the mysterious case of kars4kids: deceptive advertising for orthodox jewish proselytizing

When I watch baseball, I always watch the Red Sox broadcast, and almost always choose local radio for the audio feed. (Hooray for MLB streaming on Roku!) And while I always mute the ads between innings, hundreds of ads are stuffed into the broadcast itself, so it's impossible not to hear and see a lot of advertising.

One advertising staple is something called "Cars for Kids". The ad exhorts you to make a cash donation or to donate your used car, and tells you how Cars for Kids makes it very simple. I've been hearing this for years, but only recently wondered, what is Cars for Kids? Who are the kids, and how are cars helping them?

I assumed it had something to do with fundraising for children with a serious illness. The Red Sox are linked to an organization called The Jimmy Fund, which supports the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. The Make-A-Wish Foundation of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, is also a Red Sox sponsor. So I assumed that Cars for Kids was something similar.


First, I discovered Cars for Kids is actually "Kars 4 Kids," which is stupid and pointless. Since the misspelling is pronounced the same way as the proper spelling, why misspell?

Next, I discovered that when you visit the Kars 4 Kids website, it's not immediately apparent what the vehicle donations actually support. The FAQs are all about how to donate your car. The donor comments are about how easy it was to donate a car. The "How It Works" link, same.

Those links are in all-caps, bold, right up front when you first go to the site.

In a smaller font, not all-caps, not bold, on the left, there are links to "charity" and "about us". Click on one of those, and for the first time, you see the word Jewish on the site.

The website for Kars 4 Kids Canada (I guess they realized Kanada would be a mistake), shows this.

Both websites (and all the Kars 4 Kids websites) keep the purpose of the charity pretty vague. They help "children develop into productive members of the community", they "keep kids busy in a healthy environment", they "give Jewish children and their families the support, resources and guidance they need". What does that mean?

All the Kars 4 Kids websites mention something called Oorah. In the US: "our sister charity, Oorah", with no further explanation. The Canadian site says "Your car donation will benefit Kars4Kids, d/b/a Oorah Charitable Organization, a registered charity dedicated to addressing the educational, emotional and spiritual needs of Jewish children and their families."

Having been raised Jewish, when I see those words -- the educational, emotional, and spiritual needs of Jewsih children -- I know exactly what it means. I have the code book.

Next stop, Oorah. Oorah appears to sponsor programs exclusively for Jewish people to explore Judaism. This is code for trying to get Jews to become Orthodox.

People who practice Judaism generally fall on a continuum from Reform, to Conservative, to Orthodox; these are called movements. (They are sometimes known as sects, but they're really not equivalent to, for example, the Protestant sects.) In addition to the three movements, there are sub-divisions, such as Reconstructionist, Modern Orthodox, and several others. This is a huge, complex political and cultural stew, full of hypocrisy and arrogance, full of people looking down on other people for choosing or taking paths different than their own. To someone like me who was raised in a Reform but observant household, the words "make their Judaic heritage more personal, relevant and meaningful" are heavily loaded.

More importantly, why would the general, non-Jewish public donate to this charity? I'm not sure why anyone, Jewish or not, would care about making "Judaic heritage more meaningful to Jewish children", but surely non-Jewish people wouldn't care about this, would they?

The absence of information -- who are the "kids"? how are the cars helping them? -- is obviously not accidental. Ad copy isn't found in nature, it's purposely and carefully written. And once I discovered Kars 4 Kids' mission and purpose, the omission of the word "Jewish" in ad copy seems purposely misleading -- deceptive.

I'm not the only person who thinks so.

From Tablet, a online magazine of "Jewish news, ideas, and culture": Kars 4 Kids Rakes In The Buckz: "A well-branded Jewish charity goes to great pains to avoid calling itself Jewish—and takes in millions nationwide."

