|From left, Elior Babian, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Yishai Eisenberg, and Education Minister Shai Peron. Courtesy of the Jewish Agency
You might have thought Madonna was back in town.
Ticket holders were already lined up outside the Jerusalem Theater more than two hours before the start of the show. Security was tight – Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and other VIPs were on their way. TV crews were hauling in their equipment, and police had cordoned off the street.
The excitement wasn’t about a pop star, however. It was for the 50th Chidon Ha-Tanach-International Bible Contest for Jewish Youth. And when the two-and-a-half-hour competition was over, a new celebrity emerged: Yishai Eisenberg, the unassuming Passaic ninth-grader who became the first non-Israeli to take first place in the contest in 25 years.
Actually, the judges declared Yishai a co-winner with Elior Babian from Beit Shemesh after a lightning round in which they tied, though Yishai led on points through the entire competition.
The last person to pull off the same feat – tying for first place with an Israeli contestant, in 1988 – was Jeremy Wieder of Teaneck, now a rosh yeshiva (head of school) at Yeshiva University’s rabbinical seminary. Yishai, a freshman at the university’s high school for boys, YUHSB, also is only the second ninth-grader in the history of the Chidon to take first place.
“We are all very proud of Yishai’s amazing accomplishment,” said Rabbi Michael Taubes of Teaneck, YUHSB’s head of school. “We know how much time and effort he put into preparing for this and were all rooting for him. It’s unbelievable just to qualify for the competition, but to actually win is incredible.”
Yishai’s prize includes a full scholarship to Machon Lev-The Jerusalem College of Technology.
He and the other 52 national winners were treated to a week of touring before the quiz. Preliminary rounds during that time whittled the field to three girls and 13 boys. Their ranks included three Americans: Yishai, Joshua Silvera of Los Angeles, and Shalhevet Schwartz of Riverdale, N.Y., who had narrowly bested Yishai’s older sister, Yael, for first place on the high school Hebrew quiz at the 2012 nationals.
Diaspora contestants came from Argentina, Australia, Belarus, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, England, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Holland, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Mexico, Panama, Poland, South Africa, Switzerland, Turkey, Uruguay, and the United States.
Amihai Bannett, director of the Jewish Agency Partnership Unit’s International School Twinning Network, said that Netanyahu would like him to bring over 66 Bible contest national winners from the diaspora next year for Israel’s 66th anniversary.
Yishai went into the finals with more points than any other diaspora contestants. His performance required an encyclopedic familiarity with the syllabus, which includes parts of 29 books of the Jewish canon from Genesis through Chronicles.
Rabbi Ezra Frazer, coordinator of the U.S. National Chidon Hatanach for the Jewish Agency, noted that the Eisenberg children’s grandmother, Pessie Novick, coaches students at Berman Hebrew Academy in Silver Spring, Md., for the Bible contest. “I assume with that type of pedigree they probably know to pay attention to details,” Frazer said. Novick was at the Jerusalem Theater watching her grandson’s triumph.
Yishai’s mother, Khaya, said her son had studied with Rabbi Noach Witty of YBH-Hillel in Passaic for the nationals and then with Rabbi Pinchas Amior last summer in Israel. “He also did a lot of work on his own and with my husband,” she added.
“We are overwhelmed with nachas [parental pride],” said Yishai’s father, Saadia, as his son was being photographed with the prime minister and education minister after his win. Yishai himself seemed simply overwhelmed.
“A lot of it is luck,” he said modestly, “depending on which questions you get.”
Elior, 16, was beaming as his extended family screamed, cried, and hugged at the outcome of the contest. Only days later did the public learn that Elior has schizophrenia and comes from a financially struggling family; four of the five siblings have significant health issues. This back story has brought even more interest in the annual contest, which already is a favorite among Israeli viewers. Getting one of the 1,000 tickets is considered a coup.
The show opens with a three-bugle salute from the IDF, and it is punctuated with musical interludes by Israeli performers and two IDF choirs. English and Spanish interpreters are available, though Yishai did not need this service.
Dignitaries, aside from Netanyahu and his wife (their son Avner was the Israeli national champion in 2010), included A-listers such as Education Minister Shai Piron, Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, IDF Chief Rabbi Rafi Peretz, Jewish National Fund World Chairman Efi Stenzler, and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat.
The prime minister always asks the eight questions that make up the third round. The two girls and three boys left onstage had a few minutes to think through their answers and write them down.
Here are some of the biblical quotes Netanyahu narrated. The contestants had to identify the prophet who said them:
“‘Behold, days are coming,’ declares the Lord God, ‘When I will send a famine on the land, not a famine for bread or a thirst for water, but rather for hearing the words of the Lord.'” (Amos 8:11)
“But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; ‘After those days,’ saith the Lord, ‘I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people.'” (Jeremiah 31:32)
“‘Behold, the days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when the plowman shall overtake the reaper and the treader of grapes him who sows the seed; the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it.'” (Amos 9:13)
“After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will restore us, that we may live in his presence.” (Hosea 6:2)