Inside the historic sanctuary of Manhattan’s Congregation Adereth El, eight contestants awaited their chance to show off their knowledge of Tanach, as part of the U.S. finals for the 2021 International Chidon HaTanach, on Sunday evening, November 7. The Chidon, hosted by the World Zionist Organization and the Israeli Ministry of Education, is a yearly competition for bible scholars of all backgrounds who wish to exhibit their skills, and those sharp enough to beat the contestants from their own country are invited to participate in the international contest, which will take place in Israel during Chanukah.
From the very beginning of the event, the sanctuary was filled with a tangible excitement to watch the contestants answer brain-stumping questions from across the Tanach—which stands for Torah (the five books of Moses), Nevi’im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings). The festivities were elevated by a performance by Syrian cantor Rahamim Shapiro, who sang a collection of familiar Israeli songs. Dr. Robert A. Harris, professor of bible at the Jewish Theological Seminary, introduced a series of organizers from both the U.S. and Israel, all of whom were instrumental in putting the affair together.
Among the introductory remarks, many of which were in Hebrew, Silvio Joskowicz, head of the Department of Zionist Enterprises at the WZO, gave a rousing speech that emphasized the importance of in-depth bible study, noting that the bible is the “book that connects us” by providing a moral, spiritual and cultural basis for human behavior.
Debbie Isaac, head of the American Zionist Movement, continued with her remarks on the importance of participating in an event like the Chidon HaTanach. “There are 39 member organizations in the United States that represent different religious and political streams, which we [as a movement] bring together and convene,” she said. “All of us are united by our heritage and the Torah; and as we read in the book of Bereishit, we are united by our connection to the land of Israel and our homeland.”
The competitors, the eight finalists from the U.S., were split evenly between those from Brooklyn and those from elsewhere, including Barry J. Saffern, who represented The Jewish Link’s readership as a resident of Bergenfield. Saffern, an IT project manager, has competed in the U.S. finals three times before.
The central theme of this year’s Chidon HaTanach was appropriately “From Plague to Healing,” focusing on Israel’s triumph over the COVID-19 pandemic through various occurrences throughout the bible of overcoming sickness, plagues and other obstacles. During the first round of the competition, the questions were tied to two different video clips, each highlighting pivotal Israeli institutions during the pandemic. The first video, featuring the heroes of Shaarei Zedek Hospital in Jerusalem, was followed by a round of questions for the first four contestants, and the second video, praising the work of Magen David Adom emergency services, led to questions for the following four contestants.
The second and third rounds of the competition went quickly as more contestants lost out to challenging questions. As the judges tallied points before the final round, Dr. Harris posed one question to the audience: “According to the Tanach, which women were direct descendants of the tribe of Benjamin?” He remarked that Esther was not an exceptional answer before displaying a phone number on the screen where people could send their answers. Several minutes later, he announced that one audience member had figured it out: Michal and Merav are the two descendants mentioned by name.
In the final round, Rabbi Shnayor Burton of Brooklyn faced off with Rabbi Avrohom Horovitz of Boca Raton for a head-to-head challenge. With a total of 10 questions, the finalists answered rapid-fire biblical who-said-its and whodunnits, for a total possible score of 20 points each. Ultimately, Rabbi Horovitz was crowned champion of the U.S. finals, earning himself an all-expenses-paid trip to Israel for the International Chidon HaTanach.
“I’m really looking forward to spending time in Israel,” Rabbi Horovitz shared with The Jewish Link. “My parents live in Jerusalem, and I can’t wait to see them.” To this Chidon champion, family is everything: He remarked that the highlight of his visit to New York has been seeing his children and grandchildren, who live throughout the area.
Though not jetting to Israel, Bergenfield resident Barry Saffern came pretty close. Accompanied to the competition by his wife, Chanie, he expressed an enthusiasm for learning Tanach, both in preparation for the Chidon and for his own enjoyment. “I reviewed, took lots of notes, and used Israeli ‘bagrut’ exams to get ready,” he told The Jewish Link. “My favorite part about being part of the Chidon is the preparation process and getting to study.”
“He used all of his spare time to study,” Chanie Saffern added with amazement.
With the buzz of murmured “congratulations,” and “mazal tov,” greetings passed around the sanctuary, and the contestants and audience members headed to Adereth El’s social hall to enjoy a catered dinner and bask in the warmth and excitement that is the Chidon HaTanach.
Adereth El’s new rabbi, Rabbi Shua Mermelstein, shared his gratitude for the opportunity to host the annual festivities at the historic synagogue. “At a time when we’re still struggling to recover from COVID, we’ve hosted several communal events, but we haven’t had the chance to really bring different communities together over our shared heritage and love for the Torah,” he told The Jewish Link. “The Chidon HaTanach is the perfect way to celebrate everything that we share with each other, and to have the privilege of hosting is incredible.”
A job well done to all of the participants and good luck to Rabbi Avrohom Horovitz in the upcoming international competition!
By Channa Fischer