Mastering Tanach

Mastering Tanach

Local students take home prizes for their comprehensive knowledge of the Bible

From left, Kayla Schechter of Boston, Tamar Dahan of Maryland, Jack Friedman of the Ramaz Upper School in Manhattan, and Maya Tratt of the Frisch School in Paramus represent the United States in the International Chidon HaTanach. (The Jewish Agency for Israel)
From left, Kayla Schechter of Boston, Tamar Dahan of Maryland, Jack Friedman of the Ramaz Upper School in Manhattan, and Maya Tratt of the Frisch School in Paramus represent the United States in the International Chidon HaTanach. (The Jewish Agency for Israel)

Maya Tratt, a junior at the Frisch Academy in Paramus, was among 16 finalists who took the stage at the International Chidon HaTanach — in English, that’s the Bible Quiz — for Youth on April 26, Israeli Independence Day, at the Jerusalem Theater on live TV.

Maya, who lives in Scarsdale, was one of eight students to progress to the second round of the famously rigorous contest of biblical scholarship, sponsored by the Education Ministry and the Jewish Agency. The winner was an Israeli contestant, Emunah Cohen.

Maya earned her ticket to Israel through her second-place finish at last year’s national contest in the Hebrew High School Division of the Dr. Shimshon Isseroff USA Chidon HaTanach. That contest is named in tribute to a former Chidon HaTanach chairman, Dr. Isseroff, who lived in Teaneck  and died at 100 in July 2021.

This year’s national contest, which took place on April 30 at SAR High School in Riverdale, included 325 regional winners competing in various grade-level divisions in Hebrew or English.

Emanuela Milman of Paramus holds her second-place prize; she’s with Rabbi Dovi Nadel, coordinator of the National Bible Quiz. (All Photos here and below David Khabinsky/Daled Studio)

They had to answer 100 questions about people, places, and events in the text of the books of Exodus, 2 Kings, Esther, and Jonah, plus Joel, Amos, Obadiah, and Haggai for high school contestants.

As always, there were some top scorers from area schools.

Two of them — Micky Cyrulnik of Teaneck and Yeshivat Noam and Emanuela Milman of Yavneh Academy, who placed first and second, respectively, in the Hebrew middle school division — won tickets to represent the United States in the international round next year in Jerusalem. (Both Yeshivat Noam and Yavneh Academy are in Paramus.)

Micky, 14, was not a newcomer to the contest; in 2021, as a sixth-grader, he won first place in his division, and in 2022 he won third place.

“This was the last year I was planning to do it, and I felt I was really going to go for it,” he said. “After the regional round, I worked with Rabbi Yair Shahak” — a 2016 winner of the International Chidon HaTanach for Adults and now chair of the Hebrew department at the Frisch School in Paramus —  “and he helped me study and gave me strategies.”

Yeshivat Noam eighth-grader Micky Cyrulnik of Teaneck is congratulated for his first-place finish at the National Bible Quiz.

Rabbi Shahak suggested using mnemonic devices to memorize how long each king listed in 2 Kings ruled. For example, Yehu was a strong king who ruled for 28 years, and Micky remembered this by associating him with the Hebrew word for strength, “koach,” whose numerical value in gematria is 28.

Preparing for the contest has greatly improved his Hebrew skills, he said, and he anticipates handling questions and answers in the international round in Hebrew, although an English translator is available. “And hopefully I can do it smoothly,” Micky said.

His father, Owen, who was Micky’s first study partner, said he and his wife, Shaindi, “are very proud of him. He did a great job. It was his idea to get involved three years ago, and he largely prepared by himself.”

Emanuela, an eighth-grader from Paramus, said that when she was in sixth grade, her teacher, Moriya Levy, encouraged her to join other Yavneh students studying for the Bible Quiz.

Frisch senior Tamar Rosenfeld took third place in a new division for 12th graders. Here she is receiving part of her prize from Rabbi Dovi Nadel.

