JewQ brings together students who learn about Judaism after their regular school day
Certainly you could understand if Leah Ada Klein, 9, was a little nervous as she prepared to step onto the stage at the New Heights Middle School in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Not only was she about to participate with dozens of kids in a competition testing her Jewish knowledge, she was doing so in front of hundreds and hundreds of strangers, hundreds of miles from her home in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.
But her nerves faded as she joined the other contestants. “When I walked out on stage, I couldn’t actually see the crowd because everything was dark, so it looked like I was just speaking to no one. That worked out pretty well,” she said.
It worked out even better than she could have imagined. Leah went home with the title of winner of the JewQ contest in the fourth-grade division—and a trophy she described as “big as two-rulers.” She was there representing Chabad of Niagara Falls.
Other winners of the March 3 contest were: Tamar Cohen representing the Chabad Hebrew School of Chestnut Hill, Mass., in the third-grade division; Julia Berger from the Chabad of Port Washington Hebrew School in Port Washington, N.Y., was the winner of the fifth-grade contest; and Max Kalyakov of the Chai Center Hebrew School in Dix Hills, N.Y., won in the sixth-grade group.
An initiative of CKids (the Chabad Children’s Club), JewQ is an international Torah competition that challenges students not attending Jewish day school to learn independently under the guidance of their local Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries. They began their studies in October right after the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah.
To qualify for the main championship, students had to excel on a series of exams testing their knowledge on verses and concepts from the Written and Oral Torah, Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles of Jewish Faith, mystical and ethical teachings in Judaism, and more
Students with the top scores from their Chabad House were invited to spend a Shabbat together in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn and compete in the final round of JewQ in front of a live audience. Hundreds of Jewish children from more than 77 locations took part in studying for the competition.
Some 80 students, including youngsters from California, Oregon, Illinois and other states participated in the final in-person round. Funding for the competition came in part from donors Howard and Linda Katz of Toronto, who were named honoree JewQ champions.
“This was an unreal, beautiful, inspiring experience,” said Rabbi Zalman Loewenthal, director of CKids. “The fact that these are children who don’t have a formal Jewish education, seeing their knowledge and what they’ve mastered and how excited they are about it is amazing. We had kids who came who kept Shabbat for the first time and kids who came over to me to ask me what blessing should we say on this or that candy. You could see that they were really impacted by what they were learning.”
‘Experience Has Been Life-Changing’
Perla Zaltzman, who co-directs Chabad of Niagara Falls on the Canada side of the well-known resort area with her husband, Rabbi Zalman Zaltzman, had spent months working with Leah and her older brother, Adam, who also placed very high on the qualifying exams. She wasn’t sure what to expect initially for the contest, but has nothing but praise for how everything was handled.
“I was so moved by the way CKids treated the children. The care—and the way they spoiled them and made them feel so special—it was something so beautiful,” she said. The kids also had plenty of down time, where they got to play laser tag, enjoy kosher establishments and make new friends.
As part of the program, the kids visited the Ohel in Queens, N.Y., the resting place of the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson of righteous memory—where they wrote and left letters to the Rebbe.
“The experience has been life-changing for those who come because they are being exposed to the richness of the Jewish community that they don’t ordinarily have in their small community,” said Zaltzman.
“It’s very different than where I live,” related Leah. “It’s so busy and beautiful, and there’s so many Judaica things and stuff,” she said, adding that she and Tamar Cohen, the third-grade winner, have become friends.
While Leah’s mother, Elissa Press, couldn’t be there to watch her daughter compete in person, she watched the live feed at home in Canada. She acknowledged screaming with joy when her young daughter was named the quiz champ in her division.
“It was really emotional for us, and it brought us a lot of joy,” said Press. “It’s just wonderful.”
Keeping Her Friend’s Memory Alive
There was an added reason for the emotions: Leah participated in the contest in memory of her best friend, Perla’s daughter, Moussia, who passed away in 2015 when she was just 6 years old.
“I wanted to do it for Perla and Moussia, and also because I don’t want our friendship to be broken,” said Leah. “It made me happy that I was doing something in her memory.”
Fighting back tears, Zaltzman recalled the moment Leah was named winner. “When she was on stage and knew all the answers … I started to think what if she wins the championship, and I started to cry. When they called her up, I was just so excited, and I hugged her. She worked so hard. To me, it was like Hashem was pulling the strings.”
“It felt that this was the part of the tapestry,” she continued. “It was just so heartwarming and made me feel closer to my daughter. I felt that she was in the room with us.”
Leah’s mom shared that “Moussia continues to be a part of our lives in terms of what we do. We’ve done a lot to remember her and [honor] her memory. I think it’s really very special that Leah can still keep Moussia’s spirit alive in that way.”
As for the contest and its impact, it can perhaps best be summed up with the text that Leah sent her mother on Sunday night as she was heading home. It said: “Hi Mom, this has been the best day of my life so far.”
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