There was great excitement in the gym of the Manhattan Day School last Sunday as sixth- to 11th-graders from across the country vied for four slots in next May’s International Chidon HaTanach L’Noar (Youth Bible Quiz) in Jerusalem.
Three of those free tickets to Israel ended up going to young scholars from Bergen County, which often produces winners in the U.S. National Bible Contest for Jewish Youth, now in its 57th year.
Day school students take the qualifying exams in Hebrew, with separate divisions for middle and high school, while an English version is available to students who attend supplementary schools or community day schools, or who have no formal Jewish education.
This year’s syllabus from the Tanach — the Hebrew acronym for Bible, composed of the first initials of the words for the Five Books of Moses, Prophets, and Writings — covered all or part of the books of Leviticus, Numbers, 2 Samuel, Isaiah, Ezra, and Nehemiah.
“This year’s Chidon had over 150 contestants from around the country participating as national finalists, with a strong showing from Bergen County,” Dovi Nadel, coordinator of the contest for the Jewish Agency, said. “The passion, excitement, and knowledge of Tanach in the room were inspiring.”
Uriel Simpson of Teaneck, 13, a student at Yeshivat Noam in Paramus, won first place in the Hebrew middle-school division. Only a few months ago, he also was busy running a fundraising campaign for Israeli soldiers in celebration of his bar mitzvah.
“Uriel is Yeshivat Noam’s first-ever National Chidon HaTanach winner, and we look forward to having him compete in Israel next year,” the school’s principal, Rabbi Chaim Hagler, said. “We are proud of Uriel’s dedication to Torah study and the time he spent preparing for the Chidon.”
Shlomi Helfgot, also of Teaneck, a sophomore at Torah Academy of Bergen County, won first place in the Hebrew high-school division.
Nechama Reichman of Englewood, a freshman at the Manhattan High School for Girls, took second place in the Hebrew high-school division. (In the English division, Caleb Gitlitz of Baltimore was the winner.)
All three Bergen winners were repeat contestants.
Last year, Shlomi and his brother Ephraim each placed third in the high-school and middle-school divisions, respectively. Ephraim, then a seventh-grader at Yavneh Academy in Paramus, shared that spot with Uriel and with Esther Guelfguat of the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey.
Two years ago, Nechama took second place in the middle-school division as a seventh-grader at RYNJ; Shlomi, then an eighth-grader at Yavneh, placed seventh.
“The love for Tanach is what it’s all about,” said Rabbi Neil Winkler, who has been coaching children for the Bible Quiz for the past 32 years — 30 of those years while he was a teacher at the Moriah School in Englewood, and then over Skype after he retired from Moriah and from the pulpit of the Young Israel of Fort Lee to move to Jerusalem 18 months ago.
“I have been coaching a group of TABC students over the Internet for the Chidon every Sunday,” Rabbi Winkler said. “I was therefore elated to find out that my student Shlomi Helfgot scored highest in the country in the Hebrew high-school division and will be representing the U.S. in the International Chidon next year.”
Other boys from Rabbi Winkler’s TABC group who also qualified for the national round were regional Bergen winner Tani Greengart, Shmuel Ross, and Nathanael Vinar.
Rabbi Winkler said he encourages participants not to put any pressure on themselves. “I want them to enjoy while they learn,” he said. “Getting a high score is a matter of taking the time to sit and study. Over the years, I’ve had 25 to 30 kids who wound up going to the international round, and I was as excited with this last one as I was with the first one.”
“When I first heard about the Chidon Hatanach in seventh grade, I didn’t really take it too seriously,” Shlomi said. “However, as the years progressed, I gained a broader appreciation of the Tanach itself and a richer for understanding of the Tanach, and that gave me the determination to put in many hours of hard work in the past few contests, culminating in the contest yesterday.”
His past participation helped him make educated guesses about what types of questions would be asked, and he prepared accordingly. For example, he memorized the locations where the gentile prophet Balaam blessed the Children of Israel in the desert. “And don’t you know — they asked that,” Rabbi Winkler said.
Shlomi is an active contributor to Sefaria.org, a free library of Jewish texts and commentaries and their interconnections — in Hebrew and in translation — created, edited, and annotated by an open community. On his Sefaria bio, he reveals that he is developing a Google add-on for Docs for Sefaria and that he also is studying Arabic.
His father, Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot, spiritual leader of Teaneck’s Congregation Netivot Shalom, gave a lecture to contestants’ parents about the book of Isaiah while their children were taking the written portion of the quiz.
“My wife, Rachel, and I are extremely proud of and happy for our son, Shlomi, on his placing first in the National Bible Contest,” Rabbi Helfgot said. “Shlomi worked really hard for the last few months, often getting up at 5:30 a.m. and reviewing Tanach for two hours before he went off to school. We are so happy to see that his commitment, hard work and dedication allowed him to learn so much and to achieve success.
“We hope and pray he continues his devotion to learning Torah and finding meaning and inspiration in that endeavor.”
Nechama said she attended a weekly review class in Passaic given by Reuven (Ruby) Stepansky, who has coached several national winners in the past few years.
“We prepared by going over the material many times, and making many lists of similar phrases that appeared throughout the syllabus,” she said. “In all, studying involved hundreds of hours of work, but it all paid off.”
Nechama said that the hardest section of the test required contestants to match similar phrases throughout the syllabus in their correct context.
“I want to thank Mr. Stepansky, my parents and siblings, and most importantly Hashem for helping me to get to this point,” she said.
For more information about participating in the National Bible Quiz, email Dovi Nadel at email@example.com.