| Day in the Life |

The Great Escape 

Pesach Horowitz is the mastermind behind Escape Your OWN Room. He lives in Far Rockaway, New York
A series of clues and a few locked cartons can be great fun at your Chanukah party — and maybe even a lesson in how easy it is to find the key and break out of your own sealed box
What I do

I design escape room games to bring to your classrooms, parties, and camps. It’s become really popular in the quarantine and lockdown era because this is something you can do in your own house.

What that means

The first time I heard about an escape room I was enthralled. The basic concept is that you and your team are locked in a room, and you have to solve puzzles and piece together clues so you can escape before time runs out.

How it all started

It’s not like we were sitting around at circle time discussing our future careers: “Policeman,” “Fireman,” “Rosh yeshivah,” “Escape room guy.” Five years ago, my wife and I did an escape room in Manhattan on a whim. We lost — we didn’t get out in time — but I really enjoyed the whole thing, and on the way back, I was mentally reviewing the clues. I decided it would be fun to make such a game, so I came up with a bunch of clues and pieced it together with random boxes and locks for a small Chanukah party at my in-laws.

Sometime down the line

Several years later, I substituted a seventh-grade class for a week. After barely surviving the first few days, I decided to do things my style: I taught the boys about Tu B’Shevat, followed by an escape room based on the lesson. It was a hit, so I did more games for classes and family. People were pushing me to make a business out of this, but I refused — I’m normal and this is a weird thing to do. A year ago, I agreed to do a staff night for a local Bais Yaakov. I spent a night roaming the building looking for ideas — I’m probably the first person to read the dedication plaque in the front hall — and I created an escape room with clues custom-made for that school. Then a teacher who played wanted to book me for an anniversary party the next week, and the father at that party wanted me for a class reunion a few nights later, and so on.

Divine intuition

My rebbi, Rav Shlomo Avigdor Altusky, the rosh yeshivah of Yeshiva Darchei Torah, once said we don’t have neviim to tell us what Hashem wants each individual to do for a living, but if we look honestly at the strengths and talents He gives us, we can get a good idea. Bearing this in mind, I jumped into the Chanukah season last year.

Open season

That first Chanukah I booked almost 30 games, and Escape Your OWN Room was officially born. I offered two options: I’ll set it up at your location, or you pick up a fully assembled kit from me. With the onset of the stay-at-home era, while going slightly insane trying to keep my kids busy, I realized people would appreciate entertainment at home. Enter the Virtual Escape Room: print and hide clues, unlock PDF files to uncover more clues, and escape. I converted my Shabbos and Purim games to virtual and got to work on a new Pesach game. B’siyata d’Shmaya, it became a popular Chol Hamoed non-trip — well over 200 copies sold. Then camps and schools came knocking, and I needed to invest in more materials so I could run multiple games simultaneously, because each game accommodates up to roughly 20 participants.

How I come up with the clues

Ideas pop into my head based on my regular day. If I see a paper airplane, I’ll think of leaving one nonchalantly waiting to be unfolded to see the message inside. If I’m spacing out, staring at a tiled wall, it’ll dawn on me to have players cross out matching tiles to uncover a secret code. With a little creativity, basically anything can be turned into a clue. When I’m in a rush to produce a game because I’m facing a deadline, I’ll brainstorm, but finding time to just concentrate isn’t always easy. I worked out half of the Pesach game while rocking the baby back to sleep at 3 a.m.

Growing pains

I learned the hard way not to hide boxes in anything that might be moved out of the room before the game starts. When day campers were searching a room and found a butcher’s knife that had nothing to do with the game, I started putting my logo on everything. And when I booked a camp where the boys spoke only Yiddish, I couldn’t use the same game I was using for other camps, so I recreated and printed materials from one of the virtual games that required minimal English. Oh, and then there was the time I did a game for an eighth-grade boys class. Never again. They weren’t interested in actually solving it, but they had a grand time climbing inside the drop-ceiling “searching for clues,” blaring the music I provided, throwing my equipment out the window, and breaking pretty much everything.

The games I have the most fun putting together

The custom-made games — they’re tailor-made for the client and can really go anywhere, because they’re not tied down to a specific theme. A game for a lively teen program had me researching wrestling and billiards, and a surprise 60th birthday party led me to the New York Rangers and The Three Stooges. Sneaking my Bluetooth speaker in for specialized games is always a blast. Imagine a player’s reaction when he picks up a lockbox, and it yells, “HEY! Put me DOWN!” The box says these wisecrack comments throughout the game — “NUUU? What’s TAKING so LONG?” — and it yawns, snores, and sneezes. Sometimes players need to tell it a secret code to get the next clue, but it may make them get down on their knees and beg first.

My favorite clue

Hard to say. They all seem cool when I first make them, but by the time I finish production I’m thoroughly sick of them. One clue that worked particularly well was from my first game, on Chanukah, for my wife and sisters-in-law. I had their great-great-grandfather’s sefer, Yehuda Yaaleh, sitting on the table. I put a sign on the wall reading “The Maccabee shall arise, find PACH” — a reference to the pach shemen, the hidden jug of pure oil. I’ll give you a few seconds to figure out where the next clue was hidden — time’s up. It was in the sefer on page pei-ches. Obviously: Yehudah HaMaccabee yaaleh — will arise — and page pei-ches, pa”ch, get it? Neither did they! I thought it was a good one, though. One clue everyone gets a kick out of is the one where you check the maror for… actually, you’ll have to play the Pesach game to find out.

Valued feedback

I’ll often hear that a game or clue is too hard, and it’s a tough call whether to tweak it, because it really depends on each person’s way of thinking. Mostly I learn from experience: I put clues into the Pesach game based on Chad Gadya and other pizmonim only to find out later that not everyone has the minhag to read them.

Most common question I get

“Can we have a hint?” The problem is it’s usually followed by many other voices screaming, “NOOO! We don’t want one!” A lot of people ask what age this is for — there’s no definitive age, but I say it’s mainly for teens and adults. Fourth and fifth graders will enjoy it but need some guidance. Another thing to consider is if the crowd and timing is right — escape rooms aren’t the sit-back-and-relax kind of entertainment. Players need to get involved, searching and thinking. Sometimes the kids will be all into it but the adults have no patience. Events like class reunions or shul dinners aren’t conducive to this kind of thing — those crowds are more interested in focusing on each other or on getting out of there ASAP.

Best reaction

About a year and a half ago, we flew to family across the country for Pesach. Of course, I brought along Chol Hamoed entertainment, and security pulled me over because of a suspicious box in my suitcase. It was quite a scene with all these locked boxes coming out of my suitcase, and I had to rack my brain for the combinations to open them up. You should’ve seen what the security team looked like when one box yelled, “HEY! Put me DOWN!”

In Brief:

Day job I work as a kriah specialist in the morning and I learn in the afternoon. This is my job from 9:30 p.m. till 1 a.m. — or 6 a.m. if necessary.

By the numbers

12 minutes it takes to set up a room for a game

14 simultaneous games a local high school recently booked me for — with only five days’ notice!

21 camps whose lucky campers got to escape their own rooms this summer

My staff I’m on my own. My kids help with cutting and laminating, and last Chanukah I got help because I had games scattered around New York and New Jersey on the same day.

My favorite game to play I was the nerdy kid always playing video games, specifically the genre where you solve puzzles to progress — these types of games actually inspired the whole escape-room industry.

Most memorable feedback I get so many positive emails about how amazing the games are, so the most memorable was the one nasty email I got saying the game didn’t make any sense and was a waste of money. It was good for my swelling ego.

 

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 837)

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