It was billed as a way to learn about Jewish and Israeli history while competing for $500 toward airline tickets to Israel.
But the 16 teams gathered April 22 at Jewish National Fund headquarters in Manhattan for the inaugural Amazing Israel Race had only one goal in mind.
“I don t have $20 to waste,” said Nava Kogen, a college student who paid that amount to register with a team made up of friends from Barnard College. “I’m in it to win.”
The idea seemed so obvious it was surprising no one had thought of it before: an Israel-related scavenger hunt in a city that seems to have a Jewish landmark on every corner.
A little after 10 a.m., the Barnard team was sizing up its competition.
“We’re going to pool all of our Israel resources together,” one team member said.
“Together we spent 59 months in Israel and 65 years in day school,” Kogen said, adding that “there’s no way” her team wouldn t emerge victorious.
But the question sweeping the JNF lobby was exactly what the competition would entail. A team of recent college graduates who became friends on a birthright israel trip admitted that they had little idea what they had signed up for.
That didn’t make them any less competitive.
“Those Barnard girls are going down,” said Michael Shwartz, a Columbia sophomore who was on a team with people he met at a recent youth retreat.
Ofer Gutman, the World Zionist Organization’s Hagshama director for North America, kicked off the race by explaining the significance of Israel’s upcoming Memorial Day and Independence Day.
Gutman characterized the event, which was sponsored by JNF and the American Zionist Movement, as an educational activity that would teach participants about the history of Zionism and Israel — not to mention the nice prize.
Lerone, a New York University sophomore, said she was competing because the registration money would go to ! help reb uild the north of Israel, which was hit hard by last summer’s war with Hezbollah. Levy volunteered there shortly after the war.
Still, the prospect of a subsidized trip to Israel was on everyone’s mind, and Shwartz’s team was devastated when it received a challenging first clue. The answer to each clue was a place in Manhattan, and a team had to solve a clue to move on — so an early slip-up could ruin its chances.
“I was born in Eastern Europe,” the clue began, adding that the location had to do with “one of Broadway’s biggest stars” and was part of a “fashion craze.”
After blanking on Israeli fashion designers and spending a frantic half-hour calling friends who could access Wikipedia, the team, which included three Israeli citizens and four fluent Hebrew speakers, decided to head to Broadway for inspiration.
A full hour after receiving the clue, the team found itself in Golda Meir Square at the corner of Broadway and Seventh Avenue, also known as Fashion Avenue, in Midtown Manhattan.
The team’s second clue was easier, and Lee Levy, an NYU sophomore, knew almost instantly to go to Yitzhak Rabin Place on East 43rd Street.
Eager to make up for the time they had lost on the first clue, the team was now moving at a brisk jog, and after its third stop — a former Yiddish-language theater on the corner of East 11th Street and Second Avenue — it was feeling decidedly more optimistic about its chances.
Its fourth clue began, “I kicked Starbucks out of Israel.” Almost in unison, team members said, “Aroma!”
At the Israeli coffee shop and restaurant, whose Houston Street location is its only franchise outside of Israel, the team received a list of Israeli celebrities to identify.
“There are a lot of people who can help you in here,” they were told, but the Israelis didn’t need help and quickly solved that puzzle.
After seven stops and nearly four hours, the team was mentally and physically exha! usted. L uckily the next stop allowed the members to refresh with a much-needed falafel lunch — but after a few minutes it was time to head to the next stop: an upscale Israeli grocery store on St. Mark s Place in Greenwich Village.
The team had reached the homestretch, and on the subway ride uptown team members had difficulty calculating just how many times they had ridden the subway that day. They also had no idea whether they still had a shot at the top prize.
After its initial difficulties the team had had little problem finding any of the other locations, and its members’ knowledge of New York City provided an advantage over less-experienced teams.
Upon arriving back at JNF headquarters, however, the team discovered it had placed fourth, less than a half-hour behind the winning team, which was composed of NYU sophomores.
Team members were dejected, but said the experience had been worthwhile.
“It was a good experience,” said Carrie, a team member. “But I can’t help but think that we would have done better if we had gotten a different order” of clues, so they didn’t have to traverse Manhattan so many times.
But the race was a success for Gutman, who lauded the competitors’ enthusiasm.
“Things ran really smoothly,” he said. “We got the feeling that people were passionate and having fun.”
Gutman said participants would get a second chance to take on New York City — and each other — at what he hopes will become an annual event.
“It was a big success and we had some good feedback,” he said.