Shortly after each new school year begins, Rabbi Yaakov Nadler, fourth grade rebbe at Yeshivat Noam, takes his students on a nature hike along the Hudson River for a bonding experience. This past fall, as they were enjoying their surroundings, Rabbi Nadler mentioned to student Gabriel Cohen that his own son Aaron, a fifth grader at Yeshivat Noam, was entering the Chidon Sefer Hamitzvos, an international contest sponsored by Chabad. Gabriel immediately expressed interest and signed up, much to the delight of Rabbi Nadler who had taken note early on of Gabriel’s great interest and facility in learning.
With the founding of Tzivos Hashem, the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s program to enlist youngsters worldwide into “Tzivos Hashem,” an “army” of adherents to Hashem, the Rebbe urged every one of his young chayalim (soldiers) to understand all 613 mitzvot of the Torah. To this end, the International Chidon Sefer Hamitzvos was organized for students in grades four through eight who would complete the study of all 613 mitzvot in five years. The mitzvot are divided into four books, which outline their sources in the Torah in Hebrew, to whom they apply, their manner of observance, the reward accorded to their practice and the punishment for their violation.
For Gabriel Cohen, son of Carol and Jeff Cohen of Fair Lawn, as well as for Aaron Nadler, the task would be to master the mitzvot in their respective books. They would be tested after completing one-third of the mitzvot, in November, January and February. To earn a spot in the March shabbaton in Crown Heights, contestants had to score above 70 percent on each exam, and both of these students accomplished this difficult feat. Aaron and Gabriel together enjoyed the shabbaton as the kids went ice skating, boat riding and bowling, and were even taken on a tour of the Rebbe’s house.
Gabriel credits Rabbi Nadler’s class with helping him prepare for the competition, and also owes hakarat hatov to Rabbi Benjamin Yudin, mara d’atra of Congregation Shomrei Torah, where his family attends. Rabbi Yudin, originally from Crown Heights, studied with Gabriel and on the day of the Chidon drove to Crown Heights to cheer him on. In addition, Gabriel’s close friend and classmate at Yeshivat Noam, Netanel Houpt from Teaneck, also attended in support.
At the time of the three written preliminary exams, a second test was administered. The highest scorers on this second test across worldwide regions and schools, in grades four through eight, would earn a spot at the shabbaton to participate in a team competition. Gabriel qualified and sat proudly with his team on the stage with youngsters from around the world.
Upon arriving at the shabbaton on Thursday, March 23, all the participants took a final exam on their material. After the Chidon championships, those students who scored above 85 percent were awarded a plaque and a medal. Gabriel qualified for this as well, bringing much nachat to his parents and rebbeim.
The Cohen family spent a delightful Shabbat as guests of the parents of Rabbi Nadler together with Rabbi Nadler’s family. Gabriel found the Crown Heights community and especially the extended Nadler family to be “very friendly and warm.”
Rabbi Nadler was greatly pleased at the success of his student. He commented, “Gabriel has made a real impact on many of his friends. He worked hard and qualified for the Chidon. Many of his friends have learned with him leading up to the Chidon and he has already inspired so many to be excited about setting up our own class Chidon. I always looked forward to the lunch chaburah, learning group, where I would ask questions about a particular mitzvah and Gabriel would answer with in-depth knowledge. We are all so proud!”
When asked about the experience of studying the mitzvot so thoroughly and the many exams and competitions that followed, Gabriel’s response was, “I am looking forward to learning all four books in five years.”
By Pearl Markovitz