Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School sophomore Jacob Colchamiro placed second in the world at the International Chidon HaTanach, which took place last week in Israel on Yom Ha’atzmaut, while TABC senior Nathanael Vinar placed sixth. These remarkable achievements came after both boys qualified last year in the national Chidon, followed by a year of intensive learning with their coaches, as they prepared by studying nearly 500 chapters of Tanach.
Teaneck’s own Rabbi Ezra Frazer, a Chidon coach and competitor who coordinated the U.S. competition from 2008-2015, commented, “The kids started studying soon after they found out that they won in the U.S. They had a year to prepare and had a regular weekly studying routine.”
Current coordinator Rabbi Dovi Nadel explained the Chidon process. “We had 550 kids who participated within their schools, and there are 80 or more schools around America that participate. Of those kids, 240 went to the national competition last year. Of the 240, there were four winners: two from high school, one from middle school and one from the English division, and those four qualified to go to Israel. This year’s national winners (announced last week) will go to Israel next year.” Vinar’s younger brother, Ezriel, placed second in the national competition and will follow his brother to Israel next year, while Colchamiro’s younger brother, Sammy, placed eighth.
The four U.S. winners, Colchamiro and Vinar in the high school division, Yechiel Shulman in the middle school division and Eliana Sokoler in the English division, joined the 60-70 participants from over 40 countries throughout the world for a Bible camp in Israel that culminated in the Chidon. According to Rabbi Nadel, the camp allowed the participants to “spend time with kids from around the world, meet dignitaries and tour Israel through the lens of the Tanach they’ve learned. Wonderful relationships are forged between the contestants.”
Colchamiro noted, “I got to know the other competitors during the week prior to the Chidon. I met so many really nice people. They were solid competitors. The Israelis and Americans, especially, were really well prepared.”
Vinar added, “[Bible camp] was very enjoyable, especially for me, never having been to Israel before. I got to meet people from all over. I did not know there were Jews left in Ethiopia, and the competitor from there was well prepared.”
During camp, the kids took further qualifying exams to determine which 16 students would participate in the international Chidon and be on the stage on Yom Ha’atzmaut. Colchamiro, Vinar and Shulman all qualified, while Sokoler qualified for the Diaspora competition, which selects one student from each participating country who is not joining the Chidon. According to Nadel, the three boys each qualified with top scores on their written exams, which set the stage for their performance during the Chidon competition. Colchamiro started the competition as the top seed, ahead of all the Israelis, due to his proficiency on the written exam.
“It is very rare for an American to get to the final podium round; it is usually just Israelis,” noted Nadel. The podium round is the final round, with the final question asked of the top contestants by the Israeli prime minister. This is the first year since 2013 that an American has placed this high.
“It is a good feeling to get that kind of reward for the work I put in. The icing on the cake is that last year the four top spots were all Israelis, and this year three of the four were Israelis,” commented Colchamiro. “I certainly thought there were some who didn’t place as high as I did who I felt were better prepared.”
Colchamiro was eliminated in the final round after missing one question. “The question I got wrong I really shouldn’t have missed, but there was one I got right on a technicality,” he said humbly. “I got the place that I deserved. [The first-place winner] totally deserved it. He was very impressive.”
To celebrate Colchamiro’s achievement, RKYHS made a video for him after he qualified for the top 16, wishing him luck in the Chidon. Upon his return to school this week, the entire school threw a party for him, presenting him with a set of Ketuvim, signed by faculty and students, and a mazal tov poster. Rabbi Eliezer Rubin, Kushner head of school, warmly congratulated him and Colchamiro offered gracious remarks, thanking his family, teachers and his JKHA/RKYHS family.
Prior to the national competition last year, Colchamiro was self-taught, but “for the international Chidon it is a disadvantage if you don’t have a coach,” he said. “Kushner’s Rabbi Chamudot has been a dedicated and great coach. He doesn’t take much credit, but I am grateful to him and to Kushner.”
Rabbi Neil Winkler, Jewish Link contributor and TABC Chidon coach, has been Vinar’s coach. According to Nathanael’s father, Dov, “Nathanael and Rabbi Winkler would Skype for about an hour and a half on Sundays to prepare.”
“Nathanael was in the last grade I taught at Moriah before I made aliyah. It is really an honor and thrill for me to have coached three American representatives over the past four years,” commented Rabbi Winkler.
“[Nathanael] is very self-motivated,” commented his mother, Michal. Speaking of both Nathanael and Ezriel, she proudly stated, “When you open the dictionary and look up the word nachas, there’s a picture of my kids in there.”
