What Is ‘Perseverance’? How About Hillary Kotler Fulfilling Her Lifelong Dream of Appearing on ‘Jeopardy!’

Hillary Kotler and “Jeopardy!” host Ken Jennings (Courtesy of the “Jeopardy!” game show)

A beloved preschool teacher took her shot at trivia-show fame on Jan. 19 when she made her debut on the 39th season of “Jeopardy!”

Hillary Kotler, a Columbia resident who teaches at Gan Israel Preschool, finally fulfilled her lifelong dream of competing on the show when she went up against fellow contestants Erin Portman and Troy Meyer, the latter who would later go on to have a six-game win streak (his wife, Genevieve, was also a former “Jeopardy!” contestant.)

Kotler, 59, frequents several Chabad Houses for events and services, including Chabad of Ellicott City and the Lubavitch Center of Howard County.

She started teaching at Gan Israel, a department of the Lubavitch Center of Howard County, in 2013, noting that she had prior experience with child-care and working at day-care centers. She began after Rebbetzin Chani Baron mentioned to her that she was looking for new employees.

“My very first Gan baby is now 10 years old,” she remarked.

Kotler has been trying out for the game show since 1995, when she first auditioned for it in Atlantic City, N.J. She actually competed against Herbert “Herb” Stempel, who is well-known for exposing the 1950s’ quiz-show rigging scandals and was portrayed by John Turturro in the 1994 film “Quiz Show.”

Her initial audition ended unsuccessfully, but Kotler was undeterred. She continued to audition for the show for the next 27 years.

“I used to call myself the Susan Lucci of aspiring ‘Jeopardy!’ contestants,” she joked. “She would be nominated for the Daytime Emmys every year but would never win. But she finally won [in 1999], so I knew my time was coming soon.”

In the meantime, Kotler competed in local trivia competitions and was a frequent participant in pub trivia prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. She and her husband, Mike, would often play at Uno Pizzeria & Grill at the Columbia Mall and were eventually invited to participate in a national trivia tournament in 2014. Their team won and walked away with a prize of $10,000. Following Uno’s closure, she and her husband joined Charm City Trivia contests at Looney’s Pub in Fulton.

Kotler was contacted by a “Jeopardy!” producer in August 2022 after an audition in Las Vegas. While she was unable to make the initial filming date because of prior commitments at Gan Israel for the High Holidays, she came to the studio to compete in November of that year.

‘Opponents played good game’

She considers her specialty when it comes to trivia to be movies, music and pop culture, and managed to dominate the competition in a category about Beatles’ songs during the second round. Though she came in third place behind Portman and Meyer, she had managed to accumulate $11,200 before Final Jeopardy.

“I was eligible for the seniors’ tournament, but they don’t have that anymore,” said Kotler. “I think I was the oldest person in my taping group of 13 to 14 contestants. And the people I competed against, one was half my age and the other was under 40.”

According to Kotler, hitting the buzzer in time is what gave her trouble while competing on the show. The hard part was not the answers to the questions, but getting to that buzzer before her opponents did.

Although she only won a parting gift of $1,000, Kotler has accomplished one of the biggest goals of her life and could not be prouder of her achievement.

“My opponents played a good game,” she added. “We all ended with five-digit scores.”

And perhaps just as impressive, her participation on “Jeopardy!” has caused quite a stir in her local community.

Several of Kotler’s fellow congregants at the Chabad centers she attends tuned in, with some who don’t even own televisions finding another way to see the Thursday-night broadcast.

“Some of my preschoolers were watching. One of the kids said that she gave up ‘The Simpsons’ that night so she could watch me on ‘Jeopardy!’” she quipped.

While this particular journey has now come to an end, Kotler remains open to the idea of appearing on other game shows in the future. She listed “Wheel of Fortune,” “The Chase” and “Masterminds” as a few she would be interested in as a contestant.

“This is what I’ve been waiting for half my life,” she concluded. “If you open the dictionary to the word ‘perseverance,’ you’ll find my picture now.”

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  1. First time ever I watched a game show and had someone I knew to root for. Even though you didn’t win, Hillary, you made our evening an exciting one. Don’t be disappointed either; you’re just warming up!


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