Chapter and verse

Chapter and verse

Local middle-schoolers compete during Bible contest in Israel


Tehila Kornwasser with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the International Chidon HaTanach. Laizer Kornwasser

Just back from two weeks in Israel as a contestant in the International Youth Bible Quiz, Teaneck eighth-grader Tehila Kornwasser offered encouraging words to contestants at the 56th annual National Bible Quiz last Sunday at Manhattan Day School.

It was here, last year, that Tehila captured first place in the famously difficult contest’s middle-school division as a seventh-grader at the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge. She qualified for a free trip to Israel, culminating with the international round in Jerusalem on Israel Independence Day.

Based on their scores on preliminary written tests administered during the two weeks before the trip, she and Shalva Eisenberg of Passaic placed among the 16 finalists in the nationally broadcast competition, which Shalva’s brother Yishai won in 2013.

Another Passaic resident, YBH of Passaic seventh-grader Avi Rybak, took first prize in the national middle-school division and will have a chance to ply his knowledge at the internationals in Israel next May.

Avi was among a larger group coached for the Bible quiz by Reuven (Ruby) Stepansky of Passaic on Sundays at Congregation Adas Israel of Passaic-Clifton. That was the synagogue led by Avi’s grandfather, Rabbi Solomon Rybak. Mr. Stepansky has primed several national winners in the past few years, including Tehila and the Eisenberg siblings.

Rabbi Rybak learns Talmud with Avi after school but left the Bible coaching to Mr. Stepansky, whom he called “wonderful in his rapport with the students and the preparation he does to tutor them.” He said his grandson achieved a perfect score in the regional round. “Avi put in the required effort. His whole family is very proud of him, but it’s the result of very hard work.”

National finalists in both the English and Hebrew divisions had to be thoroughly familiar with select chapters from Exodus as well as the entire books of Samuel 1, Jonah, and Esther. Middle-school students taking the quiz in Hebrew also had to know commentaries of Rashi in certain chapters of Exodus, while high-school contestants in the Hebrew division were responsible as well for the books of prophets Joel, Ovadia, Jonah, Chaggai, and Malachi.

Two brothers from Teaneck, Shlomi and Ephraim Helfgot, placed third in the high-school and middle-school divisions, respectively. Ephraim, a seventh-grader at Yavneh Academy in Paramus, shared that spot with RYNJ student Esther Guelfguat and Yeshivat Noam student Uriel Simpson.

Shlomi and Ephraim’s father, Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot, spiritual leader of Teaneck’s Congregation Netivot Shalom, learned Psalm 127 with parents of contestants while their children were taking the written part of the quiz. Rabbi Helfgot said that Shlomi, a Torah Academy freshman, participated in weekly study sessions via Skype with Rabbi Neil Winkler, a longtime Chidon coach at the Moriah School of Englewood who now lives in Israel. Ephraim worked with one of his teachers at Yavneh, Karen Kedmi.

Tehila, who will join Shalva at Bruriah High School in Elizabeth next year, said that the highlight of her time in Israel was touring the country and meeting Israeli dignitaries in the company of 83 Jewish kids from 33 countries who share her interest in biblical texts.

“I got to be really close friends with a lot of them,” she said. Over the course of the two-week free tour she roomed with girls from Mexico, Holland, Canada, and Australia. She studied with Shalva and with girls from Canada and Australia.

“It was great to ask each other questions and discuss Tanach,” the Hebrew acronym for the Five Books of Moses, Prophets and Writings, she said.

As for her appearance onstage, “It was very nerve-wracking but one of the most amazing experiences in my life,” Tehila said. “We were nervous for ourselves and everyone else, because we were not just competitors but friends. We were all singing together before going on stage.”

Tehila’s parents, grandparents, and aunt flew to Israel for the Bible Quiz, in which she provided the correct answer to a two-part question on Ezekiel. Though her cumulative score still wasn’t high enough to allow her to advance to the finals, she feels like a winner for having made the top 16 – four from Israel, three each from Canada, the United States, and Mexico, and one each from South Africa, Panama, and Belarus.

“Anything is possible if you put your mind to it. I tried really hard and it worked,” she said. “Learning Tanach lets you understand the differences between the prophets and their time periods, their tone of voice and attitudes on destruction and forgiveness. This is our history, and to study it in Israel, where it all happened, is the most amazing thing.”

YBH of Passaic student Avi Rybak with Bible Contest coordinator Rabbi Ezra Frazer and Lerone Edalati, who won the contest in 2005.
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