Jewish Students Shine in ‘Jeopardy! National College Championship’
Isaac Applebaum has been a “Jeopardy!”’ fan for as long as he can remember. As a child, he and his family would shout answers at the television and hum along to the show’s iconic theme song.
This month, Applebaum finally put his knowledge to the test on the “Jeopardy!” stage.
“I’ve wanted to be on ‘Jeopardy!’ since I was a little kid. My parents were like, ‘You seem to know a lot of these answers, so you should try out,’” said Applebaum, a computational biology major at Stanford University. “I did well enough on the test to get an audition. And then from there, it was like a dream come true.”
Applebaum, 23, was one of six Jewish students who brought heat to the “Jeopardy! National College Championship” this month. The competition, hosted by Jewish actress and “The Big Bang Theory” star Mayim Bialik, tested the quick wit of 36 college students for a grand prize of $250,000.
The Jewish competitors, most of whom are active in Hillel, said their faith played a key role in their “Jeopardy!” experience. For weeks, they buzzed in answers to questions as their families, friends, and Hillels cheered them on from afar.
“When I was on stage, I wasn’t thinking about the broadcast, and I just wanted to get the most out of the experience,” said Joey Kornman, a 20-year-old junior at Brandeis University. “The whole thing still feels surreal.”
Kornman, who qualified for the semifinals after winning the quarterfinal competition, said the people made “Jeopardy!” a memorable experience.
“It was so nice to meet students from across the country,” he said. “Not everyone shared the same academic interests, but we had enough in common to be selected for this ‘Jeopardy!’ tournament.”
For Sam Blum, an engineering science major at Vanderbilt University, competing on the show was a full-circle moment.
During his senior year of high school, Blum and his father snagged tickets to a live taping of “Jeopardy!” in Los Angeles. While sitting in the studio audience, he spoke to the late Alex Trebek, who hosted “Jeopardy!” for a record-setting 37 seasons.
“I told him I hoped to be back one day,” he said. “I had wanted to be a part of this for so long.”
Flash forward to his senior year of college, Blum was finally on stage. His study strategies, including practice games with his parents, who played the part of “Jeopardy!” host over Zoom, would help him clinch third place in the quarterfinals.
“That gave me a better feel of what it would be like to answer 50 questions in a row, standing up, with a buzzer,” Blum, 22, said. “It’s all about timing.”
Lucy Greenman, a senior studying health analytics at College of William & Mary, opened her television appearance with a short story about teaching Hebrew to kindergarten and first-grade students.
“Having little kids is the best because they have no filter,” she said to “Jeopardy!” host Mayim Bialik.
The road to “Jeopardy!” fame was intense. After taking a baseline quiz, Greenman and her peers had a series of callbacks until they were selected to participate in the 36-student tournament.
Greenman, who regularly leads Shabbat services at her Hillel, was excited to interact with a Jewish star like Bialik.
“The whole show has a Jewish tint to it, because you’re going to meet a Jewish celebrity,” Greenman said. “So it was definitely a theme of the weekend, and it’s very comforting to meet somebody and know that you already have such a core part of yourself in common with them.”
Besides connecting with Bialik, Greenman, 24, said the best part of her experience was building relationships with the other competitors. Post-filming dinners and hours spent on stage helped her bond with them.
“After we played our first games, and that whole wave of stress was over, the best part was that we had all been through it together,” Greenman said. “It was just like hanging out with friends.”
For Fiona Hellerman, an international relations and philosophy major who is active in Hillel at Tulane University, the most memorable part of the tournament was speaking with Bialik about her late uncle.
As a child, Hellerman discovered she had a knack for trivia while watching “Jeopardy!” with her Great Uncle John.
“He loved trivia and random questions. We’d always watch ‘Jeopardy!’ and joke around,” Hellerman said. “He also really loved Bialik’s character in the ‘Big Bang Theory,’ which was one of his favorite TV shows.”
During her senior year in high school, Great Uncle John died of medical complications. Throughout the “Jeopardy!” filming experience, Hellerman said she felt her uncle’s presence and support.
“Everything really felt like it came full circle when I was filming,” Hellerman said. “There was a confluence of factors, like how the woman who portrayed his favorite character on the ‘Big Bang Theory’ was hosting a show that we all loved, and how I was representing my dream school on the show.”
After filming, the 21-year-old senior spoke with Bialik about how special this experience was for her and her uncle.
“She sent my family her love and said it was a beautiful story. It was just so sweet and special,” she said. “I know that I got a little misty while we were talking.”
Beyond the stress of hitting the buzzer first and the race for the cash prize, “Jeopardy!” was an experience about connection, Hellerman said.
“My time on ‘Jeopardy!’ was more than a competition. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Hellerman said. “Having that sentimental moment with Mayim is honestly worth much more than any prize I could’ve won playing the game.”
Isaac Applebaum also shared a moment with Bialik.
When the studio cameras were rolling, Applebaum told Bialik that his mother’s battle with cancer deepened his “personal faith and relationship with God” and encouraged him to work toward a career in oncology.
He also said his faith helped him cope with stress during the competition, especially during the semifinals.
“Faith can give you perspective and also this idea that things in life happen for a reason as part of God’s plan for our life,” Applebaum said. “I think it takes some of the pressure off.”
Alexandra Goldberg is a sophomore at University of California, Santa Barbara.