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‘Jeopardy!’ clergy contestants keep the faith, organize prayer service for Trebek

An interfaith group of former 'Jeopardy!' clergy contestants is organizing a prayer service for longtime host Alex Trebek, who recently announced he has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman, a Reform Jewish rabbi from New York who was a Jeopardy! contestant in 2016, with host Alex Trebek. Courtesy photo

(RNS) — Midway through a recent video announcing his diagnosis of stage 4 pancreatic cancer, “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek asked fans of the show for their prayers.

They were needed, he said, if the legendary game show host was to beat the disease that threatens his life.

Trebek’s prayer request caught the ear of former contestants like Geoffrey Mitelman, a Reform Jewish rabbi from New York who was a “Jeopardy!” contestant in 2016.

“Alex said he wanted prayers, so let’s see what we can do,” Mitelman told RNS.

Through a private Facebook group, emails and phone calls, the rabbi was able to organize a digital interfaith prayer service for Trebek.

Up to 100 faith leaders, including Orthodox Jews, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians and Episcopalians, will be participating in the service via a Zoom conference on March 13. The service will be recorded and sent to Trebek.

Mitelman, like many former contestants, said he had fond memories of meeting Trebek while on the show.

“We’re all looking to be able to process this news and heal,” Mitelman said. “To those who have met him, it feels like a gut punch. Everybody feels connected to him.”

More than a few faith leaders have appeared on “Jeopardy!” during its 35 seasons, though the exact number wasn’t provided by the program. So it made sense that former clergy contestants would band together to pray for Trebek.

“‘Jeopardy!’ cuts across traditions. So many clergy have been involved,” Mitelman said. “We can’t bring everybody to one church or synagogue, but we can spend 15 minutes one afternoon together to hear words of comfort and offer up our own thoughts and prayers.”

Dylan Parson, a three-time “Jeopardy!” champion, said he felt an immediate connection when he met Trebek on stage in 2015.

“A strong affinity (for Trebek) develops really quickly,” he said. “It’s somebody you’ve watched on TV in the house five nights a week for years, so it’s someone you feel like you know by the time you get there. When you talk to him in person, it’s an instant relationship.”

Dylan Parson with “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek in 2015. Parson is now at Duke Divinity School and a pastoral intern at Pleasant Green United Methodist Church in Durham, N.C. Courtesy photo

Parson was a junior in college when he was on the show. Today he’s a seminarian at Duke Divinity School and a pastoral intern at Pleasant Green United Methodist Church in Durham, N.C.

When he told Trebek he was planning to go to seminary, Parson said that Trebek asked him, “Why?”

The prayer service, Parson said, answers Trebek’s question.

“This is a meaningful thing we can offer. We can’t do much, but we want to offer this,” Parson said. “I hope it feels to him that we’re all coming together in our own ways to offer what we have to give for him in this time, we can offer the prayers that we have.”

During the Zoom service, Parson plans to read a prayer from the United Methodist Book of Worship, which calls for comfort, courage, strength, patience and hope.

Mitelman, who is the founding director of Sinai and Synapses, an organization that bridges science and religion, said he’ll be offering a prayer of hope for Trebek.

“My prayer is one that I’ve used a lot, and that is, to have strength for today and hope for tomorrow because it’s going to be a very difficult road for him. He needs to be able to find the strength he needs physically, the strength he needs emotionally and the strength he needs spiritually,” he said. “And, to know how many thousands of contestants love him, and viewers love him.”

Other contestants have taken to social media to express their reactions to Trebek’s news.

Ken Jennings, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who won a record 74 “Jeopardy!” games, tweeted, “ One thing I know for a fact: Alex is very aware of how much he means to millions of people, and how we will be pulling for him … I hope that’s a comfort.”

According to the American Cancer Society, some 57,000 people in the U.S. will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this year and more than 45,000 will die from the disease.

Trebek, 78, acknowledged these grim stats in his 44-second video while asking for prayer.

“So, help me. Keep the faith. And we’ll get it done,” he told viewers.

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