“This has been the best experience of my life,” Daniel Peyser of Teaneck said.
Dani, a senior at the Torah Academy of Bergen County in Teaneck, was talking about making it into the international round of Chidon HaTanach and being sent to Israel to compete in the finals, which took place on Yom Ha’atzmaut.
Dani always had been drawn to the stories of Tanach – but his love for Israel was even stronger than his love for Tanach. As he grew up he began to appreciate the centrality of Israel in Tanach; Israel is the setting for so many of its stories.
Dani heard of Chidon HaTanach for the first time when he was in seventh grade. In eighth grade he signed up for weekly preparatory classes in school. He didn’t do so well then, but he didn’t give up.
In 10th grade he took another shot at it. By then he was more familiar with the text and had acquired the skills to study it on his own. He had a tutor over the summer. The more he studied, the more he got into it, and the more he felt that he was developing a personal connection with Tanach. Dani had been taught different parts of Tanach his whole life, but only as he read them over and over again was he able to appreciate their meaning and the way all the parts came together. Adopting a habit of studying every day, Dani learned that “consistency is most important.”
That year, he placed fifth nationally.
Still Dani refused to give up on his dream – of winning first place, and its guaranteed trip to Israel
In 11th grade he was at it again, this time placing second, one spot short. Oh well, he figured…
A few months later he learned that the top contestant in his region dropped out. His dream was coming true – he was going to Israel!
Dani had been to Israel many times to visit family and friends, but never on a program. His goal was to win the nationals so that he could go to Israel. He wasn’t there to win. He didn’t expect to win. Being part of the program and getting the experience of meeting new people from around the world who shared his passion for Tanach was what interested him the most.
But not only did he make it to Israel, he also managed to place second in the diaspora competition and eighth in the international one. The highlight for him was meeting kids from all over the world (France, Turkey, Colombia, Netherlands, Finland, Croatia, Costa Rica, and Uruguay). “It’s amazing,” he says “It really feels like kibutz galuyot here.”
The group studied together, giving each other advice and tips even though they were competing. “It was so nice,” Dani said.
Being on stage, live on national TV, was nerve wracking, Dani said. But they were all in it together. Just before he went on stage, Dani tried lightening up the mood by telling his fellow contestants to put their notes down and try to enjoy the experience.
Dani did not want to look nervous on stage. This was more important to him than answering correctly. He tried his best to appear friendly and cheerful.
Cheering him on in the audience were his aunts, cousins, and his sister, Avital.
Dani knew where Avital was seated and he looked in her direction often, trying not to think about the fact that millions of people were watching him on live TV.
Dani didn’t expect to win. He knew he was up against geniuses who knew Tanach by heart. He felt fortunate and privileged to be on stage with them. Dani was proud of himself for learning all the material and placing at the top of the U.S. category in the diaspora chidon. “I’m so fortunate to have even made it to olami,” the international contest, he said. “I’m just so happy to be a part of this. “The people are amazing.”
The contestants went on trips together, and had team building exercises. It was surprising to find that the group had much more in common than just Tanach. During one of the activities the kids paired up and had to find at least five similarities between them. Dani was amazed to learn how much he had in common with these kids he never met, from all around the world.
“The program broke down so many barriers,” he said. “Everything from personal, religious, cultural, and age barriers were broken.”
Dani will be studying in the Ma’ale Adumim yeshiva in Israel next year and hopes to make aliyah and join the army soon after.
His new goal is to finish Tanach. “Just having the basis is so great,” he said. Only after having that foundation of the general knowledge can he delve deeper. His knowledge of Tanach strengthens his connection to the land and to Judaism, and he hopes to use it in to pursue other aspects of his Torah learning.
As they hiked through the mountains of Israel, the kids tested each other on the various things that happened in those places in Tanach. “That’s what it was about.” Dani said. “Learning Tanach in Israel was a perfect combination.”