The first Jewish person to ever win a North American season of the global franchise Big Brother did it in his home city of Toronto.
Kevin Jacobs, 28, won the 10th season of Big Brother Canada on May 5, beating out 15 other competitors to claim the $100,000 prize.
Contestants on the serialized show are placed in a house at the beginning of the competition without any access to the outside world—although the outside world has complete access to them. Beyond the three hour-long episodes aired in primetime each week, footage from the house is broadcast for fans to follow at all times.
Over 70 days, the contestants have to make use of their physical, social and political skills to win challenges, make friends, and decide who to vote out.
Jacobs did not end up being a particularly strong competitor in the physical components of the competition—but he excelled at both the social and political aspects.
In the season finale, which came down to a vote from eliminated houseguests, Jacobs won due to both the genuine relationships he formed and his strategic maneuvering. Casual fans and professional commentators alike described him as one of the most entertaining and most deserving winners ever.
A long-time reality show fan, Jacobs, whose day job is in tech sales, put a lot of work into preparing for his appearance. But he also had a unique experience in his past that he was able to draw on: Jewish summer camp.
“Living in a cabin with 14 or 15 other people is the closest thing that I’ve done to living in this house with 15 other people… you’re with people every second of the day. You can’t really escape. There’s no time alone. You’re going to have interpersonal issues. Things are going to come up, and you have to find a way to navigate them.”
“Also, from a fun perspective, I found a lot of parallels there, too. At camp, you’re free to do what you want, within reason. Sing, dance, play, be a character. And I think the same thing was true in the house… I think my joy that I took in summer camp also was the same joy I took in the house.”
While his Jewish identity was not featured in the weekly episodes, it made appearances in the livestreams that were available around the clock. Jacobs was the first Jewish person that many of the contestants had met, so he spoke about Judaism a lot—which included explaining his bar mitzvah and hosting a Passover seder.
When one contestant found out that Jacobs had told a few small lies about his life in the house—which is a common tactic on the show—they asked him if he had made up Passover, too.
Jacobs, who attended TanenbaumCHAT for high school and was president of the student council in Grade 12, said his Jewish background also helped him build his strongest relationship in the game, which was with fellow contestant Haleena Gill. Although the specifics of their heritage were different, he felt many of the underlying principles were the same.
“One of the biggest reasons I worked so closely with Haleena was we both came from traditional backgrounds—Jewish for me, Punjabi for her. I figured if we had any arguments throughout the season, we could always fall back on the family values that we shared,” he said in a text message. “It would help us focus on the task at hand, not the little things that come up in the intense environment.”
Perhaps the strongest advantage Jacobs gleaned from growing up Jewish were his communication skills. He felt strong communication helped him to escape difficult situations and also genuinely empathize with people—both of which were necessary for eventual victory.
“I think one of the things that helped from my Jewish background was just having tough conversations. I think we’re a people who like to debate things, and sometimes it’s better to talk about things openly than to be in the shadows.”
“And as much as I did the lying and manipulation side of things, I did a lot of direct conversation and just trying to navigate how people are feeling, listening (to them), and then trying to work together from there.”