“She told me that she thought I would be very good at it, and I decided to join. I enjoyed it so much that I continued participating in seventh and eighth grade,” Emanuela said.

Karen Kedmi, Yavneh Academy’s longtime Chidon coach, advises students that the best way to remember the text is to become familiar with its cantillation. Emanuela took that advice to heart, making an effort to hear the Torah portion chanted every Shabbat at Congregation Beth Tefillah in Paramus.

“I also listened countless times to the recordings of Megillat Esther that were made by Yavneh Academy Middle School assistant principal Rabbi Aaron Ross,” she said.

At the contest, Emanuela recalls, the hardest question that she answered correctly was identifying  the reference in this passage: “Yet (God) did not raise a hand against the [blank]… they beheld God and they ate and they drank” (Exodus 24:11).

“The answer was the leaders of the Israelites,” she said. “This question was particularly difficult since there is a similar quote in 2 Kings 6:23, ‘So he’ — Jehoram son of Ahab — ‘prepared a lavish feast for them and they ate and they drank.’”

Frisch student Ilan Romm placed third in the grades 9-11 Hebrew division.

Sofiya and Dmitry Milman said their daughter “set a goal for herself, made a study plan, and worked very hard to achieve it. She went to shul on Shabbat, rain or shine, to hear the weekly Torah portion. We are also grateful to Yavneh Academy for inspiring her and providing her with the tools needed to succeed.”

Unlike Micky, Emanuela has never been to Israel. “I am very excited to go next year to represent the USA in the international Chidon HaTanach competition,” she said.

Aside from the tickets to Israel, Micky and Emanuela each won the “Koren Tanach L’Metayel” (Bible for the Traveler), which includes maps of biblical Israel, a travel guide with itineraries, and information on flora, fauna, and archaeological findings from the biblical period with references to where they are mentioned in the Hebrew canon.

Tamar Rosenfeld of Stamford, a senior at Frisch, took third place in a new division for 12th graders; Frisch senior Josh Knoll of Teaneck placed fourth. Another Frisch student, Ilan Romm of White Plains, finished third in the high school division for grades 9-11.

Rabbi Eli Ciner, the principal of Frisch, said he was proud of every student who made the commitment to study for the Chidon and “for the hundreds of hours they have dedicated to mastering Tanach. They inspire our entire yeshiva, students and faculty alike.”

Frisch senior Josh Knoll speaks at the 2023 National Bible Contest at SAR High School.

He noted that Tamar and Josh led the Frisch Chidon Club this year “and studied tirelessly — precisely during their senior year, when other responsibilities usually take center stage for many high schoolers.”

It was these two who were responsible for the creation of a 12th-grade division of the National Bible Quiz. Last year they approached Rabbi Dovi Nadel, coordinator of the event on behalf of the Jewish Agency’s Department for Jewish Zionist Education, explaining that they wanted to participate one last time even though they could not qualify for the international round next year.

Rabbi Nadel agreed, and he was able to offer a free ticket to Israel for the top winner’s gap year, as well as two tickets to the International Bible Quiz for Youth. Those prizes were claimed by students from the Ida Crown Jewish Academy in Skokie, Illinois. Second- and third-place finishers each received one ticket to the next international round. There were seven contestants competing in this division.

Rabbi Nadel said that the student-inspired initiative “is a testament to students’ enduring connection to the Chidon. These students did not want to give up on the Chidon in 12th grade, and I’m happy that we found a way to support their commitment. The division’s opening was a tremendous success, and I envision its continued growth in coming years.”

Josh, who was invited to speak at the event, told participants that over the course of his three previous Bible contests, he came to understand that this is not about memorizing material in hopes of winning a prize, but about love and passion for the Five Books of Moses, Prophets and Writings (Tanach).

“I realized that Chidon was not just a competition with winners and losers, but a celebration of those who truly love learning Torah and a way for them to mark their progress,” he said.

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