The American finals for the Chidon HaTanach, or “Bible Quiz,” is an exciting event held each year. Some 150 national finalists are culled from the top scorers of more than 400 contestants who take regional exams through Chidon clubs and classes, including many from our metropolitan area. They met last Sunday at Manhattan Day School, where they sat for an exhaustive, extraordinarily difficult two-hour exam. The highest scorers from that exam, which is given in Hebrew at two levels—for yeshiva high school and middle school students—with a third exam given in English primarily for Sunday school students, were then quizzed live, as family, friends and fellow Tanach enthusiasts packed the auditorium. The Hebrew middle school and Hebrew high school division winners are northern New Jersey residents, as well as the high school runner-up, who, along with the winners, secures a free trip to Israel and a place in next year’s international competition, which is annually televised live from Jerusalem on Yom Ha’atzmaut.
Dovi Nadel replaces Teaneck’s own Rabbi Ezra Frazer this year as the coordinator of the American Chidon HaTanach competition. Nadel, like Frazer, is a former Chidon competitor and champion, having won the U.S. middle school Hebrew division in 2007. He placed third in the world at the 2008 International Chidon in Jerusalem. Nadel described an extremely satisfying experience working as the coordinator for the first time, relishing the enthusiasm and joy displayed by the participants.
“The day’s competition and event brought together 150 kids from around the country, all of them passionate and knowledgeable about their study of Tanach. Throughout the day, contestants were given the opportunity to meet fellow “Chidoners” through their joint language—Tanach. As people left, they picked up next year’s syllabus, already getting ready for next year’s event,” he told The Jewish Link.
Adding his congratulations to the winners this year was Rabbi Frazer, who served as a judge. He enjoyed cheering on the many students he knew from past competitions. “It was very gratifying to see that all of the kids who won trips to Israel had previously finished in second or third place at some point in the last two years. So they have all been studying diligently for a long time, and they all underwent the experience of being so close to winning the trip to Israel but narrowly falling short. And they all had the resilience to study day in and day out for another year in order to win the grand prize,” he told The Jewish Link. The other judges were Lerone Edalati of The Jewish Agency, Dr. Mark Licht of the Chidon Steering Committee, Teaneck’s Tehila Kornwasser (who placed 10th in the world at the 2015 International Chidon, when she was in 8th grade) and current Frisch student Jonah Chill (who placed 11th in the world at the 2012 International Chidon, when he was in 7th grade).
The high school winner was Shlomi Helfgot, a Teaneck resident, who is a 10th grader at Torah Academy of Bergen County (TABC). He will represent the United States at the International Chidon HaTanach next year. He will be joined by the national runner-up, Englewood’s Nechama Reichman, a 10th-grade student at Manhattan High School for Girls. The middle school winner was Uriel Simpson, also a Teaneck resident, who is a 7th grader at Yeshivat Noam. He will also travel to Israel for the competition.
Other national finalists from our region include Shoshana Erblich and Nechama Novick from Bruriah, Mayan Kapustin, Shana Schwartz, Noah Pascher and David Pascher from JEC, Alexa Schanzer and Liev Markovich from The Moriah School, Esther Werblowsky from Reenas Bais Yaakov, Avi Bendory from RKYHS, Ettie Guelfguat, Sonia Weiner, Tzvi Ginsberg and Sarah Strauss from Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey, Tani Greengart and Shmuel Ross from TABC, Miriam Fisch, Ephraim Helfgot, Miriam Kahan and Ari Kapelyan from Yavneh Academy, Risa Glasser, Chaim Glasser, Shaul Khayyat, Yakirah Rothberger, Eliezer Zylberman, Tzviki Negnewitzky of YBH, and Yehuda Mazin and Eli Nat from Yeshivat Noam.
Helfgot, who is finishing his second year at TABC, marked his third year of participation in the national competition. He told The Jewish Link he put in a huge amount of work in these past six months in preparation, and studied upwards of 400 hours over that time, making sure to review the entire syllabus of 82 perakim each day. “My weekly Skyped-in TABC Chidon HaTanach meeting, headed by Rabbi Neil Winkler [the founding rabbi of the Young Israel of Fort Lee, who made aliyah last year], was also a source of great support and much-needed insights, as well as some friendly competition with my brother Ephraim.” [Ephraim was also a national finalist in the middle school division, representing Yavneh.]
