There are good ideas, and then there are award-winning ones.

Rabbi Chaim Lazaroff, co-director of Chabad of Uptown in Houston, Texas, with his wife, Chanie, can claim the latter.

For the High Holidays last year, Lazaroff wanted to do something different, something really eye-catching. He took notice of a picture going around on social media about discontent with Washington politics at the time, and was inspired to scrawl a cardboard sign that read: “Not hungry. Not homeless. Just want you to come hear shofar.” He had the photo taken in front of the Hilton hotel where he would be holding Rosh Hashanah services, and then posted it on Facebook.

The local Jewish newspaper—the Jewish Herald Voice—was so intrigued that it reshot the 36-year-old rabbi with his makeshift sign in front of the Hilton, and used the image on its glossy-cover High Holiday magazine, a full-color publication mailed out separately from the paper. The photo, taken by associate editor Michael C. Duke, wound up winning a second-place Simon Rockower Award for Excellence in Photography, presented by the American Jewish Press Association. The award was presented last month at AJPA’s annual convention, which this year was held in Seattle.

A 'Dynamic Rabbi' on a Hot Texas Afternoon

“It was a very playful cover with a young, dynamic rabbi,” said Duke. He said the shoot took place on a hot August afternoon in Texas—so hot that the photos were taken quickly, in five or six frames.

“We were out there about three minutes. I usually take much longer, and take more time setting up the shot,” said Duke, 35, who credited the newspaper staff with first seeing the rabbi’s original picture on Facebook. “It’s funny; this photo idea wasn’t mine, I didn’t have to think it all through, and I won for it.”

Rabbi Lazaroff prior to last Yom Kippur.
Rabbi Lazaroff prior to last Yom Kippur.

This is the second year in a row Duke won a Rockower for photography.

And he was pleased: “It’s great for Chabad Uptown, it’s great for the paper, and it’s great for readers.”

“It really was organic. It was somewhat spontaneous,” said Lazaroff of his efforts to draw worshippers.

He added that the original sign became the first in a three-part, social-media, public-relations endeavor that included two more slogans. Following Rosh Hashanah, he made another placard saying “Hungry Not Homeless on Yom Kippur” and stood, clad in a tallis, in front of the J.W. Marriott where he hosted Yom Kippur services. Last came the “Homeless Not Hungry on Sukkot” sign he held while sitting in the back of a truck filled with sechachraw, unfinished vegetable matter used to cover the roof of a sukkah.

Lazaroff noted that he was aware some might feel uneasy with the images. He assured that he was not at all slighting homelessness, which is he calls a “big epidemic” in Houston: “Every street corner has one or two panhandlers; it’s a very common sight here.”

The message was for the Jewish people, he said, in a community of some 50,000 Jews and eight Chabad houses. Services were free of charge, and all were welcome.

Energizing the Community; Increasing Observance

In an email he wrote to the Jewish Herald Voice last year describing his goals, he said: “Here are my thoughts on what brought to and inspired this campaign. We are always looking for new ways to engage the Jewish community, and inspire even more observance of Torah and mitzvot. The Jewish New Year is an especially propitious time of year, when there is an opportunity to reach even more people, especially the unaffiliated.

Rabbi Chaim Lazaroff, right, with Rabbi Shimon Lazaroff, regional director of Chabad Lubavitch of Texas, left, and Rabbi Mendel Traxler, program director of Chabad Outreach of Houston.
Rabbi Chaim Lazaroff, right, with Rabbi Shimon Lazaroff, regional director of Chabad Lubavitch of Texas, left, and Rabbi Mendel Traxler, program director of Chabad Outreach of Houston.

“Following the mission of reaching every Jew, we at Chabad of Uptown created this online social media campaign with an engaging image that will inspire people to share with their friends. Baruch Hashem (thank G‑d), our vision has worked, and thousands have been exposed to the message to listen to the shofar, through social media viral sharing, especially via Facebook and Twitter. Our hope is that it will remind the community, including those who perhaps would let the days pass on their calendar, to go out to shul and hear the shofar.”

In fact, he wanted to be so inclusive that he also created a two-minute YouTube video before the holidays, including a visual presence from all of the area Chabad centers.

“It became more of a citywide thing,” he said, saying that the campaign took on a life of its own. “It was all good. It worked.”

Now, on to this year and a tie-in to Labor Day…