It was a big biblical year for Americans.

Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School sophomore Jacob Colchamiro of Short Hills, N.J., placed second in the world at the International Chidon HaTanach (Bible Quiz), which took place last week in Israel on Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel Independence Day), while Torah Academy of Bergen County senior Nathanael Vinar of Teaneck, N.J., placed sixth. Epstein Hebrew Academy eighth-grader and St. Louis’s Yechiel Shulman represented the United States in the middle-school division, and Elianna Sokoler from Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, Calif., was America’s delegate in the English division.

Tanach, which is often used interchangeably with the word Bible, is an acronym composed of Torah (“Teaching,” also known as the Five Books of Moses or the Pentateuch), Nevi’im (“Prophets”) and Ketuvim (“Writings”). It contains the canonical texts that comprise the Hebrew Bible, which is made up of 24 books composed mainly in biblical Hebrew.

The Chidon was started as an international program in 1958, the 10th anniversary of the creation of the State of Israel. Originally it was an adult competition, with the children’s Chidon starting in 1963. Since then, the international Chidon HaTanach for youth has been at the center of Israel’s Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations, with virtually the entire country tuning in at 11 a.m. each year to watch the competition.

The four Americans joined the approximately 70 other participants from 40-plus countries throughout the world for a Bible camp in Israel that culminated in last week’s Chidon. According to Rabbi Dovi Nadel, the U.S. operator for the Youth Chidon HaTanach from the Jewish Agency, the camp allowed the participants to spend time with kids from around the world, meet dignitaries and tour Israel through the lens of the Tanach they’ve learned.

“Wonderful relationships are forged between the contestants,” he said.

This year’s remarkable achievements from the American competitors came after the four qualified last year in the national Chidon, followed by a year of intensive learning with their coaches, as they prepared by studying nearly 500 chapters of Tanach.

Rabbi Ezra Frazer, a Chidon coach and former competitor who came in second in the world in 2012’s Adult Chidon HaTanach, coordinated the U.S. youth competition from 2008-2015. This year he coached eighth-grader Yechiel Shulman. “The kids started studying soon after they found out that they won in the U.S. They had a year to prepare and had a regular weekly studying routine.” Shulman reported that he learns with Frazer via Skype every week, and when he visited the Teaneck area, where Frazer lives, the two learned together in the Bnai Yeshurun beit midrash.

Nadel explained the Chidon process. “Of the 240 national finalists, there were four winners: two from high school, one from middle school and one from the English division, and those four qualified to go to Israel. This year’s national winners [announced last week] will go to Israel next year.” Chidon appears to be a family affair for this year’s winners; Vinar’s younger brother, Ezriel, placed second in the 2019 national competition and will follow his brother to Israel next year, while Colchamiro’s younger brother, Sammy, placed eighth.

“It is exciting to see kids I remember from middle school keep trying again and again,” said Frazer. “Nathanael Vinar has been participating since middle school from the Moriah School, and he finally made it in his last year of eligibility.”

Colchamiro noted, “I got to know the other competitors during the week prior to the Chidon. I met so many really nice people. They were solid competitors. The Israelis and Americans were really well-prepared.”

Vinar added that “[Bible camp] was very enjoyable, especially for me, never having been to Israel before. I got to meet people from all over. I did not know there were Jews left in Ethiopia, and the competitor from there was well-prepared.”

‘The gateway into a deeper understanding of our history’

During camp, the kids took further qualifying exams to determine which 16 students would participate in the international Chidon and be on the stage on Yom Ha’atzmaut. Colchamiro, Vinar and Shulman all qualified, while Sokoler qualified for the Diaspora competition, which selects one student from each participating country who is not joining the Chidon.

According to Nadel, the three boys each qualified with top scores on their written exams, which set the stage for their performance during the Chidon competition. Colchamiro started the competition as the top seed, ahead of all the Israelis due to his proficiency on the written exam.

“It is very rare for an American to get to the final podium round; it is usually just Israelis,” noted Nadel. The podium round is the final round, with the final question asked of the top contestants by the Israeli prime minister. This is the first year since 2013 that an American has placed this high.

“It is a good feeling to get that kind of reward for the work I put in. The icing on the cake is that last year, the four top spots were all Israelis, and this year three of the four were Israelis,” said Colchamiro. “I certainly thought there were some who didn’t place as high as I did who I felt were better prepared.”

Colchamiro was eliminated in the final round after missing one question. “The question I got wrong I really shouldn’t have missed, but there was one I got right on a technicality,” he said humbly. “I got the place that I deserved. [The first-place winner] totally deserved it. He was very impressive.”

Nadel felt that all the Chidon contestants were already winners.

“We are so proud of all of our international contestants, who devoted so much time and effort to mastering hundreds of chapters of Tanach and competing on the international level,” he said. “Achieving fluency in the verses of Tanach truly is the gateway into a deeper understanding of our history, our people, our land and our tradition. At every level of the competition—from local, to national, to international—contestants in the Chidon HaTanach gain an appreciation and love for Tanach that energizes them and remains with them for the rest of their lives.”