The room is hot and overcrowded, but you can hear a pin drop as the national winners are announced. The excitement is palpable at the U.S. Finals of the Chidon HaTanach (Bible Quiz), a worldwide contest run annually by The Jewish Agency.
With competitors from over 60 countries, the Chidon HaTanach is the ultimate Jewish trivia game that makes the oldest book in the world fun and engaging. It’s a test of skill, memorization and comprehension, but the foundational lessons of the Tanach are complex enough to keep one’s attention for a lifetime. The ultimate event, which is televised every year in Israel on
Yom Ha’atzmaut, has a dedicated base of fans, young and old, all over the world. American Jewish students as young as 11, from sixth grade all the way through 11th, congregate each spring in Manhattan to choose the U.S. winners, who then continue on to the competition in Israel the following year. For the many who take the competition seriously, it’s as big of a commitment as a high school varsity sport.
Held this past Sunday at Manhattan Day School, the U.S. national finals drew determined students from all across the country. Two of the four students who took the top prize, a trip to Israel to compete in the worldwide competition next Yom Ha’atzmaut, are from right here in New Jersey. Finishing first and second, respectively, in the Hebrew high school division, they are Jacob Colchamiro from Kushner and Nathanael Vinar from TABC. Rounding out the top three high school scorers was Riverdale’s Akiva Sturm, also from TABC. Taking top middle school honors from our region are Ariella Frohlich from Yeshivat Netivot in East Brunswick, Micah Cyrulnik from Yeshivat Noam and Yehuda Zinberg from Yavneh Academy, who won first place in the sixth-grade division. Thirty-seven of the approximately 200 competitors hail from yeshiva day schools or high schools in our region.
Kushner’s Colchamiro, a ninth grader competing for the second year in the national finals and who, notably, doesn’t have a Chidon coach, was the highest-scoring winner from all of the United States competitors from ninth, 10th and 11th grades. “I love opportunities for extra Torah learning outside of school. It is a true honor to be able to represent my country in an international competition in Israel,” Colchamiro told The Jewish Link. “I am very thankful to my family for their support and to the Chidon HaTanach administrators for bringing me this wonderful chance to participate in such a great event,” he said. Last year, Colchamiro placed second in the Hebrew Grade 8 Division and was the highest-ranked winner from the East Coast.
Colchamiro’s attributes and hard work were praised by his head of school. “Jacob is understated and reflective. His prodigious cognitive skills are matched by his humility and sensitivity. He personifies the best qualities of a Tanach personality. We are very proud of him and all of our students who excelled in the Chidon, studying on their own, night after night, while excelling and investing in their school learning experience,” said Rabbi Eliezer Rubin, JKHA/RKYHS’s head of school. A total of three RKYHS students—Colchamiro, fellow freshman Eli Novick and junior Liana Maza—as well as two JKHA students—sixth grader Sam Colchamiro and eighth grader Dani Bank—were also national finalists.
Colchamiro’s parents were thrilled by his victory: “Jacob devoted so much time and energy to learning the material on the Chidon, and it is so gratifying to see him rewarded for his efforts. We are appreciative of his teachers who have instilled a love of learning and his friends and siblings who have encouraged and supported him throughout the competition. Jacob is self-motivated, driven and humble, and we could not be more proud of him,” the Colchamiros told The Jewish Link.
TABC sent a total of five students to Chidon: Nathanael Vinar and Akiva Sturm, both 11th graders, who placed second and third in the country, respectively; Ephraim Helfgot, a tenth grader (fifth place); and Ezriel Vinar and Noam Barenholtz, both ninth graders. Their coach is Rabbi Neil Winkler, who is also a beloved former Fort Lee rav and continues to be a Jewish Link contributor since his aliyah.
“Having sent over 30 students to Israel as U.S. champions, I am often asked what ‘secret formula’ I use to teach these students,” Rabbi Winkler told The Jewish Link. “My answer remains the same: Success in the Chidon is achieved by the student, not the ‘coach.’ It requires self-motivation and a love for the Tanach. The fact that three students from TABC placed in the top five finishers in the country just one year after another TABC student placed fourth in the entire world at the International Chidon in Jerusalem attests to the high caliber of students (at TABC) and the talented educators that help light the torch of learning that these students carry with pride.”
“We are extremely proud of our talmidim for the hours of hard work they put in to prepare for the event,” said Rabbi Howard Jachter, who is TABC’s Chidon coordinator. “It is crucial for bnei Torah to have serious bekiut (broad knowledge) in Tanach. We are so grateful to have Rabbi Neil Winkler as the TABC Chidon coach, Skyping in from Israel,” he added.
Like many parents, Michal Vinar, Nathanael’s mother who is also the mother of a second national finalist, ninth grader Ezriel, expressed pride in Nathanael and his amazing rank in the competition. “He worked very hard and put untold hours of effort into his studies, so we feel he really earned this,” she told The Jewish Link.
Karen Kedmi, Yavneh Academy’s Chidon advisor and mentor, coached the school’s six national competitors (another one qualified who could not attend): eighth graders Adina Bak, Adira Schreiber and Arielle Levy, and seventh graders Gabriel Rothman, Shimon Ross and Yehuda Zinberg. For the second consecutive year, Yehuda Zinberg placed first in his division nationally. “The entire team has learned diligently and with dedication throughout the school year with one common goal: furthering their knowledge of Tanach. I am especially proud of their devotion and dedication and am honored to have been a part of their experience,” Kedmi told The Jewish Link.
