Updated: Jul 30, 2019
(Based on Gamliel Beyderman's guest post previously published on Matzav.com)
Over his Chanukah break, my 14-year old yeshiva bochur went to an unusual entertainment venue called “Escape Room” in Manhattan along with his whole class. He felt thrust into an extraordinary situation (“You have on hour to break out of the sinking sub before you run out of oxygen!”), an actor in an interactive movie. The classmates were briefly told the story outline and then the door was locked behind them. From a key hidden inside a container which opened a safe revealing clues to open other safes…to piecing together a wooden image on a desk, to a painting on the wall swung open revealing a radio which had to tune to a certain channel which gave even more clues. On and on the group went, diligently cooperating to move from a hint to a solution to the next hint. Until the victory – getting out before the hour was up!
The Rabbi accompanying the group valiantly attempted to uplift the room story to sound more Chassidish – recover the pieces of the Rebbe’s lost manuscript.
The escape room puzzles remained unchanged but he added pieces of laminated paper in different safes spelled a secret message when put together at the end of the game. Does the Jewish theme need to be a mere outer surface? Perhaps there is another way?
Now’s here’s my thought. I have been interested in Jewish genealogy for almost twenty years. A small part of the genealogical community is working to map out rabbinic family trees reaching as far back as the Rishonim and even before. I recently attended a lecture about the emergence of last names of the Jews of the Russian Empire in the eighteenth century. This is when the family history mostly ends because without a last name it is practically impossible to collect a paper trail linking generations. And then the lecturer suggested that if a researcher can trace himself to one of the rabbinic lines, it is then possible to know who your ancestors are for hundreds of years into the past. “Who are our Kings? Rabbis!”
Yet the room of a hundred or so mostly assimilated Jews was unmoved. Most Jews alienated from our tradition find it hard to believe that there can be a great Rabbi in their family tree. Nothing can be further from the truth!
According to one estimate, over half of Ashkenazi Jews are descendants of just a handful of illustrious rabbinic families such as Katzenellenbogen, Luria or Spira (Schapiro). It is a staggering number! If one knew he is royalty, would he not appreciate their current conduct so much more?! However, how do you get people beyond their incorrect assumption that their ancestors were just like themselves? This is where my son's Escape Room experience illuminated it for me. He was so captivated, he spent days constructing a room of his own in our basement: complete with combination locks, safes, gematriyos on a Chumash page, a talking human-size robot, and a claw machine! Many of our friends and family were invited to participate in my son's challenge.
Over the years I realized that adults and children connect to play in a powerful way. The escape rooms, one variety of play, captured the imagination of countless young people in Asia, Europe, Israel and increasingly in the US. Seeing the affect on my child, I realized this game can be a powerful educational tool to explain complex ideas - through play. Immersed in its mission to escape, the brain hungrily absorbs all the hints provided in the room. This is the moment we use to explain the concept the brain may otherwise resist! Our escape room will reproduce the genealogical discoveries made by Dr. Jeffrey Mark Paull in his quest to rediscover his family’s lost connection to noble past. Genealogical research, just like any other research, is a process of probing, testing hypothesis, much trial and error. Escape room mimics this process.
Dr. Paull restored every single link connecting himself to the Shpoler Zeide, Rabbi Pinchas Koritzer and ultimately Rashi, who may have descended from Dovid Hamelech. The visitors of our escape room will become a part of the stories from the lives of these Gedolim. The escape room plucks you from the desk of a genealogical researcher and transports you (time traveler style) into the lives of the Dr. Paull's great ancestors. We are building a space that will communicate a profound idea – through play. The guests will problem-solve (and half lots of fun at it) to traverse through the generations of just one immigrant Jewish family to discover the indescribable depth of character and meaning that for decades lay hidden in their ancestral history. To the frummest among us to the most assimilated and even the non-Jews, we will show surprising facets of Jewish history and the lives of our greatest sages in a visceral, physical way. One Before, the name of the company, is based on a famous line that a great line of illustrious ancestors is a long line of zeros unless one adds his own 1 right before - turning the long line of zeroes into a large number. We aspire to get people to think about one before... Yes, one will value his own little ‘one’ so much more once he is aware of all the zeroes that came before.