Seeking tourists, synagogue turns to the sky

Taking a cue from party promoters and casinos, a Hollywood synagogue has been trying out a slightly unorthodox method of spreading the word about services.

As sunbathers and beachgoers might have noticed on Sunday, Chabad Ocean Drive took to the skies over South Broward to notify tourists about an upcoming event: a Simchat Torah party on Thursday.

“We have to figure out new techniques to make sure everybody knows we’re here and everybody knows they’re welcome,” said Rabbi Leibel Kudan, the synagogue’s assistant director.

As Kudan was contemplating ways to reach Jews who were visiting South Florida, a friend hit on the idea of planes that he would typically see flying over the beach, trailing banners that advertised nightclubs or parties.

Chabad Ocean Drive first tested the method last year for Simchat Torah, which follows the Jewish high holidays and festive Sukkot and celebrates the end and new beginning of the annual Torah-reading cycle. Kudan said the congregation’s website saw a spike in hits, attendance was higher at the party and synagogue regulars were abuzz.

So the plane returned in time for Rosh Hashanah earlier this month, flying above the beach on the busy Labor Day holiday. Kudan said that as a result, he welcomed tourists from Nova Scotia and Israel who were in town during the holiday.

Sunday, the message (crafted to meet a 50-character limit) said: “Simchat Torah Party @ Sept. 26.” A member of the community donated the several hundred dollars needed to fly the banner for an hour and a half, Kudan said.

Thursday’s free celebration will include a buffet dinner, singing and dancing.

“That was why, in thinking of the wording, we chose to use the word ‘party,’ ” Kudan said.

Yoni Ashurov, a Hallandale Beach neighbor of Kudan who attends the synagogue, said he saw the plane as he was in his building’s gym on Sunday.

“I think like any advertising, you might not be able to directly see the impact today, but I think just from a branding perspective — and it’s sounds funny because you’re branding a synagogue — from a branding perspective, I think it’s really cool,” he said. “You have a lot of secular Jews that don’t attend services, so this is reminding them number one, you’re Jewish, don’t forget. And number two, there’s a synagogue around the corner.”

The Chabad-Lubavitch movement, a branch of Hasidic Judaism that includes 3,300 institutions around the world, is well acquainted with creative outreach.

Throughout South Florida and elsewhere, Chabad-affiliated rabbis operate “Mitzvah Tanks,” or vehicles that provide mobile religious experiences. Chabad of Georgia rented a billboard in Atlanta featuring a man with a shofar that says “Don’t Blow It! Join Chabad this New Year.” And in New York City and elsewhere during Sukkot earlier this month, fleets of “pedi sukkahs” traveled around city streets. During the holiday, Jews are supposed to spend time in a temporary structure called a “sukkah” to commemorate the years the Israelites spent wandering the desert.

“We aim to make Judaism accessible to every Jew, wherever they may find themselves,” said Rabbi Motti Seligson, a spokesman for Chabad-Lubavitch, in an email. “From the Mitzvah Mobile on 5th Avenue, to a billboard in Atlanta, to an app on an iPhone, we strive to inspire people to explore their Judaism and make it relevant to their lives, and sometimes that takes a good deal of creativity.”