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Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Years ago I overheard two day school children discussing Tanach. “What was the name of Moshe’s wife?” a five-year-old boy asked his three-year-old sister. Crinkling up her forehead, she thought of someone appropriate for such an august person. “Snow White?” she offered hopefully.

Interest in Bible studies starts early among yeshiva students and continues. Modern orthodox zionist communities participate significantly in the Chidon HaTanach, says Rabbi Ezra Frazer, coordinator of the National Bible Contest. “Most local day schools have a Chidon Club in elementary school. They facilitate the study but don’t push it.”

While JLBC also reports this week on local winners of the national contest which took place on Mother’s Day, this year the three local representatives to the International Chidon HaTanach placed among the finalists in the competition in Jerusalem on Yom Ha’atzmaut. The students are Elisheva Friedman of Passaic, now a freshman at Reenas Beis Yaakov High School in Edison (last year she was in eighth grade at Yeshiva Ketana of Passaic), Dani Peyser of Teaneck who attends TABC and Asher Finklestein, of Memphis, who lives with his aunt and uncle in Teaneck and attends MTA.

These students, among 75 Chidon hopefuls from around the world, earned a free trip to Israel, the privilege of competing in the competition, and the fun of Tanach camp, which began the week after Pesach and ran for two and half weeks. A written test in Israel narrowed the Chidon participants down to 16 -- including the Bergen County trio.

In an email from Israel, Elisheva Friedman says her interest in the Chidon resulted from her love of learning. “The Chidon was a great motivation and structure for learning.” She also wrote that studying for the Chidon enhanced her love of Tanach and her desire to keep learning. The social aspect of participating was equally important. She enjoyed “meeting teens from all over the world and different religious levels coming together because of their love of Tanach and their vast knowledge of it.”

Her mother, Marsha Friedman, marvels at Elisheva’s drive. “There was so much to study. She had to learn over 400 perakim almost pretty much by heart. She studied for two years to prepare for the American Chidon and three years for the international,” she says.

And although Elisheva dedicates a large amount of time to Tanach study, Marsha says, she also allocates a lot of energy to other activities -- “She dances, she bakes, she’s into math and computers and building websites. She also studies Power Point and is into computer graphics.”

Ruby Stepansky, Elisheva’s coach – his third year coaching for the Chidon – said studying with Elisheva was a “win win situation because I learned a lot while reviewing the material with her.”

An advocate of Tanach study, who does not charge for coaching, Stepansky said he regrets that Bible study seems to be declining. “Most people do not spend that much time on Tanach,” he says. “There is more emphasis on Gemarah and Talmud. But Tanach represents our heritage and history. Talmud is based on Jewish law which is based on the Tanach. When I was growing up there was more emphasis on Tanach, grammar, and language. The previous generation of great rabbis knew this stuff.”

His coaching method? “The big thing is to make it fun. I just ask questions – unfortunately my students are getting to know all my tricks – they know if I am kidding or not. My uncle, when he taught in 4th and 5th grade in yeshiva, would kibbitz with his students. I guarantee that 50 years later they still remember my uncle’s jokes and what he taught them.”

On the telephone from Israel, on the last day of Tanach camp, Dani Peyser expressed surprise at how well he did in the competition. This was his third try at the Bible Contest, said Dani, who studied on his own every day, but once in awhile got by with a little help from his friends and family. “My goal was to visit Israel,” he says. “The actual test wasn’t the main thing. It was the whole experience -- meeting people from all over the world, making so many new friends. This was the best experience of my life.”

Dani, who plans on making aliyah, lists Israel, nature, hiking and music as major interests. He will be completing a TABC work-study obligation in Israel, then return to the states to be a counselor at Camp Stone, and then, in September, back to Israel to study at Yeshivat Birkat Moshe in Maaleh Adumim.

Asher Finklestein frequently reads the Torah at Congregation Beth Aaron in Teaneck and that skill has been very helpful in studying for the Chidon. “As a southerner, Asher is a Civil War buff ,” says his father Rabbi Joel Finklestein, of Anshei Sphard Beth El Emeth Congregation in Memphis. “He read tomes and tomes of books on that subject and is a very well rounded scholar.” Before attending Yeshiva University, which his father and his grandfather attended, Asher will probably study at Yeshivat Kerem b’Yavneh or the Gush, his father says. A veteran at winning Bible contests, Asher is having a great time in Israel meeting others with a strong interest in Tanach, Rabbi Finklestein says.

Questions for the national Chidon are written by Rabbi Ezra Frazer, who is familiar with both sides of the Chidon. As a younger person he participated in the National Chidon for several years and in 1995 he placed 5th in the international competition. He remembers being “overwhelmed and blown away,” at that time. Rabbi Frazer usually begins writing the questions in the summer and continues throughout the year, allowing time to proofread and verify the work. “We run the U.S. contest toward the end of the school year – so the kids will have almost a full year to study,” he says. The best way to prepare, he says, is to “keep reading the psakim again and again,” adding that “everyone has a few memory tricks. But the best preparation is just reading and reviewing.” He notes that he too benefits from writing the Chidon question because he needs to review the Tanach so extensively.

So, regarding Moses, discounting his unlikely connection to Snow White, what might an actual Chidon query be? Below is a multiple choice question from the 2009 High School Exam.

What did Moses not command the judges whom he appointed?

1. “Hear out low and high alike”

2. “You must be wholehearted with the Lord your God”

3. “Any matter that is too difficult for you, you shall bring to me”

4. “Fear no man”

Some of the tests are archived. To try a few more questions go to Chidonusa.wordpress.com. Mazel tov to all the participants!

Helen Weiss Pincus is a freelance writer whose work has been published in The Record, The New York Times, Lifestyles, and more.

by Helen Weiss Pincus