By Philissa Cramer
Astute viewers could find plenty of signs during the recent “Jeopardy!” Teachers Tournament that one leading contestant had some Jewish bona fides.
There was the fact that Meggie Kwait teaches at Beit Rabban Day School, a Jewish school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. There was her covered hair, rare among game-show contestants but more common among observant Jewish women. Then there was her bet for the final question on a day when she was so far ahead she couldn’t lose.
“Yes, I wagered $18,” Kwait told JTA. “That was when all the Jews realized I was Jewish.”
Kwait, a humanities teacher who trained as a musician and spent some time in rabbinical school before landing in the classroom, was one of 14 contestants during the trivia show’s two-week tournament just for educators.
She won two rounds to make it into the two-game final, where she finished second to a music teacher from Michigan.
The experience netted her $50,000 in prize money, bragging rights and, she says, new friends she anticipates keeping for life.
We talked to Kwait about her “Jeopardy!” experience, her favorite lessons to teach and which of her answers has been immortalized in a gif.
JTA: How did you end up on Jeopardy and what was the experience like?
Kwait: I was never a big “Jeopardy!” watcher or fan, but my spouse is. We have very different TV tastes and we were looking for something to watch, and there was a “Jeopardy!” collection on Netflix. After a while he looked at me and said, “You’re really good, you should try out.”
So I registered, took the test online, was invited to audition in Boston, sat in the pool for 18 months, and then they asked me to come on the Teachers Tournament.
I would describe myself as a generalist. I have this varied background, and also a memory for trivia and minutiae. I knew I could answer the questions, but also knew that most of being successful is not having the right answer, but having the confidence to buzz in and the timing.
People often say that men are better than women on the show. And if you look at the people who’ve had long streaks, or the amount people win, it would be easy to draw that conclusion. That was something I was really conscious of, being the only woman in the finals. I tried to be aggressive in my wagering and buzz in even if I didn’t know the answer.
Filming concluded before the coronavirus pandemic. What has your school year been like since?
Pretty immediately after the tournament, after we finished filming, the shelter-in-place orders came down. In New York there was only another week before our schools closed. So [the teachers from the tournament] have been sharing tips and tricks for how to use Zoom and providing moral support and encouraging each other.
My school did a really good job. We had a full day before we started doing remote learning where we came together and talked about strategies and techniques.
Overall, while there is something about face-to-face and in-the-same-room instruction that cannot be replicated, in many ways it’s the same set of skills: keeping kids engaged, being interested in the material yourself, figuring out how to teach in a variety of ways.
What other reactions have you gotten from “Jeopardy!” viewers?
I cover my head so I was wearing a head covering, and it has been interesting seeing comments from people asking “Why is she wearing that rag?” Getting the opportunity to explain to people what that’s all about has been interesting.
Some people were really resourceful and found my school address. It’s been everybody from a 79-year-old grandmother saying how proud they were, to people saying I was a Jewish educator myself for 30 years and it’s great seeing a day school teacher up there, to teenagers saying I wish you were my teacher.
It’s been really nice hearing from people — these have been a difficult couple of weeks. It felt strange posting about something that could be considered frivolous, but I’ve heard from people saying thank you for bringing a little bit of light to this dark time.
What were the Jewish highlights of your experience?
There was another Jewish teacher in the tournament [Lauren Schneider Lipton, who teaches health in Seattle]. It turned out we had mutual friends but we hadn’t met each other. When we were watching the other games, if there was a Bible category or Israel, we’d look at each other and think, oh, I knew that one, which was a neat moment of connection.
Also, my school did a virtual watch party for three of the four games, and several teachers said it was incredible to hear me say Beit Rabban, the day school’s name, on the second day of the finals.
Giving visibility for our teeny, tiny day school — that was exciting.
What are you going to do with the $50,000?
I live in New York City, so I have no doubt that we will be able to find a place for that money to be spent. I had planned to travel this summer with some of the winnings, but it looks like that’s out for now. I was going to go to Italy — I guess that can wait.