From CharityWatch: Costly and Continuous Continuous Kars4Kids Disguise Charity's Real Purpose. (Clever use of alliteration!) From this story I learned that Kars 4 Kids advertises everywhere, especially on sports TV and radio, and apparently has an incredibly annoying jingle. CharityWatch writes:
Cars for… an Orthodox Jewish Cause

Nowhere in the Kars4Kids ads (in most states) does the charity inform potential donors of how their car donations will help kids. A visit to the "kars4kids.org/howtohelp" website displayed at the end of the TV commercial is similarly vague as to how kids will benefit, simply encouraging people to "take action" for the "1.2 million kids [that] leave school without a diploma each year" by volunteering to "mentor, fundraise, advocate or run an awareness campaign." (This "take action" message likely is a strategic one designed for Kars4Kids to take advantage of an accounting rule that allows charities to report a portion of advertising costs as program instead of fundraising expenses.) When going to the website address shown in the TV commercial, only by scrolling all the way down to the fine print that includes Kars4Kids' copyright notation at the bottom of the page will donors eventually learn what activities their donated cars support: [emphasis mine]"Your donation will benefit Kars4Kids, a national organization dedicated to addressing the educational, material, emotional and spiritual needs of Jewish children and their families [emphasis from CharityWatch]."

In CharityWatch's view, the Kars4Kids ads deceive potential donors by failing to inform them that donated cars will benefit a Jewish organization and kids of Jewish faith. Furthermore, the youth programs Kars4Kids supports promote an Orthodox Jewish lifestyle, which CharityWatch believes compounds the deception perpetrated by the Kars4Kids ads. Oorah, Kars4Kids' "sister charity," is the organization that actually runs the "educational, developmental, and recreational programs for Jewish youth and their families" described in Kars4Kids' mission statement. Kars4Kids and Oorah share a principal officer, Eliyohu Mintz, the son of their founder, Rabbi Chaim Mintz, and both organizations are located at the same address in the heavily-Orthodox Jewish town of Lakewood, New Jersey. Oorah, which means "awaken" in Hebrew, "specializes in outreach to non-observant Jews, operating summer camps and other programs that seek to make non-Orthodox Jews more observant," according to an October 2016 article in the Forward, which covers news for a Jewish-American audience.
CharityWatch continues:
While supporting Orthodox Jewish organizations is a worthy endeavor for those donors who are intending to do so, many donors of other faiths may not be pleased to learn that the car they donated to Kars4Kids may have funded religious teachings that are in conflict with their own faith or personal beliefs. Orthodox Jews, who follow the traditional interpretations of Jewish law with strict observance of Jewish ritual, make up only about 10% of Jewish adults in the U.S., according to a 2013 survey published by the Pew Research Center in August 2015. Moreover, many secular Jews are not enthusiastic about funding Orthodox organizations...

If the truth about Kars4Kids' mission as a Jewish organization and its funding of Oorah's Orthodox Jewish outreach is an unwelcome surprise to some donors, perhaps they will be comforted to learn that since 2010, Kars4Kids also has conducted various charity events and giveaways for the benefit of needy children, regardless of their religious affiliation. These events have included several backpack giveaways and coat distributions in parts of New Jersey and New York. Kars4Kids also released a free smartphone app in mid-2014 designed as a safety alert for parents to remind them not to leave young children in the backseat of hot cars. Nonetheless, Kars4Kids' grants to Oorah still represented more than 91% of its program spending over the two-year period from 2014-2015, thereby making Jewish children the primary "kids" that benefit from its car donation proceeds – a fact that many Kars4Kids donors likely never end up knowing.
I also found stories, showing that less than one percent of funds raised even goes to the "kids". Oorah is also the subject of a million-dollar lawsuit, accused of using a synagogue to hide questionable financial dealings and putting the synagogue on the hook for a million bucks.*

Even more troubling than Kars 4 Kids deceptive practices are their unwitting donors. Do people really donate to organizations without knowing what they support? Never mind researching what percentage of donations goes to the actual cause -- start with the basics! What is the cause? Where does your money go?

According to everything I'm seeing online, millions of people -- which by definition means millions of non-Jewish people -- are forking over their hard-earned money to support Orthodox Jewish indoctrination education? Seriously?

Are tax deductions from car donations so amazing that donors don't care where the money goes, so long as they get their deduction? From CharityWatch: Car Donations: Taking Taxpayers for a Ride, and from Nonprofit Quarterly: Nation's Largest Car Donation Charity a Self-Dealing Mess.

* Since someone will undoubtedly point this out in comments, Bill O'Reilly "exposed" Kars4Kids on Fox News. I don't even want to click. I'll just call O'Reilly a stopped clock and move on.


Amy said...

