Charles Summers

For Mitzpeh


This university’s team, “The Upperglassmen” (left) and Yale’s team “Vayaan Elihu Vayomar” (right) ready to begin the final round of trivia. (Charles Summers/Mitzpeh)

This past Shabbat on December 3rd, the National Hillel Torah Bowl (NHTB) made its debut at this university’s Hillel. Eight teams of students from six different universities competed for first place in a Torah trivia competition. The competition began Friday night, after Kabbalat Shabbat, and ended in a final round that started after Havdalah.

The eight teams consisted of two from University of Maryland, two from Queens College and one team each from Rutgers, Yale, Landers College for Women and the University of Florida.

The final round was a standoff between a team from UMD and the team representing Yale. UMD’s team that made it to the finals was named “The Upperglassmen,” a spoof on the surname of one of the members. Yale’s team was called “Vayaan Elihu Vayomar,” which is a verse in the Book of Job the teammates picked in reference to Elihu Yale, their university’s namesake. 

The final round consisted of thirty questions, with a brief break in the middle. By the second half, it was clear Yale’s team would be victorious as their lead widened. The finals concluded with UMD’s team receiving 10 points and Yale’s team receiving 18.

The trivia questions were not just limited to the Tanach. Contestants had to incorporate their knowledge of Gemara [Talmud], halacha [law] and general Jewish history to stand a chance in the competition.

Zev Roberts, a junior history major at this university who helped lead the Torah Bowl, talked about the process of coming up with trivia questions for the competition. “Judah [Lesser] and Yair [Kosowsky-Sachs] wrote a lot,” he said. “Yair started working on the questions a couple months ago, I came in this week and did a lot of the Jewish history section.”

Shlomi Helfgot, one of the two members of the Torah Bowl’s winning team, is a freshman and prospective philosophy major at Yale University. He thinks that he and his teammate were well prepared for the competition, as they both have spent many years studying in yeshiva.

“Theoretically, one could set out a plan to study each category [of questions], but it’s too broad to really do so,” he said. He felt that the category his team performed the best in was Nach, questions about Nevi’im [Prophets] and Ketuvim [Writings], the latter two parts of the Tanach.

UMD students Judah Lesser, Yair Kosowsky-Sachs and Roberts teamed up to organize the event, after coming up with the idea last year over a Shabbat dinner table. Lesser is a senior computer engineering major and Kosowsky-Sachs is a junior computer engineering major.

Roberts helped organize the event in its final stages but was there when the idea was first formed. “There’s something called NHBT, the National Hillel Basketball Tournament, and one time a group of us were sitting around and said ‘Holy smokes, NHTB — the National Hillel Torah Bowl!’” Roberts said.

Although the event started as a play on an acronym, Roberts stressed that it took a lot of work and personal investment to make the competition a reality.

In addition to the support it received from this university’s Hillel, the event was sponsored by Koren Publishers. The publishing house’s new Magerman edition Chumash was given as a prize to the team that came in first place.

The competition also received a grant from the organization Yavneh, which seeks to empower Jewish student leadership through helping to fund student-organized events.

“The people that came, they didn’t have to pay for anything aside from transportation,” Roberts said. He emphasized that this was in large part due to Yavneh’s funding.

Lesser put in a lot of effort into sorting out the logistics of the competition. “I offered to find people a place to stay here, if they didn’t have friends to stay by, I found hosts,” Lesser said about the contestants who traveled to participate. He stressed that a lot of what logistics meant was finding out “who needs what” and then meeting those needs. He was also the person to secure a sponsorship from Koren Publishers, having reached out to them through email.

Scott Sandor, a junior majoring in neuroscience, made it to the finals with UMD’s team, “The Upperglassmen.” The team came in second place after Yale. He reflected on the event after it came to a close.

“This was quite the experience, it was a lot more fun than I thought it would be,” he said. “It’s a good way to bring the community together and get people thinking about Torah more.”


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