Who doesn’t dread reaching a computerized voice at the end of the phone when information is needed right away? Or leaving a message on an answering machine that someone checks maybe once a day, hoping beyond hope that you’ll receive a timely response to your question?
Rabbi Mendy Kramer of the Chabad-Lubavitch Youth Organization in Israel wanted to do something to answer people’s questions and respond to their requests for information. So he suggested creating the role of a personable Chabad House director on the telephone, someone who could be reached via a call service to assist anyone who dials an easy-to-remember number on their cell phones: *3770.
“When someone leaves a message on an answering machine,” Kramer says, “the individual doesn’t know who is on the other side, or if someone can assist him. It can be very frustrating not knowing if the person can help you or not.”
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In 2010, a pilot program advertised that anyone who wanted to have their mezuzahs checked before the start of the High Holidays could call *3770. The ads—promoted by local Chabad centers in hundreds of cities and towns across Israel—promised that by using this number anywhere in Israel, someone would come to their home to pick up the scrolls—the rolled-up parchment affixed on the doorways of Jewish homes that needs to be reviewed by a certified scribe every few years—and have them checked and then returned to their doorways.
“Am I dreaming? I always knew that Chabad are nice people, but to such an extent?!”
Within a few days, volunteers from the 300 Chabad Houses across Israel reviewed more than 15,000 mezuzahs. The program encouraged Chabad to create a central call center that could respond to the widest range of questions and issues.
“The number is advertised by the local centers,” explains Kramer, “and when members of their community call, they receive local information, as if they were calling their local Chabad House. If they want to know information in a different community, they can get that, too.”
The call center, located in Kfar Chabad, Israel, is built around an internal database of Chabad programs around Israel that is used to respond to callers’ questions. “People know that there is someone on the other side of the phone,” says Kramer, “who has the right information, cares about their needs and is there to help them.”
Rabbi Duber Levitin, who answers the calls, says he never knows what to expect. “People have all different kind of questions—anything that you can think of. They always are telling me that ‘you guys are the address for everything Jewish.’”
Levitin says he is more than happy to respond to questions ranging from “My friend is in Jerusalem, and I think it would be a good idea to deliver matzah. Do you know someone who could to that?” and “Where is the Chabad House near 34th Street in midtown Manhattan?” to “Where can I pray for the High Holidays in Strasbourg, France?” and “What time is Shabbat candle-lighting in Bangkok, Thailand?”
He notes that while most questions are straightforward, some come with emotional backstories. “Tell me, I have a relative who came from Texas to visit her ailing father,” a woman on the phone told Levitin, “and she wants to have a Shabbat meal. Could you help us with a meal in the local Chabad House?” He gave the caller the number to the local Chabad center, saying he was sure the director would be glad to help her. The rabbi wasn’t expecting the woman’s reaction.
A caller in Israel praised Rabbi Binyamin Wolff, above, and Shterni Wolff, co-directors of Chabad in Hanover, Germany. (file photo)
“I’m turning to Chabad because you’re always glad to assist,” she said. “I was recently at my sister's in Hanover, Germany, and I visited the Chabad emissaries there, Rabbi Binyamin and Shterni Wolff,” she said in a choked voice. “I’m crying out of happiness,” she told Levitin. “They were such a kind couple, who cared about everyone.”
Another instance that brought a smile to Levitin’s face was when a mother called the center and asked if there was a place overseas where there is no Chabad center, since she was not very happy about her daughter’s interest in Jewish observance. “My daughter is planning her annual High Holidays trip somewhere around the world, and everywhere she goes she always spends time at the local Chabad House,” complained the mother. “After one trip she started to light Shabbat candles, and after another trip she decided to keep kosher. I am looking for a place where she will not have a Chabad House to go to.”
“Has your daughter been happier?” he asked the mother. “Yes, she has become a much better person since,” she told him. To which Levitin suggested that maybe she should visit her own local Chabad House, and that maybe it would add to her own life and happiness, just as it had for her daughter.
He sees his position as being an all-encompassing Chabad center over the phone, similar to “the same personable reaction you would receive in your local Chabad House.”
Kramer’s ultimate goal is to connect more Jews to Chabad centers, where they can be served for any Jewish need on a daily basis. “Chabad is a global organization that thinks locally,” he says. “We serve as a hub of information to connect Jews to their local Jewish community, or to the local Jewish community they will be visiting.”
Interestingly enough, on occasion people mistakenly reach the Chabad call center instead of the Israel Railways call center, which is just one digit off.
“Hello, Chabad call center,” chimes Levitin.
“This is not Israel Railways?” To which Levitin explains that the caller misdialed. Nonetheless, he adds that he is glad to offer assistance and will look online for the times of the next train.
“Am I dreaming?” asks the caller, as Levitin retells the anecdote. “I always knew that Chabad are nice people, but to such an extent?! I need to know when the next train is from Rehovot to Haifa.”
Levitin finds the information, and the caller replies, “In merit of your kindness, I will find a Chabad House and put on tefillin today.”
To which Levitin answers: “Do you need the address?”