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Bible best and brightest

Passaic youths score in annual scripture showdown

Three young Bible scholars from Passaic swept top spots in the U.S. Chidon Ha-Tanakh-National Bible Contest for Jewish Youth, May 6 at Yeshiva University.

North Jersey students traditionally make a good showing at the annual competition, but of particular note was Yishai Eisenberg’s perfect score on the junior-high-level Hebrew exam (see sidebar page 41). His older sister, Yael, placed second in the high-school Hebrew exam, while Elisheva Friedman of Passaic took second place on the junior-high level.

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Rabbi Ezra Frazer, center, and Barry Spielman with Yishai Eisenberg, who won first place in the junior high Hebrew exam, with a perfect score. photos by Ilan Regenbaum

Contestants answered 120 or 130 multiple-choice questions, such as “Which king bought Samaria from Shemer for two talents of silver – Omri, Zimri, Ahab, or Baasha?” (Answer: Omri.)

The competition dates back to the 1950s and is organized by the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), which sponsors regional rounds in the United States for sixth- through eighth-graders and ninth- through 11th-graders. Day school students take the test in Hebrew, while others take an English version. (Fair Lawn resident Michael Finkel, Bergen Academies in Hackensack, took second place on the English version of the high school exam.)

National winners in each of the four divisions get flown to Israel the following May for a two-week tour with finalists from other countries before competing in the International Bible Contest in Jerusalem on Israel Independence Day.

The lucky four this year are Shalhevet Schwartz (SAR High School in Riverdale, N.Y.), Yishai Eisenberg (YBH-Hillel of Passaic), Joshua Silvera of Los Angeles, and Allison Cohen of Shaker Heights, Ohio.

“Seeing Jews from all religious streams competing in their knowledge of the Tanach [Jewish biblical canon], the essence of our people’s connection to its tradition and to its land, especially at a time when so many of our youth are distancing themselves from Judaism and from the State of Israel, is a rewarding project that we are proud to stand behind,” said Barry Spielman, JAFI’s director of communications for North America.

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Elisheva Friedman receives her prize for second place in junior high Hebrew exam.

Spielman brought greetings to the 111 contestants along with Teaneck resident Rabbi Ezra Frazer, coordinator of the national quiz since 2009. Frazer won the nationals in 1994 as a sophomore at the Torah Academy of Bergen County and placed fifth on the 1995 international level.

Frazer said 282 students chose to take the preliminary exams that JAFI sent to participating schools from December through March, covering this year’s syllabus of selections from Leviticus, Numbers, Kings, Isaiah (for high school only), Ezra, and Nehemiah. The highest scorers went to the national finals in New York.

“For casual competitors, it’s a chance to feel they’re doing a little extra learning,” Frazer said. “For children who are not in day schools, it may be the first time they’re encountering some of these texts. For day-school students, it can give a passion for the topic that they might not get from school, and some of the books on the syllabus aren’t covered in the day-school curriculum. When you’re not studying for a grade, it gives you a feeling of belonging to something bigger: A group of kids across the country who share this interest.”

Serious competitors, Frazer added, garner an added sense of accomplishment.

“When I was in 10th grade, I dedicated 20 to 30 minutes each day to studying for the Chidon. That commitment is valuable. When you have mastered so much of the text, that puts you on course to become a real Torah scholar later in life.”

Now an instructor of biblical Hebrew at Yeshiva University, Frazer said many of his colleagues participated in the Bible Contest when they were in high school. “I think they’d agree what they’re doing now is more sophisticated, but the fact that they mastered all that information laid the foundation.”

Yael Eisenberg, a sophomore at Elizabeth’s Bruriah High School for Girls, scored just one fewer point than Shalhevet. “My favorite part was Yishayahu [Isaiah]. I had never learned it before, and I discovered that it was a beautiful sefer [book],” she said.

She and her brother did not study together, but often quizzed each other, said Yael.

“Apart from the huge amount of Tanach that I learned, I gained many skills, as well. Chidon taught me how to memorize in the quickest and most efficient manner, how to cross reference, and how to find the meaning of an unclear word in one pasuk [verse] by finding the word in a clearer manner in a different pasuk. I had to learn how to work toward a goal months away, how to schedule myself, setting smaller goals, then moving on to bigger goals.”

Frequent review, even on the school bus, was her ticket to success. “Constantly re-reading the Chidon material while paying close attention to the words allowed me to develop broad theories about what I was learning, so I could apply them to my life,” she said.

Eighth-grader Elisheva Friedman was only one of two students at Passaic’s Yeshiva Katana girls division to try out for the Chidon. In addition to working with a local coach, Ruby Stepansky, she tried to wake up early and study a bit every day since last summer.

“I want to try again next year,” said Elisheva, whose two favorite subjects in school are Prophets and math.

This year’s six judges included Teaneck natives Rabbi Yaakov Werblowsky and Ari Gartenberg, both former Bible Contest winners; and Akiva Roth, Israel engagement outreach director for the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York.

Every contestant received a Hebrew Bible and a voucher for free pizza in the YU cafeteria. The 14 top scorers each received a copy of “Mitokh Ha-Ohel,” a YU anthology of original essays on the Five Books of Moses.

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