“Coming here makes me feel accomplished that I learned so much,” said Arielle Levy, from Paramus, who took part in Ruby Stepansky’s legendary free Passaic Chidon prep sessions on Sundays. “I feel like when I learn for the Chidon HaTanach, the competition part really pushes me to learn and to want to learn more.”
Rabbi Ariel Bannett of Yeshivat Noam coaches a cohesive team that calls themselves the “ChidoKnights.” In addition to Micah Cyrulnik, third-place finisher in the sixth and seventh grade category, Eli Nat and Ari Elkin both placed in the top 10. Also competing from Noam were Yitzchak Hagler, Basil Edelstein and Josh Stiefel.
Micah Cyrulnik decided in fifth grade that he wanted to compete in the Chidon and started studying in September to prepare for this year’s competition. He was inspired by his father who also competed in the Chidon when he was in middle school. He learns the material regularly with his father and in the weekly learning group with Rabbi Ariel Bannett at Yeshivat Noam. “Micah is highly motivated and very bright,” said Rabbi Bannett, who emphasized that the in-school learning is just a small fraction of the learning that these dedicated students do in order to compete in the Chidon. Their coach expressed great pride in Micah’s achievement and for all the students who learned for the Chidon HaTanach.
“For every 200 kids who make it to nationals, and for every 500 who compete during the year, there should be an extra zero added to both of those numbers, and I would still argue that’s not enough.
This is such a great event, it’s so meaningful, and the kids learn so much, connecting to our national history, our land and our fellow Jews,” said Yali Elkin, a Teaneck resident and proud father of Yeshivat Noam’s Ari Elkin.
Rosenbaum Yeshiva of
North Jersey also sent six students to the national finals: Leora Goldstein, Chana Aspir (who placed 10th in the country!), Emunah Aspir, Elisheva Finkelstein, Shira Lejtman and Sara Moskowitz. Sharon Motechin is RYNJ’s Chidon coach. One RYNJ student commented on the feeling of camaraderie that infuses the competition. “All Jews are brothers (and sisters) and Torah really connects everything together. It’s a hard competition, but after you get to know more, you take it with you your whole life,” said Shira Lejtman, a RYNJ sixth grader from Teaneck.
Stepansky, the well-known Chidon coach from Passaic who has coached many national and international competitors, had seven students attending the nationals this year, in addition to the two who competed this past Yom Ha’atzmaut in Israel: “Two Hebrew high schoolers (Rina Glasser and Fruma Avigayil Krakowski, of Bais Yaakov Machon Ora in Passaic; Krakowski placed 10th in her division), four Hebrew middle schoolers (Yakira and Chaim Rothberger, both from Yeshivas Beis Hillel; Chaim came in fourth in his division, Akiva Besser from Yeshivas Beis Hillel, and Arielle Levy from Yavneh Academy) and one English student (Charles McLean, an independent, from South Carolina),” he told The Jewish Link.
The U.S. coordinator of the Chidon for The Jewish Agency, Dovi Nadel, shares a syllabus at the beginning of each year’s cycle, which breaks down a list of what students must study. Luckily, the entire Tanach is not fair game on the tests, just the named books and verses. This year’s material was Genesis, Joshua and a number of chapters in Psalms. The Hebrew high school also had Ezekiel on its syllabus. Students take a qualifying written exam administered by their home communities in the winter and, if they make it to New York, they take another qualifying exam; there is also a live component, with participants competing by SMS texts.
“We’ve got 500 people who participated over the course of the year in the Chidon HaTanach, which is over 150 more than we had last year,” Nadel told The Jewish Link. “We invite the top 200 to compete in three different divisions; one is the Hebrew high school division, Hebrew middle school and an English division. Our middle school division is our largest, followed by our English and high school which have around the same amount of students.”
Nadel shared that there is a special experience that goes along with being a Chidon national finalist. “We have a carnival, we have lectures, the kids have a chavruta (a learning partner matched up from another community) and the kids write their favorite pesukim (verses) on the board,” Nadel added. “The idea is: Listen, four people are going to win, and that’s great. Kudos to them—we can’t wait for them to be our representatives in Israel. But, everyone is really a winner.
“They’ve learned so much Torah! Sixty, 70, 80 perakim (chapters) of Tanach. The learning they’re doing right now, they’re drawing from perakim all over Tanach; it’s something that they can only learn by participating in a program like this. And you know, I’ve got a lot of nachat (joy) from seeing everyone in the same room. I am sure the parents and teachers do too, and we want it to continue to grow, for more people to find out about it and get involved,” said Nadel.
Teaneck’s own Rabbi Ezra Frazer, who stepped down several years ago as the U.S. Chidon coordinator, is still active in the program. As a former Israel Chidon competitor himself as a teen, it’s almost as if he can’t not attend the Manhattan event; it’s in his blood. “I think there is a big deal made about the winners, but there are some here just for the experience. You really see that across schools, across communities, across town, across hashkafic lines, it’s not just for one sub-segment of the Jewish community. It’s really everybody who loves Tanach,” Frazer said. “I did this as a kid from Teaneck; but you don’t realize what this means to the kids who ‘aren’t from Teaneck,’” or another town in the tri-state area, Frazer said. “The effort they put in to get here, and the effort they put in to meet other Jewish kids who love Tanach, it’s incredible,” he said.
Schools and individuals wishing to get involved in the competition are invited to contact Dovi Nadel at The Jewish Agency at [email protected]
By Elizabeth Kratz