Yosef Vessal just finished seventh grade at Welsh Valley Middle School in Lower Merion and has big goals in life, but recently exceeded his own expectations.
The 13-year-old student at Chabad of the Main Line in Merion Station won the JEWQ International Torah Competition’s seventh-grade division on June 6. More than 2,500 contestants worldwide spread over third- through-seventh-grade divisions competed in the event.
“I thought I would score high, but I didn’t think I’d win,” Yosef said.
JEWQ, which debuted in 2018, is organized by Chabad’s international office as a way for Jewish children to gain an appreciation for their heritage, said Rabbi Mendy Cohen, the co-
director of Chabad’s Family Community at Chabad of the Main Line.
“Hebrew school has its limitations … but for the student looking for a little more, this is ideal,” Cohen said.
Cohen knows from experience how competition can spark an interest in Judaism: His father grew up in a nonreligious household in England and won a Jewish trivia contest. The prize was a stay at a Jewish summer camp.
“That started his journey to be connected to Judaism,” he said.
For JEWQ, participants spend four months studying the topics of Jewish prayer, holidays, heroes and traditions. Three tests are administered at local Chabads and the top three scorers at each school compete in the international competition, said Cohen.
This year’s championships were held in Bushnell, a community in the Pocono Mountains, although most of the participants competed over Zoom.
When the dust cleared, Yosef was on top and the owner of an impressive trophy.
“It’s very cool for him and very cool for us,” Cohen said, noting that Yosef was the school’s top scorer in previous years. “He worked hard on it. He’s a bright kid, but he had to study, too.”
Yosef said his main trick for learning material is to make up songs in his head.
He wasn’t the only member of his family doing well at JEWQ: His 11-year-old sister Mikhyela, who just completed fifth grade, competed in the championship round and took home a silver medal, and his younger brother Josh plans to compete next year when he’s in third grade.
Unless JEWQ is expanded into eighth grade next year, Yosef’s competitive career in Jewish knowledge is over for now, although he’ll be volunteering as a Hebrew school tutor. And there’s already that big career goal he has in mind:
“I want to own a company called Tornado and build a resort,” he said.