For Chabad.org, failure is not an option

One of world's major Jewish content Web sites in serious financial straits.

By MATTHEW WAGNER
April 22, 2009 01:24
For Chabad.org, failure is not an option

chabad.org 248.88. (photo credit: Courtesy)

"These days I look upon you as my own personal rabbi," wrote Roger H., in an e-mail to the Ask the Rabbi team at Chabad.org, a popular Internet site for Jewish content. "You have never forgotten me and every time you write I feel as if my soul has been kindled anew." In this post-modern age of virtual reality, in which Jews are not the only world citizens and extreme individualism has resulted in the disintegration of communities, a good Internet site sometimes stands in for a concrete synagogue and a flesh-and blood rabbi, especially in places where there are none. But the very real financial crisis that has pounded the world economy world has threatened Chabad.org, which supplies Jewish-related news, spiritual and moral support, in-depth information on Jewish holidays and life-cycle events, and a myriad of other services - including how to find kosher food in, say, China - in six languages. One of the world's most important Internet sites for traditional Jewish content, outreach, and on-line interaction is struggling for cash, Chabad.org director Rabbi Zalman Shmotkin said this week. "From the perspective of our funding, yes, we're contending with significant challenges," he said. "On the other hand, failure is not an option. No matter what hardships we endure, we know we must persevere. There are simply way too many Jews whose Jewish involvement is riding on our work." Like the far-flung chain of Chabad Houses strewn across the globe, Chabad.org brings Judaism to Jews wherever they may be. "Shalom," wrote Israeli backpacker Nadav B. to Chabad.org. "I am traveling in India. I feel much closer to Judaism here than in Israel. I observed Yom Kippur in the proper way (for the first time in my life). I am trying to read the Torah, but I need direction. I don't know how to be a Jew." Sometimes the Zionist-from-birth has to abandon his national boundaries and adopt the qualities of the wandering, exilic Jew to find religious inspiration. And it seems that Chabad, and in particular the ubiquitous Chabad.org, is particularly well equipped to serve this generation of rootless, mobile Jews. But even Chabad.org needs to rest on a stable financial foundation. Shmotkin said that shortly before the economic downturn, Chabad.org had been working with a number of new donors on various projects, a few in their final stages. "And almost suddenly all those efforts ground to a halt," he said. On April 7, Chabad.org sent an urgent-sounding e-mail to its users that included the plea, "WE NEED YOUR HELP!" The missive also included the call "...we need serious economic commitment to continue." In another message sent at the beginning of April and signed by Shmotkin, the following statement is made: "Ever since some of our major donations were canceled due to the economic downturn, and our ability to serve you hung in the balance, many of you stepped forward - enough for us to squeeze through another day and then another. In the meantime, though, we are still months behind on payroll, our devoted staff perseveres and creates one miraculous feature after another." Shmotkin said the wording of the current Pessah fund-raising campaign was "stronger than usual," but, he pointed out, it also underscored the miracles of the site's existence. Significant deliberation preceded the donation pleas, Shmotkin said in a telephone interview with The Jerusalem Post from New York. Part of the challenge is being compelling enough to break through the "Internet clutter" and reach the potential donor. At the same time, Shmotkin said that it was painful to have to appeal repeatedly to the site's users, since many were "beginners for whom we worked so hard to create a welcoming home to find Judaism and it could be damaging to someone's religious faith if he or she starts to feel that 'organized religion' is trying to take advantage of people's money." Chabad.org's strength is also its weakness. While the Internet is extremely pervasive, it can never fully substitute for a local, real-life community where worshipers laugh, cry and argue together. Surfers are not as rooted, nor do they feel as responsible. In the meantime, Chabad.org continues to field questions, some of them decidedly transnational in nature. "Is Megilat Esther available on-line?" asked one of the site's 2.25 million monthly visitors. "My daughter is in Egypt on a military base and she and her friends have requested access to the megila." Another questioner asks whether it is kosher to hear the Purim shofar blown via the Internet. In addition, Chabad.org has to combat the misconception among potential donors that its activities are funded by Chabad headquarters. Shmotkin explained that the Web site, like other Chabad operations, is self-contained and responsible for its own fund-raising. It must find the money to support staff writers and researchers who provide a wide variety of Internet content, from a Kaddish training program that teaches Jews unschooled in Aramaic how to say the mourning prayer "like a pro," to parenting columns by numerous authors with many children of their own, to current events such as regular dispatches from a soldier who served in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead, to information about holidays and practice and discussions of the basic articles of the Jewish faith. Ironically, Chabad.org even launched a site to help people deal with the economic downturn. In a decidedly post-denominational spirit, the nonthreatening character of the Internet allows Chabad, which is strictly Orthodox, to reach every kind of Jew. "Take it from this Jew steeped in Reform Judaism," writes Robert L., "your site is the basis of my congregation's learning group every week." Some of Chabad's traditional supporters, such as London-based Israeli real estate and diamond billionaire Lev Leviev, 52, have hit tough economic times, while others, such as Guma Aguiar, 31, CEO of Leor Energy, who discovered huge natural gas reserves in Texas, have recently begun giving to Chabad. And Chabad.org has managed to hold on to several big-name donors such as NCH Capital co-founders Moris Tabacinic and George Rohr, judging from the names displayed on its sites. "We are extraordinarily grateful to our partners for their ongoing generous support," Shmotkin said. "It would be unrealistic for us to expect them to cover our entire budget, especially during these tough times when so many additional crucial causes vie for their attention and philanthropy," he continued. "It is our responsibility to find additional charitable investment." Easier said than done. Though small donation rates from users have gone up, Shmotkin said new large funders have not materialized. Yet. "It's tough out there, for sure, but with God's help, we'll make it happen," he said. Despite its own difficult economic predicament Chabad.org is pushing forward, recently launching a Russian-language site and a 3D program for children. And Chabad.org's rabbis continue to receive hard questions. "Our very beloved mother was diagnosed with colon cancer last week," wrote a distressed e-mailer. "We are all very devastated and in need of spiritual guidance. "Can you be in touch with us in these difficult times?"


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