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Chabad Centers Devise Strategies To Outwit the Recession

By , Lancaster, PA

(lubavitch.com) When Rabbi Elazar and Shira Green were casting about for fundraising ideas to maintain their work with Jewish students at Franklin and Marshall College, they looked to their own backyard. For several summers, they’ve opened a four-bedroom guest home on their property to travelers looking for a kosher, reasonably priced play to stay during their visit to the Pennsylvania Dutch Country, home to amusement parks and other tourist traps. 

“Visitors see the work we do with Jewish students and want to help out,” said Rabbi Green, co-director of the Chabad Jewish Enrichment Center of Lancaster and York. “So, now we’ve opened the guest house year round. A bit of creative fundraising.”

When Wall Street cheers as the Dow Jones scrapes its way up from 12-year lows, it sounds faint and hollow to Chabad centers on Main Streets around the world. With creativity and faith, Chabad representatives have dreamt up ways to maintain status quo and even expand during the recession. 

In the last week of December, Chabad of San Antonio did what very few non-profits are doing these days. They demolished their building to begin new construction, a project that was in jeopardy.  

The Chabad Center for Jewish Life was in the planning stage when it got a one-two punch: the architect’s bid jumped by $2 million just as local donors were tightening their belts. Rabbi Chaim Block, executive director of Chabad of San Antonio, began to consider a scaled down program. He feared his supporters’ reaction, because they had pledged toward a grander project. The opposite was true. 

“When the larger community saw how responsible and realistic we were being, there was new excitement behind the project,” said Rabbi Block. 

Instead of traditional construction, steel would be used. Instead of 16,000 square feet, the new building will be 10,000, faced in brick and landscaped, with the option of adding modules as donors recuperate. There will still be plenty of room – classroom, chapel, kitchen, social hall – and finally enough room for the 50 plus students at the Hebrew School.

 “We’ve only scratched the surface of what we will be able to do with a proper facility,” said program director Rabbi Yossi Marrus. And the price tag? Under $1 million. 

Keeping expenditures low is especially important going forward, even if the world economy begins to turn for the better. The National Council for Voluntary Organizations in the United Kingdom saw charitable donations plunge by 11% in 2009. “Our economy may be starting to show signs of recovery, but the voluntary sector is going to lag behind as these cuts take their toll,” said NCVO chief executive Stuart Etherington.

Making due has meant working smarter for Chabad at Cambridge University. Director Rabbi Reuven Leigh has cut his budget by 20%, and rethought programming. Hosting internationally known speakers drew crowds but did not have as much of a lasting impact as weekly Shabbat dinners. So the podium and the mike were stashed into storage, and the focus on Shabbat dinners got pumped up. As a result, weekly attendance around the Leighs’ table has grown from 20 to between 40 and 50.

Another tweak, said Rabbi Leigh was to “observe what students’ interests were and build around.” This term, Shabbat table talk grew into Chabad hosting a reading group to discuss philosopher Emmanuel Levinas’s “Nine Talmudic Readings.”

Judith Jacob, an English literature major set to graduate in 2011, turned up for most of the meetings. “It was a really casual and open group. You felt really engaged because we all approached the text rather than just being taught by lecture, which is what we do all day.” The Leighs are considering Kafka and Kuzari reading groups for future terms.

For other Chabad centers, staying in the business of reaching Jewish minds started with soothing Jewish pockets. Hebrew Academy Huntington Beach in southern California froze its tuition fee. 

“We are doing anything we can to help students who would have left Jewish education stay in school, but it has put a real hardship on us,” said Rabbi Yitzchak Newman, director of the day school. The freeze and tuition scholarships kept the nursery-12th grade student body level at 300, while other Jewish schools in southern California lost as much as 7% of their students.

Parents suffering the consequences of unemployment are turning to the school for more than tuition breaks, they knock on the door for counseling, too. “We’ve bonded to a greater extent,” said Rabbi Newman. “When they are in distress, it is not their problem. It’s ours.” 

At Chabad centers in Florida, a state where 1 in 165 homes are in foreclosure, second only to Nevada, unemployment is at 11.5%, a historical high, distress is part of day-to-day survival. Rabbi Yaakov Zucker said his Chabad Jewish Center of the Florida Keys has been in the dark several times, courtesy of the electric company that does not look kindly upon delinquent bill payment. Supporters who used to fund everything from the mortgage to the weekly, communal Shabbat cholent meal were hit too hard to continue their donations. The cholent continued, with chicken subbing for pricier beef, but the donation void changed Chabad’s mindset.

Chabad of the Florida Keys has asked its community to give of their time instead of their cash. To host a community Lag B’Omer BBQ, Rabbi Zucker put his maxed-out credit card to rest and delegated. One family brought the paper goods, another the sodas. When the city required the synagogue to landscape, Chabad hosted a planting day on Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish New Year for trees. Unable to hire young rabbinical students to help with weekly visits and tefillin sessions with Jewish businessmen, Rabbi Zucker has divvied up his route with a young pony-tailed Israeli named Elron, who has begun observing Shabbat and putting on tefillin of his own thanks to Rabbi Zucker’s guidance.

“When we stopped trying to do everything on our own, and let the community join us, we got such a powerful response,” said Rabbi Zucker. Even after the economy rebounds, “I don’t think I will go back to the old way.”


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