That is quite a fraud. It makes me wonder how many other charities do similar masking of their true goals and identities. And is this an ultra-Orthodox group? ---e.g., the Lubavitsch seem to be the ones most set on making "real" Jews out of those who have chosen to follow a more liberal or secular path. Or is it some crazed individual on a mission of his or her own?

I've never seen their ads, but then you know---I have that magical screening ability when it comes to ads.

laura k said...

They are Chabad, but I don't think they're affiliated with the Lubavitch. But I didn't dig too deeply. I find it so offensive, I don't even like to look.

Amy said...

Chabad is Lubavitch. Two names, same movement.

laura k said...

Right. But doesn't Chabad also have a generic meaning? I thought Jewish proselyizing organizations were called chabad whether or not they were Lubavitch. If not, then no, I didn't find any Lubavitch connections to Oorah... although I didn't investigate that closely.

Amy said...

I think they are one and the same. According to both their own website and Wikipedia, they are just different names for the same movement, sometimes even referred to Chabad-Lubavitch. Could you be confusing Hasidim with Chabad? There are other Hasidic movements aside from Chabad-Lubavitch like the Satmar. But Chabad = Lubavitch.

So isn't your last sentence wrong?---if they are Chabad, there is a Lubavitch connection.

I just assumed it was Chabad/Lubavitch because I've been exposed to their techniques. And I don't disagree with your reaction to those techniques and their attitudes.

laura k said...

I saw that on Wikipedia, but I didn't trust it. But you sound sure, so I'll trust you. :) Which means yes, that sentence would be incorrect. As I said, I thought there was a generic chabad -- similar to Christian evangelists that can be from any number of denominations.

Definitely not confusing Hasidim with Chabad. Most Hasidim are not Lubavitch.

I hate proselytizing of any kind. I feel like spirituality is deeply personal, and no one should try to influence anyone else's choices.

But of course what bothers me about Kars4Kids is their deception.

allan said...

From one of your links (my emphasis):
"[A Kars4Kids representative] told the Star Tribune in 2011 that Kars4Kids was not trying to mislead anyone and that people seeking more information could go to its website. 'You have a 60-second spot. You don't have time to inform people of your mission,' he said."

laura k said...

Obviously that's bullshit. It takes about 10 words. Legitimate charities do it ALL THE TIME.

They should be investigated for deceptive advertising practices.

impudent strumpet said...

It's so weird that this apparently works, because the idea of "cars for kids" is completely opaque to me, in that I have no clue how donating a car to somewhere could possibly help kids. (In contrast to something like "I'm running a 10K for cancer", where I'm familiar with the fact that people donate money for their friend to run a 10 km race and that money is then donated to a cancer charity - although now that I think about it, it's weird that that works too.)

trying to get Jews to become Orthodox.

I had no idea this was a thing, but I wonder if maybe that was the ulterior motive of the guys who told me they were giving away free menorahs. (Story here.) I felt like they had some kind of religious ulterior motive but I wasn't knowledgeable enough to even begin to speculate on what it might be. They had made it quite clear over the years that non-Jewish people weren't their target audience, which is why I felt safe to ask them about it.

laura k said...

Free menorahs -- for sure that's the intent! The way the conversation began is a dead giveaway. If you had said yes, you would have gotten the free menorah and the guy would talk to you about your level of observance, invite you to a gathering, etc etc.

I can't believe I didn't put that in my comment!

laura k said...

When I googled "free menorah giveaway" the first link that comes up is... chabad. I.e. the same group as the subject of this post.

FenFan said...

Great work, Laura, and a big thanks to Allan for providing the link at JoS! This is a PRIME example of why you need to do the research before donating money to ANY organization. It's not just what percentage of your donation actually go towards the cause, but what the exact cause is. It sounds so innocent on the surface ("Won't someone please think of the CHILDREN?") but underneath the facade of a catchy jingle sung by children with great singing voices is not one that I believe needs monetary support. I don't know... is it crazy to think that homeless children in my local area have greater needs than non-Orthodox Jewish children?

laura k said...

Thank you, FenFan! Your last point is really the heart of the matter. If Jewish parents want their children to go to Jewish programs, they should pay for it themselves. The "cause" itself is inappropriate for fundraising. Thus the deceptive practices.