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Monday, May 22, 2017

Uriel Simpson, left, and Shlomi Helfgot, right (Credit: Mordy Simpson)

Uriel Simpson with his parents and fans

Uriel Simpson and Naftali Bennet (Credit: Mordy Simpson)

Shlomi Helfgot with Jewish Link columnist & Chidon coach Rabbi Neil Winkler

Two Teaneck students placed in the top ten of the Chidon HaTanach, an international competition that tests students on over 400 chapters of Tanach and is held each year on Yom Ha’atzmaut. Shlomi Helfgot, an 11th-grade student at Torah Academy of Bergen County (TABC), placed fourth, while Uriel Simpson, an eighth-grade student at Yeshivat Noam, placed sixth.

This year’s competition included 70 national champions in grades eight through 12 from 39 countries.

The process each year begins when The Jewish Agency sends preliminary exams to schools during the school year. In the U.S., the high scorers then compete in national finals in May. The top four have the opportunity to represent the U.S. in the subsequent year’s contest in Jerusalem. The national finals this year will be held on May 14.

Helfgot, the son of Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot and Rachel Brenner of Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, has been rising early on Sundays for the past year to have 6:00 a.m. Skype coaching sessions with Rabbi Neil Winkler in Israel. Rabbi Winkler said Shlomi’s commitment was not common for young men his age. “He set aside time every day for this because it was a passion for him,” said Rabbi Winkler in a phone interview. Winkler has coached over 30 students who made it to the finals. “It’s a wonderful thing. They do the work and I get the credit,” he laughed. What he thinks he brings to the table is a passion for Tanach that he shares with students. They pick up on that and are motivated by it. “It’s more than just being bright and smart. You have to be able to sit and study.” Rabbi Winkler said the first-place winner was a boy from Israel who was given a month and a half off to study full time. It’s much harder for American students who are still immersed in schoolwork and college entrance exams.

Rabbi Winkler said this was only the second time he has been in the theater when the competition took place. “I’m floating; it never stops being exciting,” he said. He is in awe of Shlomi and all the students who demonstrate such vast knowledge under pressure. “They had unbelievably hard questions. In the oral part, Shlomi was answering before the questions were even finished!” Rabbi Winkler also coaches a group of TABC boys who are preparing for the national competition.

The shidduch between Rabbi Winkler and TABC students was made by Rabbi Haim Jachter, who got the idea when Rabbi Winkler retired from Moriah and moved to Israel several years ago. As a teacher at TABC, Rabbi Jachter knows how hard Shlomi worked. “He was disciplined and self-motivated. He worked very hard all year, always going at it.”

Rabbi Chaim Hagler, principal of Yeshivat Noam, said the whole school is incredibly proud of Uriel, the only eighth grader and probably the youngest participant in the grade eight through 12 division. “He dedicated two years of study while taking courses and doing other activities,” said Rabbi Hagler. “He had to sacrifice other things but it was a decision he made with his family to make this a priority.”

Rabbi Hagler said he was excused from Tanach class—he already knew the material—to study for the competition. The school also brought in a coach to work with him each week. “It starts with natural ability but then it takes a lot of effort,” Rabbi Hagler noted.

Uriel’s father, Mordy Simpson, said in an email before his return flight to New Jersey that the family was so proud of how Uriel performed. “He kept his cool under pressure, even though he was on stage in front of hundreds of people and on national TV in front of the whole country. His incredible, hard work and dedication really paid off, not only for doing so well in the internationals but also for the tremendous knowledge of Tanach that he has acquired.”

Simpson continued, “I want to give hakarat hatov to Rabbi Hagler and all the staff at Yeshivat Noam for giving Uriel all the building blocks that he needed to reach this special achievement. They provided him with great Tanach skills, time to study for the Chidon, were a great cheering squad and provided a phenomenal Ivrit education so that he could compete in Hebrew with Israelis at a world level.”

Dovi Nadel, U.S. coordinator for the Chidon since 2015, and a teacher at SAR High School, is a Chidon winner himself. He won the U.S. Middle School Hebrew Division in 2007 and placed third in the 2008 Chidon in Jerusalem. Nadel said that while the hard work is over for this year’s finalists, the competition for next year is heating up. “Over 400 students around the country took three regional exams on over 70 chapters of material. The top 200 were invited to compete in the national finals on May 14. The four winners of that competition will represent America at next year’s Chidon in Israel!”

By Bracha Schwartz