“[Nathanael] has always been very studious and would run after knowledge: history, Torah, mishna,” said Dov. “He read adult books at a young age, and participated in academic competitions throughout school. He started studying for the Chidon in seventh or eighth grade, for the sake of the knowledge and, of course, for a chance to go to Israel.” Vinar will be studying in Maale Adumim for his gap year next year, after which he plans to make aliyah.
Vinar discussed his study strategy with The Jewish Link. “Two years ago I started studying for the national competition. Then a year ago I started studying essentially the same way for the international competition. At first I went through the pesukim more slowly. At my peak I was studying 60 perakim a day.”
“I really liked some of the strategies I used. I made recordings of myself against different music backgrounds for different sefarim. Now when I hear certain pieces of music I hear the words in my head,” he continued. “Before I got to Israel I felt I had studied properly. Now I feel my studying strategy and preparation missed a few things...I felt I was one of the better prepared, but the Israelis had two and a half years of studying almost all of the syllabus. The Americans and the Canadians studied similarly to me.”
For Rabbi Frazer, “It is exciting to see kids I remember from middle school keep trying again and again. Nathanael Vinar has been participating since middle school at Moriah, and he finally made it in his last year of eligibility.”
Colchamiro found out about the Chidon in an interesting way. “I was in my seventh-grade Navi class. The rabbi asked a question and no one knew the answer. He said, ‘You guys would all lose in the Chidon HaTanach.’ I looked it up and learned it was a competitive Torah competition. I asked the school to get involved,” he said. In his first year of competition, eighth grade, he was one place away from qualifying. “I learned so much about how to learn and be efficient in my studying,” Colchamiro remarked. “I needed that year to properly study to qualify last year.”
Although the studying is extremely intense, Colchamiro managed to find time for other hobbies. “I still watched plenty of TV. I don’t think anyone can imagine the chapters I learned during hockey commercials. Hundreds.”
Rabbi Rubin said, “Jacob has a demonstrated mastery of Torah in multiple competitions. While in JKHA elementary school he participated in the Torah Bowl League, and Jacob’s teams won two championships… He and his teammates won two division championships in grades nine and 10. In addition, he came in first place in the YU High School Bekiut Program last year and is on the leaderboard this year as well.”
Colchamiro not only demonstrated a mastery of Tanach, but demonstrated midot, maturity and poise as well. “I watched a lot of previous years and tried to lighten it up. I think I achieved the right persona,” he said. “I hope people watch it and see it’s not all about the result. It’s about meeting other people and the prime minister; it’s about being with others who know these topics really well.”
Rubin continued, “We are very proud of Jacob. Reaching this pinnacle is a reflection of Jacob’s determination, focus and talent.”
Kimberly and Eric Colchamiro, Jacob’s parents, commented, “We are so proud of Jacob’s commitment to learning, his composure under pressure and his admiration and respect for all of the Chidon competitors. We thank the faculty of JKHA/RKYHS, under the devoted leadership of Rabbi Eliezer Rubin, for instilling in Jacob a love of learning, and Rabbi David Chamudot for all the direction and preparation he provided to Jacob as his coach. The support of the JKHA/RKYHS community and the Chai Center Chabad was contagious and so inspiring to our whole family. It was wonderful to feel the power of our community collectively rooting for Jacob.”
With his newfound free time, Colchamiro needs to “find something else to do. I would love to coach people so I can stay involved with the Chidon.”
Vinar said his favorite part of the Chidon was “the learning. I enjoyed studying for its own sake.”
Shulman, the middle school participant, lives in St. Louis, but he has a local connection as well. He learns with Frazer via Skype every week, and when he visited the Teaneck area he and Frazer learned together in the Bnai Yeshurun beit midrash.
The Chidon was started as an international program in 1958, the 10th anniversary of the creation of the State of Israel. Originally it was an adult competition, with the children’s Chidon starting in 1963. Since then, the children’s international Chidon HaTanach has been at the center of Israel’s Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations, with the entire country tuning in at 11 a.m. each year to watch the competition, according to Nadel.
“We are so proud of all of our international contestants who devoted so much time and effort to mastering hundreds of chapters of Tanach and competing on the international level. Achieving fluency in the verses of Tanach truly is the gateway into a deeper understanding of our history, our people, our land and our tradition. At every level of the competition—from local, to national, to international—contestants in the Chidon HaTanach gain an appreciation and love for Tanach that energizes them and remains with them for the rest of their lives,” concluded Nadel.
By Jill Kirsch
For those interested in participating, or for more information on the Chidon, please contact Nadel at [email protected].