For Charlotte Jewish Day School, $500,000 could mean complete overhaul of school-wide technology, construction of a brand-new playground, or redevelopment of its individualized curriculum for 110 students.
“Jewish day school education, especially in cities where you’re the only Jewish day school, isn’t always on the front burner,” said Mariashi Groner, founder and director of the elementary school. With an extra half a million dollars, “We would be seen as a force to contend with,” she said.
Charlotte Jewish Day School, originally a Chabad-run program now turned community day school, is competing with public and private schools across America to land among the top-20 most popular schools in a Facebook voting contest run by Kohl’s Cares, the philanthropic arm of Kohl’s department stores. Kohl’s will be giving out a total of $10 million — $500,000 to each of the top-20 schools — as part of a “Giveback” promotion in honor of its 10th anniversary. As of Tuesday morning, the North Carolina school was ranked 10 with 13,659 votes, and of the top 50 schools, at least 20 were Jewish programs, with Silverstein Hebrew Academy of Great Neck, L.I., ranking number 2 (22,680 votes) and Cheder Menachem of Los Angeles ranking number 3 (22,340 votes). Of those 20, most are in some way affiliated with Chabad.
“There’s nothing that we’re not trying and no one we’re not reaching out to, but the real beautiful thing is that the community is standing behind us,” said Rabbi Dovid Ezagui from Silverstein Hebrew Academy, the front-running Jewish elementary school. “Our school is going through an expansion period now. We ran out of space in our current location and we’re building another location. The timing couldn’t be better.”
The contest, which began on July 7, runs through Sept. 3, and new schools can still enter. Each Facebook user is allowed to vote 20 times (five times per individual school) using the Kohl’s Cares application. While religious and private schools of all sorts are welcome to participate, the $500,000 prizes cannot be used for religious or politically partisan programs, or scholarships and financial aid, according to official regulations.
“Our whole city is talking about Charlotte Jewish Day School — that’s never happened before,” said Groner, who hosted an alumni vote-a-thon event on Monday night, where over 40 alumni showed up for Facebook voting sessions with their laptops.
“The parents who send their kids to the school should feel good about it,” added her son Bentzion, who is publicity manager for the campaign. “When we learned about the contest it wasn’t just about the money. For us the incentive was really to give the Jewish community a big boost, a sort of confidence.”
Once school starts on Aug. 19, Groner said she’ll encourage kids to go door-to-door asking for votes, and those who secure the most votes will win prizes.
“We have people voting on the spot,” she continued. “One of our alumni just called in and said he’s getting his whole frat to vote for us.”
Similarly, Silverstein Hebrew Academy has its students seeking votes from their local community, setting up their laptops with Wi-Fi connections in various locations throughout Long Island. Through a website launched solely for this event (VoteSHA.com), the school is raffling off donated iPads in exchange for votes.
“I think the key issue really is to get the word out to the Jewish community,” Rabbi Ezagui said. “We should really stand behind someone who has a chance. We do stand a chance, and we don’t need to be the first ones.”
While Groner said her school was not working in concert with any of the other Chabad-affiliated schools high up on the list, Rabbi Ezagui admitted that his school is in fact cooperating with a few of the others.
“We’re all so driven. We do have a network,” he said. “A person gets 20 votes, and he can vote five times per school so anybody you bring to the voting station can vote 15 times more.” Silverstein is partnering with several other Chabad schools.
Though contest rules forbid the schools from using the prize money for religious education, the Jewish educators say that this stipulation doesn’t affect their need.
“We want to develop the curriculum to allow the teacher to focus on the individual student,” said Bentzion Groner.
For Rabbi Ezagui, his school of approximately 150 students could use upgrades in both the science and computer labs, as well as extra funding for the construction of its new facility.
With only three and a half weeks left in the contest, both Rabbi Ezagui and the Groners are confident in their communities’ abilities to maintain their top-20 positions. However, they will soon have some competition from larger schools that plan on entering late in the game, like the Hebrew Academy of Nassau County — a centrist Orthodox school with four campuses on Long Island.
“We have a beautiful public school building from 1956, and it’s great, but it’s in need of a facelift,” said Lisa Fogelson, director of school advancement for HANC’s Plainview campus, who is helping launch the school’s social networking campaign. “What Jewish schools have going for them is that people are committed to Jewish education. Very few people are passionate about their public high school this way.”
But within these Jewish schools, the smaller programs intend to stay strong.
“It’s more than the money,” Bentzion Groner said. “It’s to be able to say this little Jewish school from Charlotte was voted in one of the top 20 schools.”