Asher Brenner, an eighth-grader at YBH of Passaic-Hillel, captured first place in the Hebrew middle school division of the National Bible Contest-Chidon HaTanach (Five Books of Moses, Prophets and Writings) on May 5.Another Bible king has been crowned from Passaic.
He earned a perfect score.
It is the second year in a row that a YBH eighth-grader has achieved that distinction in the famously difficult competition. Yishai Eisenberg, who recently tied for first place internationally, set the bar high in 2012.
“I was amazed to see another child accomplish the same feat this year,” said Rabbi Ezra Frazer, coordinator of the National Bible Contest for the Jewish Agency for Israel.
“The exams have not gotten any easier. This year’s exam had 124 questions” – four more than last year – “including questions like whether a specific two-word phrase does or does not appear in a particular narrative. The average middle school finalist answered about 50 percent of the questions correctly, and no other middle school contestant came within 15 points of Asher’s final score. The only way to answer every last question of that type is to commit entire books of the Bible to memory.”
The 54th annual U.S. National Bible Contest, held at Yeshiva University in Manhattan, included 112 participants from throughout the United States, all in sixth through eleventh grade, selected from 240 students who took preliminary exams in their schools. Students competed in four divisions – English middle school, English high school, Hebrew middle school, and Hebrew high school.
One of the speakers at the event was Rabbi Neil Winkler of the Moriah School of Englewood, who has been coaching Bible Contest hopefuls – including many national champions – for more than 25 years.
The top four winners get to go to Israel next spring to compete on the international level. All participants received “Mitokh Ha’Ohel: Essays on the Weekly Parashah,” a compilation by Yeshiva University educators edited by Rabbi Daniel Feldman of Teaneck.
Asher Finklestein of Memphis, who lives with his aunt and uncle in Teaneck while attending Yeshiva University High School for Boys, placed first in the Hebrew high school division. Teaneck resident Dani Peyser, a junior at Torah Academy of Bergen County, tied for second place with Elisheva Friedman of Passaic.
This was Dani’s third try at the National Bible Contest. Last summer, he studied in Israel with Canadian Rivka Witty, first-place winner among diaspora contestants in the 2008 International Bible contest. Though he had hoped for the trip to Israel, Dani said his disappointment was tempered by the understanding of what he had learned in the process.
“At the end of the day, the Tanach is really what it’s all about, and I gained a love of Tanach that I will carry with me through the rest of my life,” he said.
At the start of the contest, Dani recalled telling Elisheva that if he didn’t win, he hoped she would.
Elisheva, who placed second in the Hebrew middle school division last year as an eighth grader at Yeshiva Ketana of Passaic, admitted to a moment of frustration at barely missing the top slot once again, but she felt happy nonetheless.
“When I think about it, second place is pretty high and it was worth all the work,” she said. “I’m very competitive and I like to be challenged and really like learning Tanach, so it seemed like a good way to connect all the things I like.”
Now a freshman at Reenas Beis Yaakov in Edison, Elisheva was coached for the contest by Ruby Stepansky of Passaic, as was a group of other Passaic contestants including Asher Brenner and Nechama Novick, a YBH student who placed fourth in the Hebrew middle school division and is eager to try again next year as a ninth grader at Bruriah High School for Girls in Elizabeth.
“She and the other girls from Passaic were so enthused by the nationals,” Nechama’s mother, Rachel Novick, said. “They all went out for ice cream to celebrate together. They were more excited to start preparing next year’s material than I ever remember seeing them over the course of this past year. They are bugging Mr. Stepansky to start right away.”
Stepansky said Asher’s “work ethic was impeccable,” and that the youngster had memorized the material by “leining,” or chanting, many of the 76 chapters in this year’s syllabus, which included selections from the books of Numbers, Joshua, Jeremiah, Job, Daniel and Ruth.
“Asher understood the saying that one cannot compare someone who reviews material 101 times to someone who only reviewed material 100 times,” Stepansky said. “He diligently reviewed, learned, and lived the material.”
Asher Finkelstein, whose father Joel is the rabbi of Anshei Sphard Beth El Emeth Congregation in Memphis, said that like the “other” Asher, he found leining the material to be an effective memory aid. “I have already started studying” for next spring’s internationals, he said.
Frazer noted that fifth-place Hebrew Middle School contestant Tehila Kornwasser of Teaneck, a student at the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey, launched a bat mitzvah project to raise money for the Babian family of Israel, whose financial straits were publicized after oldest son Elior tied with Yishai Eisenberg for first place on Israeli Independence Day.