|ASHAR’s girls Torah Bowl team prepares for an upcoming meet.
When one of his students went on vacation to Indianapolis, Rabbi Leible Chaitovsky wanted to make sure the student stayed up on his work, so he texted him one question every few days while the student was gone.
Each time, the student texted back the correct answer. But he wasn’t answering questions for one of Chaitovsky’s classes at Adolph H. Schreiber Hebrew Academy of Rockland (ASHAR). The student was being quizzed on questions that might come up at the next Torah Bowl meet.
The Torah Bowl is an educational tournament started more than a decade ago by Rabbi Meir Wolofsky, principal of Yeshiva of South Shore in Hewlett in Nassau County for students in yeshivas and Orthodox day schools. It pits teams of four students from 15 different schools against each other in a “quiz bowl”-style game, in which all questions are based on a different book of the Torah. This year’s book is Devarim, or Deuteronomy. There are 28 questions asked during a game, with each meet focusing on a different part of the book. The championship, which will be held in early March, is a 100-question match focusing on the entire book.
Chaitovsky has coached the two ASHAR Torah Bowl teams each year they’ve competed and has had quite a bit of success. On the boys’ side, ASHAR has won eight titles in the 12 years the school has competed. ASHAR’s girls teams have won three championships in the 10 years they’ve competed.
“The kids take it very seriously,” Chaitovsky said. “They give up their free time to be here and put in the work. It’s separate from their school work. They’re quizzed on things they’re often not learning about in school.”
Both teams are off to good starts this season. The boys are 7-1 through the first two meets and the girls are 6-2. ASHAR pulled off a rare sweep, with both teams going 4-0 at the second meet recently, which ASHAR also hosted. There are three meets, followed by the playoffs and then the championships in March. The ASHAR boys won last year and the girls finished second, losing by two questions.
Chaitovsky said he thinks the teams’ success comes from the students’ hard work. Also, he’s a demanding coach, even for those students who aren’t on vacation.
“I keep in touch with them and encourage them to work hard,” he said.
The students themselves seem happy to put in the extra work.
“I do most of my studying over the weekend for Torah Bowl,” said Bracha Getter, 14, of Wesley Hills. “That’s when I have less homework, so I have more time.”
One of her teammates on this year’s girls team, Madison Fischman, 13, of Wesley Hills, said she studies over the weekend, as well, especially during Shabat. Moshe Posner, 12, of Spring Valley, said he tries to study for Torah Bowl for about two hours a night, three times a week.
“I usually study Sunday, Shabbos and Friday,” he said.
The students ended up on the teams for different reasons. Fischman said she didn’t have many after school activities and decided to join the team. For Posner, an older student told him it was fun so he joined last year. Getter saw firsthand how fun Torah Bowl could be.
“When I was in sixth grade my sister was on the team, so I watched her,” she said. “She didn’t want me on the team at the same time, so I joined in seventh grade.”
Chaitovsky said he lets anyone who wants join the teams, and he doesn’t kick anyone off them. This year he has 10 boys and nine girls.
“I just ask that they word hard,” he said. “Of course, some work harder than others, and some do quit, especially once they see how much work is involved.”
He tries to get all of them into matches at meets. The meets are made up of four games, with four players playing at once. But the quickest way to earn playing time is through practice.
“Sometimes the practices are as nervous as the meets,” Posner said. “Whoever does the best at practice gets to play more.”
At a recent girls team practice, Chaitovsky zipped through roughly 90 questions in a half hour, Eight of the girls sat side-by-side in his classroom while one kept score. Chaitovsky asked a question and whoever buzzed in first got to answer. A combination of funky buzzers and a desire to answer the question had some girls literally jumping out of their seats while trying be the first to buzz in.
While competing, the girls were mostly supportive of one another and had a strong sense of comaraderie. When one answered wrong and didn’t understand why, a teammate would usually explain. Sometimes they occasionally had a follow up after a question was answered, and once again, a teammate would normally clear up the confusion.
“We’re all close,” Getter said. “During matches, if someone buzzes in and gets it wrong, nobody’s really mad. We’re usually just like, ‘It’s okay, good try.’ We work really well as a team.”
Even just getting to a point where you can buzz in is a big step for some.
“I was really nervous the first time I had to buzz in,” Fischman said. “But it gets easier, and you get more confident, especially if you study more. Plus you’re competing against the same schools, so you get to know the players on the other teams and become friends with them.”
The girls feel good about their chances this year. Getter said their second-place finish last year was frustrating, but she thinks they’re a more complete team this year.
“Last year we had one girl who was our MVP,” she said. “She answered almost every question, and if she didn’t do well, the team didn’t. This year we’re not just relying on one person to carry the team.”
Coincidentally, Posner said the same thing about this year’s boys team. He’s also looking forward to a return trip to the finals.
“Last year the entire eighth grade came to watch the finals,” he said. “It made it a little more nervous, but it was really fun.”
The teams will have plenty of time to study up before their next meet, which is in February. Beyond studying, though, they have another advantage on their side.
“I think a lot of credit should go to Rabbi C,” Getter said. “He really does a lot to help us. He’s always quizzing us to make sure we know our stuff, and anytime you’re unsure of something, you can ask him. He’ll answer a question at anytime.”