Many other local competitors, their parents and coaches spoke to The Jewish Link about the time spent with one another over the past year, showing a variance in the preparation style for each finalist. Liev Markovich, of The Moriah School, said he spent an hour each week studying with the Moriah Chidon program and then more time studying on his own, giving up time he would have spent playing video games or watching TV. Conversely, Uriel Simpson of Yeshivat Noam reported he had a more difficult time carving out prep time because he was spending a great deal of time doing his own bar mitzvah prep and attending the smachot of friends during their collective bar mitzvah year. To create more free time, he took a break from his sports activities for the year: hockey, basketball and tennis. The only activity he didn’t give up was guitar, which was a great distraction and provided a break from the intense Chidon prep, his parents told The Jewish Link. Simpson, as well as the other two Noam national finalists Yehuda Mazin and Eli Nat, spent a significant amount of time being coached by Rabbi Elie Kurtz.
The RYNJ Chidon program has been coached by Morah Sharon Motechin for many years, now with Rabbi Yehuda Herbst. Morah Motechin, also an earlier coach of national runner-up Nechama Reichman, who is an RYNJ alumna, shared some thoughts on the dedication and quality of RYNJ’s Chidon competitors. “We meet during lunch two times a week. Our students display a tremendous amount of commitment and dedication by giving up two lunch periods a week and devoting countless hours at home. They have acquired a vast knowledge of the books that we studied together and we are very proud of them,” she said.
Tzvi Ginsberg, an RYNJ student, shared that he studied with Rabbi Herbst during lunch two to three times a week, and also put in one and a half hours a week at home. He said that the practice tests adequately prepared him for the exam and he looks forward to participating next year.
It’s impossible to talk about the many Passaic students in the Chidon competition without mentioning one name: Ruby Stepansky. Mr. Stepansky has run a free Sunday Chidon prep program for interested, committed students for the past five years, primarily for local Passaic-based students, but he has been sought out by a number of top-ranking Bergen County students in recent years. In addition to separate Sunday sessions for boys and girls, he offers flexibility for other free coaching sessions by student request. During the past five years, he has coached many national finalists. This year, he noted having worked with high scorers Nechama Reichman, Esther Werblowsky, the fourth-place high school runner-up, and he also spent a session or two with national middle school winner Uriel Simpson. Because of Stepansky’s review sessions, it’s also not a surprise that YBH, which is located in Passaic, sent six national finalists to the competition, including Tzviki Negnewitzky, son of Jewish Link staff member Adam Negnewitzky.
“My mode of operating is like eating an elephant (assuming that it was kosher): One bite at a time,” he told The Jewish Link. I try to pace the students so that it’s not overwhelming. I try to teach/review not only the material but tangential topics related to the material—Hebrew grammar, phrases which might be used in prayer, other Jewish texts,” Stepansky said.
While he has had students participating in the national finals for the past five years, this is the third year working with students going to the international competition in Israel. However, that is not how he measures his success. “I tell all my students that they are winners just by the fact that they participated in the learning, over and above their school curriculum,” he added.
Nechama Reichman, daughter of Englewood and East Hill Synagogue’s Rabbi Zev and Rebbetzin Chana Reichman, thanked Morah Motechin of RYNJ, noted the “endless dedication” of Stepansky and said that Manhattan High School for Girls has given Nechama great study skills and a drive for academic excellence.
The Reichman family also felt the burden and weight of history as their daughter competed. “We feel blessed that a family whose ancestors suffered the indignities of the Shoah, now has a daughter who is playing an active role in celebrating the gift of the Jewish state’s independence. While she took her test she held on her lap the siddur of her great-great-great-grandmother Mrs. Emma Prinz, o.b.m., who passed away in Bergen-Belsen.”
Teaneck’s Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot, rabbi of Congregation Netivot Shalom, shared his and his wife Rachel Brenner’s perspective on their son Shlomi’s high school win, not forgetting that their son Ephraim also competed as a national finalist: “Shlomi worked really hard for the last few months, often getting up at 5:30 a.m. and reviewing Tanach for two hours before he went off to school. We are so happy to see that his commitment, hard work and dedication allowed him to learn so much and to achieve success. We hope and pray he continues his devotion to learning Torah and finding meaning and inspiration in that endeavor.”
Uriel Simpson’s father Mordy also had a meaningful experience studying with his son.
“I can honestly say that I learned more Tanach studying with Uriel than I learned in all my years at school and college! The level of detail and knowledge of Tanach that the kids gain from studying for the Chidon is truly remarkable,” he told The Jewish Link.
“Because he did the Chidon last year, it definitely helped him pace himself this year to cover all the material in a timely manner. I’m really proud of all the hard work and dedication that he put into his Torah studies,” said Loren Simpson, Uriel’s mother.
Dovi Nadel, the national coordinator of the American Chidon Ha’Tanach, asks that if any individual or school is looking to get involved in the contest or would like to learn more, they can be in contact with him at [email protected] // ]]>
By Elizabeth Kratz