by Robert Evans
This July 1st, the third of Tammuz on the Hebrew calendar, marks the 20th Yahrzeit of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. The Rebbe, as he is most often called, is one of the most influential, far thinking, and yes, controversial (others might say: misunderstood) Jewish leaders of the modern era, and is widely credited for creating the concept of Jewish outreach. This milestone anniversary will certainly be marked by a flurry of events and activities in Jewish communities worldwide but this year also represents another less well-known but important milestone: it has been 20 years since Chabad-Lubavitch began using the chabad.org domain name to educate Jews around the globe.
(I’m told that Chabad.org is actually one of the last big projects the Rebbe gave his blessing to, before suffering a second stroke.)
In the succeeding years, Chabad’s success online has raised several questions that every Jewish nonprofit leader should be asking themselves:
- How has Chabad.org become the preeminent Jewish website?
- What does it offer that works so well?
- How do they raise money to pay for it?
To be clear, I am by no means suggesting that Chabad has been the only Jewish digital innovator: MyJewishlearning.com, Interfaithfamily.com, Aish.com and others have all helped connect individuals to Jewish tradition. But Chabad.org sets the gold standard.
Here are some numbers that help tell the story: In 2013, Chabad.org received 37 million unique viewers from nearly every country on the planet. Chabad.org has just shy of 73,000 likes on Facebook, compared with 35,000 for My Jewish Learning, 10,800 for the Union for Reform Judaism and a little more than 1,600 likes for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
So how did this happen?
In researching these questions, I have come to believe that the answers lie in the following: if Jewish nonprofit organizations truly want to reach Jews where they are, they need to flip the equation. Instead of nonprofit leaders asking how they can tap into the Internet, social networking sites and mobile technology to raise philanthropic dollars, they should be asking several questions, including: how do they fundraise to support online communication, education and engagement?
I acknowledge that strong online platforms dramatically reduce barriers to engaging Jewish life. While not everyone who likes a Facebook page or downloads an app will run out and become part of a real-world community, it is clear that a click of the mouse on Chabad.org has represented a first step on many Jewish journeys.
Here is an inside profile of Chabad.org: it has its own 501c3 designation and is responsible for its own funding. Chabad.org is a 24/6 operation awash in visual, audio and traditional content involving 50 staffers, along with hundreds of content partners and freelancers. It mixes breaking news with in-depth articles about Judaism, along with audio and video classes and how-to tutorials that tackle modern challenges with a traditional Jewish twist. Perhaps most impressively, a good number of those staffers are devoted to answering thousands of personal emails sent to the website on every conceivable topic in Jewish and general life.
Chabad.org’s publishing platform is leveraged for the sites of hundreds of Chabad houses around the world, allowing Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis and rebbetzins to customize content on their own websites.
One remarkable success as an example of “speaking to Jews:” in the days leading up to Passover, nearly three million people across the globe visited the site to do everything from learning how to rid their homes of chametz, to get a variety of meaningful guides to their Seders, or to get help finding Seders in places like Bali or Ho Chi Minh City. Chabad.org’s Passover app contained a meal-planner and a shopping list-builder, checklists for ridding one’s home of leavened products, a detailed calendar of Passover observance times, and a tool to learn and practice the Four Questions.
Not everything they do is golden. For example, I learned that a recent email solicitation letter from Chabad.org was overly long and graphically unappealing.
Chabad clearly entered the digital game early, driven by the Rebbe’s embrace of new technology and the prospect of being able to reach Jews anywhere in the world. “As each successive technology came into being, the Rebbe embraced its application toward holy purposes,” Rabbi Zalman Shmotkin explained. “The Rebbe taught that everything in this world was created for a G-dly purpose.”
Chabad.org was first launched by Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Kazen, who held the title of Director of Chabad Lubavitch in Cyberspace. Considered a digital wizard and pioneer, he experimented with online communication back in 1988; he died in 1998 at the tragically young age of 44.
Rabbi Shmotkin, who took over management of Chabad.org after Kazen’s passing, recalled that those years were difficult and it wasn’t at all clear how Kazen’s vision for what the site could become would come to full fruition. Donors, even those who gave large amounts to “brick and mortar” educational projects, couldn’t wrap their arms around supporting a website. It was particularly hard to understand what the money was for and how to measure success. Rabbi Shmotkin acknowledged taking out a second mortgage on his home to keep the operation afloat.
But after striking out a few times, in the beginning of 2002 Rabbi Shmotkin was introduced to philanthropist Moshe Tabacinic, a businessman from South America who lives with his family in Florida. Tabacinic had been a generous funder to Chabad and his name adorns several Chabad Jewish centers in the Sunshine State, Europe, and on various campuses. (He is also a brother-in-law to and business partner with the New York-based philanthropist George Rohr.) Tabacinic noted that he, too, was at first quite reluctant to give a substantial amount to support a website.
But he was won over, and today his family is the lead donor to the site that Rabbi Shmotkin said costs several million dollars a year to operate, and the Tabacinic name adorns the website’s front page.
What changed Tabacinic’s mind? What turned reticence into a leap of the imagination? The pitch, the Chabad.org staff’s dedication to their mission, the perceived return on investment, and the connection between the one making “the ask” and the philanthropist all were important ingredients.
“Before all else, it is important to remember that this money really does not belong to me; it is Hashem’s money,” Tabacinic explained. “So I feel I have a fiduciary obligation to manage these funds in a way that can produce the best results.”
He added that when he and Rabbi Shmotkin first met, he “was struck by the extraordinary sensitivity [Shmotkin] and his staff displayed toward the Jew who is intimidated to enter a brick and mortar Jewish building.”
“Given the extraordinary product and the man-hours invested in it,” he added, “it should actually cost many times the current budget to accomplish what they do.”
Chabad.org is actually run on the cheap because most of its employees, from expert writers and editors to top-notch designers and programmers, all consider themselves partners in the larger mission of Jewish outreach and education, and work for outreach stipends instead of going market rates.
“This may surprise people, but we devote precious little to marketing,” said Rabbi Shmotkin. “The resources we’ve been graciously endowed with by our partners are instead spent carefully on deepening and expanding our content, so that more and more Jews, of all walks of life, can find the content that is right for them, in their specific stage in life now, to fill their lives with meaning and fulfillment.”
Other vibrant Jewish groups like the Union for Reform Judaism and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism need to model their websites, and their solicitations, after Chabad.org, according to Rabbi Jason Miller, a Conservative rabbi who writes widely about the intersection of technology and Judaism.
“Chabad rabbis look to 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn [Chabad’s ‘headquarters’] as the central nervous system of the worldwide operation. All their major social media and marketing come from a central location and that means that they can (and will) invest heavily in a very professionalized and strategic brand marketing using social media,” Rabbi Miller wrote us in an email.
For his part, when evaluating where to invest philanthropic dollars, Rabbi Shmotkin wants potential donors to look at Chabad.org’s “extraordinary success and return on investment.” Still, he thinks the website could accomplish so much more and what the Rebbe set in motion can blossom even further. If only Shmotkin had more funds. Not satisfied with the present, he’s looking toward the future. Others concerned about the Jewish people would do well to follow his lead.
Robert Evans is founder of the Evans Consulting Group, a well-known and longstanding consulting resource based in suburban Philadelphia. He has more than 35 years of experience working on fundraising campaigns in major metropolitan areas nationwide. Regarded as an authority on campaign strategy, Mr. Evans is known for his inventive planning and execution, which has enabled clients to reach development goals even in the most challenging circumstances. A member of the Giving USA editorial review and the national steering committee for Giving Tuesday, he is a regular contributor to eJewishPhilanthropy.com.