Did you know Moses was 80 years old when he led the Israelites out of Egypt, according to the biblical tale in the Book of Exodus?
It was news to Rockville teen Jack White when he received this tidbit of Jewish trivia via text message on June 25. He was surprised, maybe even impressed. “It was interesting because a man who was so old, and you’d think he’d be a little out of it, was able to lead them,” said the rising junior at Northwest High School.
Chabad of Potomac launched its Jtext group about a year ago as a way to educate and engage teens where they live — on their phones. Every Monday and Thursday at 7 p.m., participants in the text message-based Jewish trivia competition receive a question related to Jewish history, practice or culture. The seventh person to respond with the correct answer wins a $20 Amazon gift card. And when the 9 p.m. text announcing the winner and the correct answer goes out, it includes a link participants can follow to learn more about the subject in question.
Over the past four years, Chabad educators across North America have rolled out Jtext groups. Chabad of Potomac began with 14 participants, and that number has since grown to 150.
Rabbi Yossi Kagan, Chabad of Potomac’s co-director of education and development, thinks teens are participating in Jtext because they want to win and test their Jewish knowledge — but that the material incentives and the choice of platform are also key to Jtext’s popularity.
Even if someone never wins, they have skin in the game, added Kagan: Participants get five points for a correct answer, one for a wrong answer, and at the end of the year there is an auction where they can bid their points to win prizes.
Jtext did not start during the coronavirus pandemic, but it is tailor made for the circumstances of the past few months. In addition to the learning and Jewish engagement component, Kagan sees the platform as a way to raise teens’ spirits and give them another avenue for interaction with their peers.
“Their summer plans have been busted. I think people are missing the social connection,” he said.
Jack White appreciates the outlet. “I’m someone who loves to be active and interact with people on a daily basis,” he said. “During the pandemic, technology is the way that we’ve been doing that, and Jtext is a consistent thing that comes twice a week.”
Some participants in Kagan’s Jtext group, like Hannah Schulsinger, are congregants at Chabad of Potomac. A rising sophomore at Winston Churchill High School, Schulsinger is active in both NCSY and Cteen (the latter is a Chabad-affiliated youth group). She has been lucky number seven twice, she said. One win was in response to the question of why Jews eat matzah on Passover.
But Kagan estimated that 95 percent of participants are teens who have never attended his synagogue. Where are they coming from?
“I’m involved in BBYO, but my chapter held an event with Chabad of Potomac,” said White. “After the event, Rabbi Yossi and I stayed in touch and he brought up the Jtext service that Chabad was doing. It’s definitely a great way to spread a lot of Jewish facts and ideas.”
When White subsequently ran for a leadership role on his local BBYO council, one of the ideas on his platform was encouraging members to join Jtext “and be able to learn from it just like I have,” he said.
Others participants, like Brielle Taubenblatt, found out about Jtext from a flyer and joined the group because she thought it sounded like a fun.
A rising junior at Winston Churchill High School, the Bethesda teen said she was already involved in Jewish life before the pandemic, regularly attending services at Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County and participating in BBYO.
“Because of the pandemic, we’ve had to find other ways to connect to Judaism,” she said.
Taubenblatt has won three times, but Jtext’s value lies in more than the competition for her. “Oftentimes, whether I get the question right or wrong on Jtext, I’ll go look up information on the topic,” she said. “It definitely encourages me to learn more.”
Kagan said some parents have told him that the game enhances dinner-table discussions for the whole family. The 7 p.m. delivery time for the texts was a strategic decision, he said.
“Whenever I see the question, if I’m with anyone, I’m reading out loud frantically hoping someone or I will know the answer,” said White.
White has won once since he joined the Jtext group in January — “It was pretty exciting,” he said — but whether he gets the answer right or wrong, he goes to the link provided after the answer is announced.
It’s an opportunity to learn more, he said.