By Rabbi Zalman Loewenthal with contribution by Lubavitch.com
Zachary Shapiro, 10, looked out from the stage to his family in the crowd. His hand hovered over the buzzer. The questions came fast, and he was ready: What are the names of the Hebrew months of the year in sequence? What blessing do you recite over freshly squeezed orange juice? What are Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles of Faith?
“He studied hard for this,” his mother, Bella, said, proud to see her son having reached this point. “We were quizzing him until the last second, and he was definitely prepared!”
With their parents, grandparents, and other family and friends cheering them on, hundreds of public school children from thirteen Chabad Hebrew Schools across Long Island met for their first-ever Judaic competition. Under the glare of cameras, young contestants like Zachary sat close to their mics, slamming their buzzers and belting out their responses to questions designed to test their Jewish knowledge. This was, as their t-shirts announced, the first annual JewQ Regional Championship.
A project of the Chabad Children’s Network (CKids), JewQ was created to provide children who don’t attend Jewish day schools an exciting and engaging way to absorb fundamental Judaic knowledge. The tentative goal was to have 25 Hebrew Schools participate in this year’s pilot program; instead, in an overwhelmingly enthusiastic response, 1,000 children from 80 Chabad Hebrew Schools joined the first competition.
“Kids these days have so much vying for their attention, in ever flashier and more distracting ways,” said Rabbi Mendy Kotlarsky, chairman of CKids and executive director of its parent organization Merkos 302. “The inspiration for JewQ is to make Jewish learning stand out even amongst everything else competing for a child’s attention – to reach children in their environment and engage them on their level.”
Once students registered for the program through their local Chabad Hebrew Schools, CKids mailed them copies of Living Jewish, a book that covers Jewish fundamentals such as basic prayers, blessings, and Jewish holidays. Hebrew School instructors then proctored three rounds of testing on the material before students competed in school-wide and regional championships with other Hebrew Schools in the area, culminating in an international championship in New York on March 3rd.
The contestants’ parents often get involved as well – like Zachary’s father, Glenn, who helped his son prepare for the championships. “It was really an opportunity for them to have quality father-and-son time,” Bella says. “And they took it seriously, sitting down together every evening to review.”
“I wish they had this kind of book for adults,” says Genady Tverskoy, who helped his son David, 11, prepare for the tests with the JewQ study guide. “I thought I would know a lot of the concepts, but it was really rich with information.”
Chana Yarmush is the director of Chabad at Wiregrass in Wesley Chapel, Florida, and its Hebrew School for the Arts. The book’s content, she says, includes information she would never have enough time to cover in the two hours she teaches each week. “My goal is really to inspire my students with a lasting love and excitement for Judaism and propel a curiosity for learning their whole lives,” she says. “Some concepts or details just don’t fit in the schedule or are forgotten over time.” With JewQ, the children are encouraged and empowered to study and internalize the fundamentals of Judaism, unabridged.
At Zachary’s school, the Chabad Hebrew School in Oceanside, New York, forty-five students participated in JewQ this year. Not all groups are that big. But big or small, every school had the opportunity to compete in style.
In sunny Monte Carlo, Monaco, there are fifty children studying at the local Chabad Hebrew School – but only twenty were old enough to join the program.
“We still had the same school championship for the children participating, complete with decorations, buzzers, and t-shirts,” says Chani Matusof, co-director of Chabad Lubavitch of Monaco and Hebrew School of Monaco. “JewQ makes the students feel like our school is part of something much larger, that they are part of something much larger.”
Winners at the local level were invited to a fun-filled CKids Shabbaton and international championship in Brooklyn, where the ultimate winners of JewQ were crowned. The sounds-and-lights-filled, game show-style final was presented in front of cheering local and global audiences, as the finalists’ fellow students, families, and friends watched the program via live-stream.
One of the key funders of the pilot CKids program are Linda and Howard Katz of Toronto, who were named honorary JewQ champions. Howard is the managing director of Mackie Research Capital Corporation in Toronto and Linda is a realtor with Sutton Group.
“Frankly, I was amazed and completely in a state of joy to see all these young children so actively involved and engaged. I thought it was truly an incredible event,” said Howard Katz. “The key to living Jewish life is through Jewish education and I think that Chabad does an exceptionally good job of engaging people and educating them, and enriching their lives.”
Julianna Lamport, 10, is a student at Wesley Chapel’s Hebrew School for the Arts. She’s one of the eighty regional winners who attended the New York final. Since learning about the basics of prayer, she has started waking up early to pray. “It’s never a struggle to get her to go to Hebrew School,” her mother Hannah says. “She looks forward to it all week.”
“Seeing the enthusiasm with which these children have invested themselves in the competition and in their learning is inspiring and heartening for the Jewish future,” said Rabbi Kotlarsky. “The impact of JewQ will reverberate for years and generations to come.”
Rabbi Zalman Loewenthal is Executive Director of the Chabad Children’s Network (CKids) and spearheaded the development of CKids’ Hebrew School and Summer Camp divisions.
CKids aims to engage every Jewish child with vibrant Jewish connection by creating a robust network of all child-facing Chabad centers and providing each center with educational training, top-tier content, and innovative methods of engagement. For more information, contact [email protected].
CKids is a project of Merkos 302.