The secret to Chabad's online contest strategy.
Jewish Telegraphic Agency
habad-run groups have done
remarkably well in recent years
when it comes to online philan-
Chabad representatives were well
represented in last year's Jewish
Federations of North America Jewish
Community Heroes contest.
Last January, Chabad's West
Bloomfield, Mich.-based Friendship
Circle, an organization dedicated to
helping children with special needs,
won $100,000 when it finished third in
the Chase Community Giving Challenge
on Facebook. Earlier this summer, 17
Chabad programs across the United
States each received $20,000 in the sec-
ond running of the Chase challenge.
And last month, Chabad tooted its
horn by publicizing that eight of its
Jewish day schools are poised to win
$500,000 each in the Kohl's Cares for
Kids online challenge.
The Kohl's challenge, much like the
others, essentially is a glorified popular-
ity contest in which organizations are
allowed to nominate themselves and
then solicit votes from their fans and
friends. The top vote-getters win a cash
Kohl's, the department store chain, is
giving away $500,000 to the top 20 vote-
earning schools — some $10 million in
There is nothing overtly Jewish about
the Kohl's challenge — in fact, the con-
test prohibits winners from using the
money for religious purposes — but it
was a Polish-Jewish immigrant named
Max Kohl who planted the seed for the
1,000-store chain with a small cor-
ner grocery store on the south side of
Milwaukee in 1927.
As of Aug. 25, a dozen of the top vote-
getters in the contest, which ended Sept.
3, were Jewish day schools. Of those 12,
eight are under the auspices of Chabad.
So what is Chabad's secret?
Skeptics and some fellow competitors
have suggested that Chabad uses bots to
September 16 • 2010
cast thousands of automated votes.
Chabad does have something of an
advantage over other Jewish groups, but
it's not an unfair one. The Chabad net-
work, which includes thousands of indi-
vidual outposts all over the world, has
proven powerful during these contests,
according to Motti Seligson, a spokes-
man for Chabad.org who has become
Chabad's social media guru over the
past couple of years.
And the movement as a whole has been
really good about not cannibalizing its
While scores of Chabad organiza-
tions may have started out
as entrants in the Chase
or Kohl's challenges, the
network as a whole figured
out pretty quickly which
ones had a serious chance
of winning and then the
system placed its chips on
the potential winners. The
method has proven to be
especially valuable in the
Kohl's challenge, Seligson
Each voter can vote a
total of 20 times, and only
five times for one school.
Hypothetically, that means if support-
ers of the Silverstein Hebrew Academy-
Great Neck in suburban New York cast
votes for the school five times, they each
have 15 votes left.
"Everything that is created is created
for a Divine purpose, and the idea is to
use everything to make the world a bet-
ter place and for a higher cause he said.
"Social media is no different. If there is
a way of harnessing that to do a better
good, then absolutely do it."
While not everyone has a Chabad net-
work, there are still some lessons to
learn from the group's tactics. In terms
of winning a contest, the number of
Facebook friends an organization has
will not necessarily translate into votes.
According to Levi Shemtov, executive
director of the Friendship Circle in West
Bloomfield, said, "During
our campaign, we were
helped significantly by
other Chabad organiza-
tions who were willing to
help an affiliate win an
"We believe that many
of the Lubavitch orga-
nizations entered the
race encouraged by our
success with the Chase
campaign. We were also
happy to offer advice in
"Lubavitch benefits from a close rela-
tionship amongst its members — we
love pulling together to help with a chal-
According to Seligson, the Michigan
Friendship Circle was up against organi-
zations in the Chase Challenge that had
up to 500,000 Facebook friends. The
Friendship Circle started with 600.
In the end, though, the organizations
with huge followings were fortunate to
get 20 percent of their friendship base
to vote. Friendship Circle ended up with
The key, Seligson said, is that the vir-
tual must be backed up by the real.
Social media such as Facebook and
Twitter may be good entry points to a
relationship or a conversation, he said,
but actualizing those relationships takes
together to win
So in a system of mutual support
designed by the Chabad schools, those
original Silverstein voters may then
cast five votes each for, say, Chabad
Hebrew Academy of San Diego, Cheder
Menachem in Los Angeles and the Rohr
Bais Chaya Academy in Tamarac, Fla.
During the Chase challenge, it
became clear that the Chabad-affiliated
Friendship Circle of Michigan had a
shot at winning a prize, so the other 100
Friendship Circle outposts throughout
the United States rallied behind their
It's not cheating or skirting the rules,
Seligson said, it's just actualizing a
social network effectively.
Circle Of Friends
For the Friendship Circle, that meant
generating offline press with publicity
stunts and face-to-face meetings in the
For instance, the group organized
an Improv Everywhere-style freeze at
a Detroit Pistons game, enlisting 200
volunteers to attend the game and freeze
like statues for a minute at a specific
time. When the minute was up, the vol-
unteers ripped off their shirts, revealing
T-shirts that advertised the group's web-
site for fans and members of the media
In Charlotte, N.C., Chabad's 220-stu-
dent Charlotte Jewish Day School used
an inside-out approach to garner 45,000
votes by Aug. 24 and earn 14th place
in the Kohl's challenge, according to
spokesman Rabbi Bentzion Groner,
director of the Friendship Circle of
The elementary school has a relatively
small base, but it tapped into alumni
now in their teens to hold a vote-athon.
The school, which was started in a
basement in 1984 with just a couple of
students, enlisted 50 teenagers to bring
their laptops to the school, where they
spent an afternoon reaching out online
to as many of their friends as they
could, soliciting votes One by one.
And, of course, the school invited in
three television stations and the local
newspaper to check out the event.
But, Groner said, the school's success
thus far has been about making it a gen-
eral cause in Charlotte. First, the group
worked on acquiring votes from its
own base and extended network. When
it became clear that the school had a
chance to do well, it went after those
who care about Jewish education.
It became clear that the school would
be the only one in Charlotte — Jewish
or non-Jewish — that had a chance to
win, so Groner and others went after
the broader, non-Jewish Charlotte com-
Groner estimates that about 60 per-
cent of the school's votes have come
from its natural extended base. The rest
came from outside.
"We made it about the community," he
said, "and the community really got on
Jewish News Associate Editor Alan Hitsky
contributed to this story.