(lubavitch.com) At 10 pm, Rocky Forer drew a crowd as he punched away at a laptop in the Third Street Promenade, an outdoor mall popular with beach going tourists.
A father of young children, Forer is quite past the age where hanging out in Southern California hotspots late into the night is appealing. But he was out because his children’s school Cheder Menachem had a $500,000 prize on the line. Forer was volunteering with a table full of other school parents and friends asking strangers to befriend Kohl’s department store on the Facebook social networking site in order to win a contest.
“Our school is run by parents, and we raise money to keep it going. To raise a half million dollars is a huge task. We are really motivated,” said Forer, who has children in Cheder Menachem’s pre-first and fourth grades.
Further south in California, parents of children attending Hebrew Academy in Huntington Beach, an award winning Chabad-run school, have logged onto Facebook to check their school’s ranking. Rabbi Shmuel Marcus, who has children in the school, said the school tapped into its list of 3000 alumni to get to its top ranked position.
“Graduates of the school’s rigorous dual curriculum have the critical thinking skills and Talmudic logic to enter the world as leaders. They are CEOs, heads of large firms, rabbis with active congregations, and their networks are massive. A few phone calls and emails to our alumni—and our call to rally around the school went viral,” he said.
The contest to get the most friends for Kohl’s ends this Friday night. No matter how much money is on the line, Chabad’s school leaders will be logged off before then. Sabbath observers do not work on computers from sundown on Friday until nightfall on Saturday.
Jonathan and Faygie Herzog have gone through their own contacts several times to get the vote out. Their son Ari, 10, adores Cheder Menachem. “When we first moved here from Australia, we were not sure where to send him. Cheder Menachem has been so loving and warm. Each teacher treats the children like his own.” If the school wins, they hope the money will be used for a new playground.
After the parents of the L.A. school’s 300 students exhausted their personal contacts, they started approaching strangers in public places for votes, a natural for Forer.
“Lubavitchers who have gone out and asked people to put on tefillin or light Shabbos candles are trained not to be afraid of rejection,” Forer said.
But over 110,000 people have said yes, landing Cheder Menachem in second place. Kohl’s will be awarding $500,000 to the twenty schools signing up the most fans of Kohl’s the Facebook site. So far, 9 of the top 20 are Jewish schools and most are Chabad-Lubavitch institutions.
In January, Friendship Circle, a Chabad-run program serving children with special needs, landed a $100,000 grant in a similar contest run by Chase bank on Facebook. Leah Jones, who lead Natiiv Arts & Media and helped Friendship Circle flex its social networking muscles, attributes Chabad’s dominance in these contests to their existing, real world networks.
“Chabad already has a community offline accustomed to helping each other out,” Jones said. “It shows that you can take an offline network online.” Chabad’s advantage over other close knit groups is its programs that span from cradle to grave. “You never graduate from Chabad,” Jones said.
Yossi Lipsker, a Cheder Menachem board member, has lived, slept, and breathed the contest for the past few weeks, has his own answers for the doubters who wonder how so many relatively small Chabad schools have snagged top spots.
“I don’t pay attention to the critics. We’ve worked hard. We started early and got a jump on the competition,” said Lipsker, a portfolio manager. Kohl’s started the contest on July 7, and school parents met on July 11 to discuss strategies for winning. “I never thought it would be this competitive.”
The contest’s structure allowed schools to pair up for votes. Each Facebook member can cast 20 votes, with a maximum of five votes for one school . Moved by the hardship other schools are facing, Beth Rivkah Elementary School, the flagship Lubavitch girls’ school located in Brooklyn, NY, asked their fans to use spare votes to boost other schools’ numbers. They’ve rallied for Lake High School in Millbury, OH, demolished by a tornado, and for Spartanburg Charter School, SC, that’s in need of an air conditioning system to keep students comfortable in the sweltering heat.
Late one night during the campaign, a group of teenage boys sauntered past the Cheder Menachem table. They rejected the pleas to support their school. Except for one, who listened to the pitch. Gesturing for them to hand over the laptop, he signed onto Facebook.
“I wish my parents would care enough about my education to stand out here at 10 at night for me.”