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 the 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 Chabad Children’s Network JewQ Regional Championship.
Similar regional JewQ game-shows were underway at other Chabad Hebrew Schools across the U.S. and abroad. A project of CKids International, JewQ is a Torah championship that was created to give children who don’t attend Jewish day schools an exciting opportunity to absorb fundamental Judaic knowledge.
Once students register for the program through their local Hebrew Schools, CKids mails them copies of Living Jewish, a book that covers Jewish fundamentals such as basic prayers, blessings, and Jewish holidays. Hebrew School instructors test the students on the material before they compete in school-wide and regional championships with other Hebrew Schools in the area.
Zachary’s school, the Chabad Hebrew School in Oceanside, New York, sent forty-five students to JewQ this year. Not all programs are that big. But big or small, every school gives its students the opportunity to compete in style.
David Tverskoy, 11, is one of only eight children studying at the Chabad Hebrew School of Fishkill, New York—and only four of those eight children were old enough to join the program.
“We still had the same school championship for the four boys participating, complete with decorations, buzzers, and t-shirts,” says the Fishkill Hebrew School director, Rabbi Zalman Sandhaus. The program made the students feel like their small school was part of something much larger.
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 David’s father, Genady, who also helped his son prepare for the tests. “I thought I would know a lot of the concepts, but it was really rich with information.” For whatever was new to him, Genady estimates that about seventy percent of the information was completely new to his son.
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.
Winners at the local level competed in the international championships. The regional champions and the two top-scoring students from each Hebrew School were invited to the grand CKids Shabbaton in Brooklyn, which took place this March. At the international contest, the highest-scoring students from around the world faced-off, and the ultimate winners of JewQ were crowned. Winners are: Tamar Cohen, Chestnut Hill, MA; Leah Klein, Niagra Falls, ON; Julia Berger, Port Washington, NY; Max Kalyakov, Dix Hills, NY.
Julianna Lamport, 10, is a student at Wesley Chapel’s Hebrew School for the Arts. She’s one of the eighty regional winners who headed to the New York Shabbaton. 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.”
Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of Chabad-Lubavitch, observes that the impact “this will have on their lives for years to come and on the lives of generations after cannot be overstated.”