Jewish educational institutions from Massachusetts to California dominated an online vote-gathering competition and stand to win a total of $6 million from a Kohl’s Department Stores charity.

After an almost two-month campaign that ended Friday just before midnight, Jewish schools took up 12 of the top 20 spots in the Kohl’s Cares for Kids contest. All but one of those institutions are run by or affiliated with Chabad-Lubavitch institutions. Each of the finalists will receive $500,000.

“Now is the time to get some sleep,” said Rabbi Shmuley Marcus, who helped run the campaign for Hebrew Academy of Huntington Beach, Calif., the highest-voted Jewish school with 148,234 votes. “People have been working on this since July.”

In honor of Kohl’s Cares’ 10th anniversary, the retailer earmarked $10 million to distribute to non-profit educational institutions in the United States. Some 11 million votes were cast, and organizers will announce the official winners later this month after verifying contestants’ eligibility.

After Hebrew Academy, Jewish schools in the top 20, listed in order of votes, are: Cheder Menachem in Los Angeles; Yeshiva Achei Tmimim Academy in Worcester, Mass.; Bais Chaya Mushka School for girls in Los Angeles; Charlotte Jewish Day School in North Carolina; Jewish Educational Trade School in Granada Hills, Calif.; Chabad Hebrew Academy in S. Diego, Calif.; Hebrew Academy Community School in Margate, Fla.; Rohr Bais Chaya Academy in Tamarac, Fla.; United Lubavitcher Yeshiva in Brooklyn, N.Y.; Silverstein Hebrew Academy in Great Neck, N.Y.; and Netan Eli Hebrew Academy in Reseda, Calif.

The results follow on the heels of the Friendship Circle winning $100,000 and 17 other Chabad-Lubavitch programs winning $20,000 each as part of the Chase Community Giving Challenge, a similar contest also hosted by Facebook. Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries were also well-represented in last year’s Jewish Federations of North America Jewish Community Heroes contest on Facebook.

In the Kohl’s competition, schools pursued votes with unbridled enthusiasm, leveraging the power of social media and supporters’ networks to champion their cause, raise brand awareness and boost their ratings. Each Facebook user could vote a total of 20 times, but could allocate a maximum of five votes to any one institution, allowing some schools to partner up and split available votes.

Three of the top schools, Hebrew Academy, Cheder Menachem and Bais Chaya Mushka, took advantage of their geographical proximity to campaign together, especially in the final weeks of the contest. Administrators sent parents and other volunteers armed with laptops to busy streets, shopping malls and outside restaurants during lunch and dinner to drum up support.

“We rallied the forces in all the different communities in a 30-mile radius,” said Rabbi Yitzchak Newman, director of Hebrew Academy, the only Jewish day school to be twice awarded with the prestigious U.S. Department of Education Blue Ribbon for academic excellence.

The three schools also lined up support from the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, Jewish Federation and Family Services of Orange County, Jewish Family Services of Los Angeles and the local Bureau of Jewish Education.

“When we became aware of the fact that this campaign was picking up speed in some of our schools, we just started spreading the word using normal media and social media like Facebook, Twitter, distribution lists and e-newsletters,” said Phil Liff-Grieff of the Bureau of Jewish Education.

“I see the value of a network in play,” he said of Chabad’s overall success. “We’re talking about an organization that’s networked in such a way that people from all over work together on their network’s schools.”

Bais Chaya Mushka volunteers staff a computer bank in the hunt for votes.
Bais Chaya Mushka volunteers staff a computer bank in the hunt for votes.

For the Charlotte Jewish Day School, a relatively small K-5 institution, placing in the top 20 is a major triumph after being forced to close its middle school due to insufficient funds, said Rabbi Bentzion Groner. Although the school initially received enthusiastic support from its home base, which included the local Jewish Federation and other elements of the Jewish community, it took to regional newspapers and television stations after it cemented its position as the only school from either North or South Carolina to have a shot at winning. As a result of the campaign, untold tens of thousands of people who had never heard of the school before voted for it out of regional pride.

“We’re among all those nice big cities now,” remarked Groner.

The rabbi said that bringing back the middle is now a serious option, as is renovating the day school’s building, upgrading its technology or building a new playground.

How the money is spent will be worked out between Kohl’s Cares and the winning schools. According to the guidelines, none of the funds can be earmarked for religious programs.

“It’s no secret that these days, organizations are going through financial hard times,” said Rabbi Yiftach, director of Bais Chaya Mushka in Los Angeles. “We could spend it on everything ranging from textbooks to curriculum, extra-curricular activities and remodeling.”

Though the contest closed Friday night at 11:59 p.m. Central Time, Jewish schools had to prematurely end their campaigns in order to usher in the holy day of Shabbat at sundown. Expectedly, final tallies dropped in the last few hours of the contest.

“You do what you can and leave it in the hands of G‑d,” said Newman.