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All in the family?

Local students, in parents’ and siblings’ footsteps, win USA Bible Quiz awards

Ezriel Vinar fills in his answers at the USA Bible Quiz at Yeshiva University on May 5, 2019. (David Khabinsky)
Ezriel Vinar fills in his answers at the USA Bible Quiz at Yeshiva University on May 5, 2019. (David Khabinsky)

Some traits clearly run in families. Physical features — dimples, maybe, or curly hair. Or innate talents, like perfect pitch or a way with words.

An intellectual and spiritual passion for the Bible seems to run in the Zinberg and Vinar families of Teaneck.

On May 5, 14-year-old Yavneh Academy student Yehuda Zinberg placed first in the annual USA Bible Quiz in the eighth-grade Hebrew-language division, qualifying him to compete in the International Bible Quiz in Jerusalem next April on Israeli Independence Day.

His father, David Zinberg, came in second nationally in 1979, when he was an eighth-grader at the Yeshivah of Flatbush, and he participated in the international round in Israel the next April.

Organized by the Jewish Agency’s Department for Jewish Zionist Education, the annual contest is called Chidon HaTanach in Hebrew; “Tanach” is the Hebrew acronym for the Torah (Five Books of Moses), Nevi’im (Prophets) and Ketuvim (Writings). Each year the syllabus covers a different part of the canon — this year, much of Exodus and the entire books of Judges, Jonah, and Esther.

The quiz requires an ability to match biblical quotations with the person who said them or about whom they were said, recognize where a passage is from and its narrative context, pinpoint where a particular event occurred, and engage in other, similar feats of textual familiarity.

More than 240 middle- and high-school students from about 80 day and supplemental schools across the country qualified for the national finals, held at Yeshiva University in Manhattan. Students at supplemental schools take the quiz in English.

Yehuda said that when he was in fifth grade, he started reading sections of Nevi’im and Ketuvim that he hadn’t learned in school, just out of curiosity. One thing led to another, and soon he was poring over the syllabus for the Bible Quiz. “It seemed like a fun way to learn the material,” he says.

Yehuda Zinberg receives his first-place prize from USA Bible Quiz coordinator Rabbi Dovi Nadel. (David Khabinsky)

Mr. Zinberg said that he and his wife, Yael, and their three sons “study Tanach at home for fun, and Yehuda has always participated very actively in that voluntary learning. He has a natural affinity for Tanach and Talmud, as well as for all types of secular learning.”

Yehuda was the top scorer in the nationals in sixth and seventh grades as well, but a new rule enacted two years ago stipulates that only high-school students can compete in the International Bible Quiz.

“This was my third year winning in my division but the first year of being eligible to go to Israel,” Yehuda said. He will enter ninth grade next September at the Idea School in Tenafly.

He attended a weekly Bible Quiz prep session led by Yavneh faculty member Karen Kedmi and also did a lot of cramming on his own. “Mainly I read the text a lot because it’s the most genuine way to study and get all the knowledge into your head,” he said. He did not study with a private tutor, something many Bible Quiz contestants choose to do.

One of the most seasoned of these tutors is Rabbi Neil Winkler, who coached Bible Quiz contestants at the Moriah School in Englewood for about 30 of the 36 years he was a faculty member there. He counts approximately 35 top scorers among his protégés.

Retiring from Moriah and from his pulpit at the Young Israel of Fort Lee and moving to Israel in 2014 did not end Rabbi Winkler’s coaching career. Aware of his success at Moriah, the Torah Academy of Bergen County asked him to coach students interested in participating in the quiz. He does so via video conference on Sundays. “I was amazed and very impressed that high-school boys would devote Sunday afternoons to this,” Rabbi Winkler said.

Nathanael Vinar stands at the International Bible Quiz with his coach, Rabbi Neil Winkler. (Andrea Winkler)

On May 5, Rabbi Winkler was elated to learn that his student Ezriel Vinar, a TABC sophomore, placed second in the USA Bible Quiz in the high-school Hebrew division, qualifying him for the internationals next spring. And on May 9, he watched proudly from his seat at the Jerusalem Theater as Ezriel’s brother Nathanael, a TABC senior, finished sixth in the International Bible Quiz.

“Nathanael and Ezriel were regulars in my class,” Rabbi Winkler said. “This past year, Nathanael didn’t have to be in the class because the American test I was coaching them for wasn’t the same as the international, but he wanted to study together with his brother.”

“We asked each other questions so it made us notice things in the text that we would not have noticed otherwise,” Nathanael said.

Rabbi Winkler taught Nathanael in seventh grade at Moriah. “He was an exceptional student. You never know who will win but you know there’s real potential when you only begin to ask a question and they give not just the correct answer but the whole verse the answer comes from. I saw this from both Nathanael and Ezriel. The commitment and love of the subject is remarkable.”

This was Ezriel’s third time competing in the nationals. What motivates him to study Tanach? “It’s the word of God,” he said. “You can learn from it about our history and how to conduct our future.”

Nathanael and Ezriel are the oldest children of Dov and Michal Vinar, and they have a younger sister and a younger brother.

When Ezriel comes to Israel next spring for the International Bible Quiz, he also will be able to visit Nathanael, who plans to spend his gap year at Yeshivat Birkat Moshe in Ma’aleh Adumim.

Rabbi Dovi Nadel, the coordinator of the USA Bible Quiz for the Jewish Agency, scheduled phone calls last week with the parents of each of the contestants who qualified for the free trip to Israel. In addition to Yehuda and Ezriel, Ilan Eisenberg of Kehilla High School, California, and Nossi Shelds of the Yeshiva of Greater Washington are eligible for the trip next spring.

“The syllabus covers two-thirds of Tanach, and you don’t get to do the international more than once, so it’s helpful to understand what is going to happen there,” Yehuda said.

Semifinalists coming to Israel are treated to a two-week “Bible camp” and take more qualifying tests to fill 16 finalist slots. During that time, they have the opportunity to befriend and study with contestants from more than a dozen countries. Nathanael said one of the highlights of the Bible camp for him was rooming with contestants from Israel and from Ethiopia.

For Rabbi Winkler, the highlight was sitting in the audience of the televised International Bible Quiz next to his former student Shlomi Helfgot of Teaneck, who placed fourth overall in the International Chidon HaTanach in 2017.

Shlomi’s brother Ephraim, an 11th grader at TABC, finished in fifth place in the high-school Hebrew-language division of the national round on May 5.

Like we said, a passion for the Bible seems to run in families.

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