June 2, 2024
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Chidon HaTanach National Finals Unite Students Across the Country

U.S. contestants at the Israeli International Bible Contest: (l-r) TABC’s Micky Cyrulnik, Dov Gothelf from Denver, Yeshivat Frisch’s Emanuela Milman and Ilan High School’s Penina Crystal.

The Chidon HaTanach USA National Finals are always exciting—but this year, they were emotional, too. On Sunday, May 19, a total of 275 students from across the country arrived at SAR High School in Riverdale to compete in this year’s national Bible competition. Everywhere they turned, they were met with Israeli flags, chants of “Am Yisrael Chai” and yellow ribbons representing the hostages still held by Hamas. This year’s Chidon HaTanach centered on a spirit of unity and brotherhood, reminding the competitors that their study of the Torah has uplifted worldwide Jewry when it is truly needed and brings hope for the future.

The day’s festivities began with the written exams for the students, as well as engaging lectures for family and friends. The attendees met up again for chavruta-style learning, which Chidon coordinator Rabbi Dovi Nadel described as the highlight of his day. “The criteria is that no one is allowed to learn with somebody they already know,” he explained to The Jewish Link. “The theme for this year’s learning was ‘brotherhood,’ and I couldn’t think of a better manifestation of the achdut at Chidon HaTanach; that really stuck out as a special moment to me.”

Rabbi Dovi Nadel with sixth-grade division winners
Reuven Finkel of Yeshivat Noam and Yehoshua Ornstein of Fuchs Mizrahi. (Credit: David Khabinsky)

Once the participants learned together and had eaten lunch, the crowd headed into the auditorium, where they were greeted with stacks of Israeli flags to carry to their seats for the closing ceremony. “Let’s give a round of applause for our teachers, coaches and volunteers—there wouldn’t be a program without you,” announced Rabbi Nadel, who was met with cheers and whistles from the audience. He continued by dedicating his opening remarks to the IDF soldiers and other first responders who have been risking their lives in Israel since October 7.

“We are living the Torah every day,” he said. “Those who learn Torah become a part of the story, and that’s what it means to be an Am Hanetzach. I know it when I see it, and I certainly see it when I look in this room.”

Rabbi Nadel then introduced a video message from Nechama Polak, the daughter of Dr. Shimshon Isseroff, z”l, who dedicated his life to talmud Torah and was the chairman of Chidon HaTanach for decades. The USA Chidon was renamed in his honor just before he passed away in 2021, leaving Polak to carry the torch of wishing the competitors well and leaving an inspiring message to take home with them. This year, Polak greeted the audience from Israel, relaying a tearful speech about the sacrifices being made and the connection that Jews worldwide have with one another, thanks to the existence of the state of Israel.

The judges deliberate on the written exams. (Credit: David Khabinsky)

The competition judges took the stage as Rabbi Nadel announced the winners of the sixth-grade division. At the top, Yeshivat Noam student Reuven Finkel claimed first place, proudly accepting his certificate and a stack of prize books for his achievement.

Reuven made the preparation for the Chidon HaTanach a “family affair,” telling The Jewish Link that he picked up some tips from his sister Malka, a former Chidon competitor herself. Finkel’s twin brother, Meir, tested him on the material. “My baby brother, Ari, offered to help by not destroying my study sheets … but unfortunately, Ari didn’t really follow through on that offer,” he lamented. Reuven noted that the highlight of his day was spending time with his classmates, “my fellow Yeshivat Noam ChidonKnights,” and that “winning first place wasn’t too bad, either.”

The spirit in the room was uplifting as everyone waved Israeli flags and chanted “Am Yisrael Chai.” (Credit: David Khabinsky)

After Reuven’s win, the top seven scorers from the middle school division took the stage to take their final exam in front of the audience. During the exam, video messages from the competitors played on the projector screen, each student ending their recording with “Am Yisrael Chai!” As the middle school competitors wrapped their exams, a Kahoot quiz appeared on the screen, allowing all of the audience members to answer the same questions that just appeared on the written exam—and the room lit up immediately. As with every year, Kahoot is the crowd favorite, and brings a palpable energy beyond the competition itself.

Rabbi Nadel continued by announcing the winners of the 12th-grade division, a new category that began last year to give an opportunity to those past the age of competing to attend the International Chidon HaTanach in Israel. Each of the three winners—from Berman Hebrew Academy, Fuchs Mizrahi and Maimonedes, respectively—collected their prizes from Rabbi Nadel with the exciting news that they would be joined again in Israel the following year.

The top scorers of the high school division then took the stage for their final written exams, during which judge and organizer Avi Shaver spoke about his time as a Chidon competitor himself. He noted, with pride, that this year’s national finals broke a new record: the most schools participating ever, with nearly 100 represented from across the country. “It’s so beautiful to see kids from everywhere get involved with the Chidon, and become a part of the Chidon community,” said Rabbi Nadel of the turnout. “It’s amazing.”

As the judges tallied the high schoolers’ scores, Rabbi Nadel announced the middle-school division winners: Joshua (Shua) Jaffe of Maimonides in Brookline, and Akiva and Raphael Shrier, both of Yeshivat Yavneh in Los Angeles. Then, for the first time in national finals history, the top three scorers from the high school division were called back to the stage for a verbal question round. Knowing that no matter the outcome, these top three were headed to Israel for the international Chidon HaTanach, the energy on stage was light and fun, and the audience cheered along as the competitors showed off their skills.

In the end, Ariella Mannes of the Girls Yeshiva of Greater Washington tied for second place with Eytan Rosenstock of SAR, leaving Ilan Romm of Frisch the first-place winner of the national Chidon HaTanach. As it turns out, Eytan and Ilan have a long Chidon history together—the two have been best friends since attending Westchester Day School together, competing in Chidon HaTanach as early as sixth grade and studying together ever since. “It’s so special that they’ll get to travel to Israel together to compete at the international finals,” said Eytan’s mother, Nicola.

Rabbi Nadel with high school division winners Ariella Mannes of the Yeshiva of Greater Washington, Ilan Romm of Frisch and Eytan Rosenstock of SAR. (Credit: David Khabinsky)

“When I first joined Chidon in sixth grade, I became obsessed with Tanach,” Eytan shared with The Jewish Link. “Chidon HaTanach became an integral part of my life, and I studied with my dad as well as Ilan Romm, and his older brother Beni, and we all obsess together over Tanach.” Eytan continued that he felt like all his hard work paid off when he took the stage for the final round, knowing he was already a national champion. “It felt incredible to have hundreds of people cheering us on.”

Ilan echoed Eytan’s excitement, saying that the highlight of his day was hearing his own name called at the same time as his friend. “We’ve been studying together every year since the sixth grade, and I was overjoyed to hear that now we get to study together for the international competition.”

First-place champion Ilan described the Chidon as the “safest investment anyone could make, since there is no chance that the value of Torah will drop.” As his friend and chavruta Eytan stated so eloquently: “Everyone who goes to the national finals can agree that there is something truly special about Chidon HaTanach.”

The day’s festivities ended on an emotional note, as the entire auditorium at SAR joined together to say prayers for the IDF, those wounded since October 7 and the hostages who remain in captivity. The crowd then sang “Hatikvah” together—a culmination of the unity that Rabbi Nadel and the organizers of the national finals wanted to capture at the competition.

“We wanted the finalists to feel like they’re really a part of something special,” said Rabbi Nadel. “And I think we do a really good job.”

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