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Perfect Score! Avi Rybak Is Third Chidon Winner From YBH in Four Years

Passaic—The U.S. National Bible Competition, the Chidon HaTanach, has had a preponderance of winners from northern New Jersey in the past several years, with the lion’s share hailing from Yeshivas Beis Hillel (YBH) of Passaic.

In the 2015 competition, Avi Rybak, a YBH 7th grader, was the only student in the middle school division to achieve a perfect score in the regional round. Avi also placed first in the national round and will be going to Israel in 2016 to compete in the televised International Chidon HaTanach on Yom Ha’atzmaut. Ryback joins YBH students Yishai Eisenberg, who won the national contest in 2012 and Asher Brenner, who won in 2013.

The Chidon HaTanach encourages students to expand their knowledge and familiarity with Tanach. Questions are detailed and challenging, with only the rare student able to achieve a perfect score, or even a near-perfect score. Approximately 250 students take the preliminary exams each year, only half of whom qualify for nationals. Participants are then ranked nationally based on performance. The elementary and high school division winners most often go on to compete at the International Chidon in Israel. Based on scores, the U.S. is sometimes able to send the second place winners to Israel.

“I am very proud of the fact that three of our students were national winners. They reflect a tremendous amount of enthusiasm for learning Torah in our school,” said Rabbi Berel Leiner, Menahel of YBH.

Rabbi Leiner noted that while Eisenberg, Brenner and Rybak happened to have placed first in the Chidon HaTanach, there are many others at YBH who are interested in the Chidon and are dedicated to spending time studying outside of school; and those students also did well. “Many of them scored very high, and of course it’s our wonderful staff who generate such energy and enthusiasm for students to learn outside of the school curriculum,” he said.

“Part of our philosophy is that kids should grow and learn to not do only what they have to do, because it’s right, but because it’s spiritually right. Our teachers infuse this philosophy of learning Torah with great enthusiasm,” he said.

The number of Chidon winners and competitors from YBH has not gone unnoticed by the Jewish Agency, who runs the U.S. Chidon HaTanach. “It has been remarkable to watch the consistent Chidon success of the YBH students in recent years,” said Rabbi Ezra Frazer, national coordinator of the competition. “Year after year, they demonstrate both a passion for learning Tanach and the necessary drive and focus to excel at the Chidon tests. Clearly, they have been educated to love Torah and to approach Torah study with rigor and a strong sense of commitment,” he said.

In addition to their affiliations with YBH, and their reputations as excellent students, what else does Rybak share with the other national winners Eisenberg and Brenner?

They share the same Chidon coach: Ruby Stepansky. Stepansky is a Passaic resident who attends Adas Israel on Broadway. He has been a ba’al koreh for the past 50 years, but is, perhaps surprisingly based on the success of his students, not a full time teacher. He has worked as a database consultant for IBM, traveling extensively for the past two decades. He is not paid for the review sessions he gives for Chidon students on Sunday mornings, nor is he paid for the Skype or phone review sessions he does individually with top students. “I gain because I get to review the material,” he told JLNJ.

Over the past several years, Stepansky, who also teaches bar mitzvah training for token fees, worked as a volunteer with YBH parents and offered Chidon review sessions in his home. Eventually the two classes (one for girls and one for boys) became so large that he began to use a room at Adas Israel. In addition to students coming from YBH, students now come from Englewood, Teaneck and Bergenfield to review Tanach with Stepansky.

Stepansky explained that he has no innate knowledge of the test or its questions, but he tries to get into the heads of the people asking the questions. “It’s not just the material. It’s not just ‘this perek’ that they have to learn. I will say, does this phrase sound familiar? This relates to topics of Hebrew grammar, this is in a part of a certain davening, the root of certain words appears in many different places. It forces a person to understand the meaning of the word, and it can be attached to another location where the same root occurs. It leads to many side topics,” he said.

He often says, “let’s take this section of the Tanach and come up with rules.” An example he gave is the Hebrew word for ‘why.’ “It is lama sometimes, or it’s la-mah. The emphasis is on a different letter. The question is why, no pun intended. Does it have to do with the first letter of the next word? I took the Mandel Concordance and I think I see a pattern, but it doesn’t seem to fit the rule. In computers, I have to be precise, to know the difference and to be able to explain strange behavior. I then looked at a certain commentary called Minchat Shai, who is known as a grammarian, and there’s the answer,” he said.

“People can look at things, year in and year out, and not notice it, but if you really look at it, really delve into it, you can find and identify patterns,” he said. He added that leining also helps some students remember the material, and he teaches many students to lein as a way of remembering material.

Stepansky shared that he is especially proud of his dedicated students, and not just the ones who have come in first place. In addition to Yishai Eisenberg, who in addition to winning the 2012 nationals became the co-winner of the International Chidon in 2013, Stepansky taught his sisters Yael Eisenberg, who in 2012 came in second in the country for high school students, and Shalva Eisenberg, who placed second in 2014 and competed in Israel in 2015. Nechama Novick placed fourth in 2013 as a student in YBH, and she now continues to compete in Chidon from Bruriah.

To learn more about YBH of Passaic, please visit

By Elizabeth Kratz

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