Newman

H ebrew Academy in Huntington Beach, Calif., might only have 300-odd students, but when it comes to community outreach, it seems to have no trouble harnessing the power of social networking to press its cause.

The pre-K through 12th grade institution, which attracted nearly 150,000 votes in a national contest for public and private schools, topped the Jewish institutions on a list of schools to win $500,000 each from Kohl’s Cares, the philanthropic arm of Kohl’s department stores. As part of a “Giveback” promotion in honor of its 10th anniversary, the retailer pledged to donate $10 million — a cool half-million-dollars to each of the top-20 vote-getters on the schools’ Facebook applications. The contest began July 7 and ran through Sept. 3, and collectively, schools accrued more than 11 million votes, according to the Facebook application page.

“This has been very exciting for us — obviously winning the money, but in addition to that bringing our parents together in a way that they’re excited and very proud of the school,” said Rabbi Yitzchak Newman, dean of the Hebrew Academy. “It has done a lot to get our message out and to understand our mission, which is providing Jewish education.”

As of this week, Kohl’s had yet to release the official list because it must individually approve each of the winners’ grant applications.

“Those schools’ votes and each school’s proposed programs are currently being verified by the third-party partner to ensure school submissions and budgets comply with contest terms and conditions,” said Vicki Shamion, Kohl’s senior vice president of public relations and community relations. “Once completely verified, all winners will be announced. Until that time, we are not commenting on the winning schools.”

But on an unofficial tally board from the last day of the contest, it seemed that as many as 11 of the top 20 candidates were Jewish schools, most of them affiliated with the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, according to a screenshot posted by the Marquette College Educator blog (http://marquetteeducator.files.wordpress.com/2010/09/kohls-winners.jpg).

If that holds true, Hebrew Academy placed fifth place overall with more than 148,000 votes and trailed the first place school by roughly 15,000 votes. Among the nine winners who were not Jewish schools, the majority were Christian day schools. One of the only New York winners, Silverstein Hebrew Academy in Great Neck, L.I., received more than 139,000 votes, while the only Jewish school in Charlotte, N.C., received over 143,000 votes.

For Chabad leaders around the country, the results of the contest are a testament to group’s ability and drive to promote Jewish education.

“The success of these Chabad schools in these social media competitions is really a tributeand showcases the effects they’ve had on the community and how the community is there to support them,” said Rabbi Motti Seligson, who oversees social media activities for Chabad-Lubavitch.

“Social media, like everything else in this world, was created for a purpose, and we try to use technology to make this world a more spiritual and better place by harnessing it for good. Social media is not new to Chabad — it’s a way to connect to people and inspire them.”

Among the Hebrew Academy’s most powerful strategies was an effort to tap Orange County’s large Jewish community, which numbers about 140,000, according to Rabbi Newman.

“We reached out to our alumni, and then our parents reached out to their communities,” said Rabbi Newman, who himself sits on the board of the Jewish Federation of Long Beach.

Another tactic was teaming up with a few other Southern California Jewish schools — as far as Rabbi Newman is aware also made the top-20 list — by asking Facebook users to allot some of their 20 available votes to them. (Under the Kohl’s rules, each Facebook user is allowed to vote 20 times — five times per individual school — using the Kohl’s Cares application.) Chabad houses at local universities also sought out support from Jewish college students on the Hebrew Academy’s behalf.

Just as the Hebrew Academy decided to pursue the Kohl’s prize, it also began using Facebook and other social networking platforms to keep its extended community informed.

“We have a large portion of our alumni who we had not kept in contact with. But they heard about [the Kohl’s contest] and they now come onto our site,” Rabbi Newman said, noting that around 600 alumni who were previously out of touch with the school made contact with them through the Facebook contest.

“We plan on developing alum relationships and keeping in touch with them,” he added.

One of the alumni even donated an iPad to be offered in a raffle, which was advertised on the instructive website, VoteHAHB.com, that the alumni created they created for the contest.

Meanwhile, across the country, two schools featured in a Jewish Week story on Kohl’s contest in August — the Silverstein Hebrew Academy in Great Neck and Charlotte Jewish Day School in North Carolina — were seeing their Facebook numbers jump.

“Once it was clear that we were in this to win and had a pretty good shot at it, the campaign went viral,” said Rabbi Bentzion Groner, the publicity manager for Charlotte Jewish Day School’s campaign. “The entire city came out in support of us. Parents, friends and supporters — many on their own initiative — took to the streets to solicit voters. We appeared on countless Facebook pages, blogs and forums reaching out to thousands of people.”

Conducting vote-a-thons throughout the summer, and displaying school banners from their parents’ cars, the students’ momentum grew throughout the contest, according to Rabbi Groner.

“We demonstrated that when a community — no matter how small — unites with a cause, nothing in the world can stop them,” he said. “Our school truly became a ‘community school,’ as everyone in Charlotte would ask, ‘How are we doing in the contest today,’ not ‘How are you doing.’”

In Great Neck, the students and parents were equally dedicated to spending their vacation time garnering community support, and their efforts paid of in the end.

“When we went to Manhattan to ask people [on the street] to vote for our school, they were very impressed at the amount of volunteers who spent their summer evenings trying to help children’s education,” said Rabbi Dovid Ezagui from Silverstein Hebrew Academy. “People felt compelled to give a few moments of their time too and vote for a good cause.”

None of the winners are able to reveal exactly what they intend to do with their money until their grant applications receive a final approval from Kohl’s, but prizes cannot be used for religious or politically partisan programs, or scholarships and financial aid, according to official regulations.

Rabbi Groner of the Charlotte Jewish Day School said that his school hopes to make technological improvements in its computer and science labs, while Rabbi Newman said that the Huntington Hebrew Academy could use a facelift after 35 years without renovation.