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Illinois Knowledge Bowl Tests Teams From Local Chabad Houses

By Tamar Runyan

A recent trivia competition between six Illinois Chabad-Lubavitch centers pitted some of the Jewish community’s brightest minds against each other in a fun-filled display of wit and camaraderie.

Richard Sexner, who is active at Lubavitch Chabad of Niles F.R.E.E. in Des Plaines, Ill., created the annual Knowledge Bowl held this year at Chicago’s F.R.E.E. Chabad House four years ago as a way to rabbis and congregants, activists and neighbors, pool their collective minds together in a show of Jewish unity.

The lawyer and former improvisational actor said that he’s continually struck by the breadth of knowledge, not always Judaic, possessed by his peers. A trivia competition, he reasoned, is a fun way to get everyone thinking about Jewish topics.

There are many professionals who’ve been recently attracted to Judaism by Chabad, the bankruptcy law attorney explained, who “may have a Ph.D. in physics, but they cannot read Hebrew, and they know less about Chumash than a seven-year-old in cheder,” using the Hebrew terms for the Torah and a Jewish primary school, respectively.

The Knowledge Bowl “gives these people a chance to get involved and a chance to shine,” he added.

One family of questions directed teams to give the full name of the author of the Bartenura commentary to the Mishnah (Ovadia ben Avraham); explain the nickname of the Vilna Gaon (known as the Gra, the name is an acrostic for Gaon Rabbi Eliyahu); and name the biblical prophet in a certain painting by Rembrandt (Jeremiah).

In the event’s final round, the team from Sexner’s Chabad House, directed by Rabbi Binyomin and Hinda Scheiman, beat out the team from Chabad-Lubavitch at the University of Chicago, directed by Rabbi Yossi and Baila Brackman, by just a few points.

“The students were really, really smart,” said rabbinical student Avraham Hershkovich, the assistant director of the local Camp Gan Israel who organized the event.

“Some teams were trying to prepare for a year with practice questions,” added Sexner.

Raizel Hershkovich, a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary whose husband, Rabbi Naftoly Hershkovich, serves as activity director at the Niles Chabad House, was captain of the winning team. She attributed their success to the team’s diversity: It included Russian and native-born Americans, chess grandmaster Pinchas Pelts and several veterans of similar trivia competitions.

She said that the synagogue would serve up a cake to the community after services this Shabbat in honor of their victory.

Hershkovich lauded the competition as a “good way to bring people from the synagogue closer together.”

“This is a no-frills type of activity,” she added. “You just need questions and refreshments and people who have a good attitude, who want to have fun.”

Avraham Hershkovich and Sexner said that they have their eyes set on a nationwide venue next year, perhaps in New York.