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Local teen gets ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ chance to compete in international Bible quiz

Hanging along the hallways of Yeshivat Kadimah high school in Olivette are circular headshots of Yechiel Shulman, literally dozens of them, strung together like twinkling lights. 

The gesture was one of several that Yechiel’s classmates surprised him with after he returned last month from competing in the International Chidon Ha’Tanach, known as the “Bible Contest,” where he took fifth place. Yechiel, 15, who is the son of Rabbi Moshe and Baila Shulman of Young Israel, was one of only four high school students nationwide who qualified last year — when he was an eighth-grader at Epstein Hebrew Academy — to represent the United States in this year’s international contest.

“We are so excited and very proud of Yechiel, it’s a wonderful accomplishment,” said Rabbi Naftali Rothstein, principal of Yeshivat Kadimah. He said the school live-streamed the competition, which started at 3 a.m. in St. Louis, for its 18 students — well, 17 since Yechiel was in Israel competing.

The International Chidon Ha’Tanach is an annual competition among dozens of Jewish students worldwide between the ages of 14 and 18. This year, 72 students from 41 countries competed live on Yom Ha’Atzmaut (Israel Independence Day; May 8, this year) at the Jerusalem Theatre in Israel. The Jewish Agency sponsors the competition.

Tanach is an acronym composed of Torah (“Teaching,” also known as the Five Books of Moses), Nevi’im (“Prophets”) and Ketuvim (“Writings”). Yechiel and the other contestants were asked about the smallest details of many events that take place in the Hebrew Bible, and were quizzed on many of the 24 books it contains.

In addition to the contest, competitors spent two weeks at “Bible camp,” where they traveled throughout Israel together, learned about its history and got to meet various dignitaries.

The Jewish Light caught up with Yechiel at Yeshivat Kadimah, after the competition, to discuss how he prepared for the contest, some of the highlights and what’s next for this whiz kid. 

So exactly how did you prepare for the International Chidon Ha’Tanach?

I started last June (2018) with a tutor from New York named Rabbi Ezra Frazer, who I Skyped with once a week. He is a Bible scholar who teaches Tanach at a day school in New York and was very involved with the national competition. 

From June to December, I was learning all the material because it’s over 400 chapters of the Tanach and I hadn’t learned all of it beforehand. Each week we would take 10 chapters of a different book and Rabbi Frazer would give me an overview and explain the historical background. Then I would learn the chapters myself for two days and spend the rest of the week reviewing them.

I was probably studying two to three hours a day until the last few months leading up to the competition when I was studying four hours a day. I had first period off in the morning at school that I used to study and the rest was before or after school at home.

Are you memorizing the information or internalizing it?

A lot of it is internalizing but there is also a lot of memorization because they don’t ask content stuff, like what is the story that happened here, but they might give a quote and ask what story it is from, or who said it. So you have to figure out what story it is from and the dialogue. There is some stuff that is more memorization, like how long each king ruled for, or how long each of the judges was ruling. 

Did you use mnemonic devices?

You can’t learn the stories and the quotes that way because there are so many.  You have to learn them by reading through the stories so many times and really knowing them. But for stuff like lists of people who did something or the children of some person, then mnemonics were helpful. For instance, the last book of Tanach, the chronicles, there are a lot of details about the officers of the different kings. With King Hezikiah, it mentions all the different officers who were in charge of the tithes. So making mnemonics to memorize their names was useful. For the children of the 12 tribes, I used songs to memorize those. I would have a tune and sing them to that tune. 

How does the actual competition work to weed out the competitors?

There are five rounds altogether. The first round is an hour-long written test of 50 questions, which out of the 72 (contestants) they use to find the top 16 with the best score. 

The next round is on stage, where the 16 are asked a different two-part questions. That cuts the competition to eight, who move on.

Then comes a speed round. There are two parts: First they ask a single name or place that appears in only one book. They asked me Ein Mishpat, which is a place, and it’s from Genesis, so I got that right. Then they ask five questions in a minute. You can pass on a question but you can’t go back. I got all of them except for the fourth question, which I passed on because I was running out of time. 

Four move on from that round. I was eliminated but came in fifth. Those four then do another speed test, which cuts the competition to two. Then those two compete head-to-head, until one misses a question.

What has this experience meant to you?

First of all, taking away all the learning and love of Tanach. I didn’t realize it interested me so much until I started studying for the national program. Then from the camp, taking all the good memories and friends I met from around the world. We have some Whatsapp groups and also we’re talking on the phone.

Will you compete again? How will you retain the information you learned?

You can only compete at the international level once, so it’s truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. There are 929 chapters total in the bible and we were tested only on 415, so there is still much to learn.