Yair Shahak — a member of the staff at the Rimon Center: Mordecai T. Mezrich Center for Jewish Learning in East Windsor — was crowned first-place winner at the U.S. National Chidon HaTanach (Bible Contest) for Adults held at the West Side Institutional Synagogue in Manhattan on Nov. 30.
Shahak is a graduate of Yeshiva University, where he is a Hebrew instructor, and the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies and a current student at the Belz School of Jewish Music. After facing 12 challengers to claim first place he will represent the United States at the International Chidon HaTanach for Adults in Jerusalem on Dec. 23.
At Rimon, where he has been for the past six years, Shahak serves as a cantor, leads prayer services, reads Torah, and teaches.
Shahak is also a performing violinist, composer, and poet whose work has been published in Hador: The Hebrew Annual of America.
“Yair is more than just a scholar with an amazing knowledge of Tanach and linguistics,” said Rimon founder and director Livia Mezrich. “He brings real heart to his knowledge and knowledge to his heart. You can hear his intellect behind the incredible warmth and ‘ruach’ he brings to everything — from our bimonthly Shabbat services to his impeccable cantillation of the Torah.”
People who attend services at Rimon “get caught up in Yair’s Friday night singing,” e-mailed Deb and Michael Schuman of Princeton, whose son Eitan is being mentored by Shahak. “Yair exemplifies all that Rimon stands for: a special space where people of all Jewish backgrounds are welcome.”
Participating in the contest “has been a tremendously rewarding experience for me,” said Shahak. “I have been involved with Tanach study my entire life…but this competition gave me a chance to get into the nitty-gritty details of every chapter, every verse, and think about the contents in a completely different way.”
His primary connection to Tanach, he said, is his love for biblical Hebrew, which led him “to study more Semitic (and European) languages, write poetry in biblical and post-biblical Hebrew, and begin work on an opera for which I am writing the music and the libretto — in biblical Hebrew.”
“Numerous people from the Rimon community reached out to me to wish me luck and to congratulate me after my victory,” said Shahak, adding that he is “glad to be the cantor of such a warm, caring community.”
The contest was cosponsored by the Orthodox Union, the Center for the Jewish Future of Yeshiva University, and the World Zionist Organization. The judges included Israel Consul-General Ido Aharoni, Yeshiva University president Richard Joel, and senior officials from the WZO, the American Zionist Movement, and the Jewish Federations of North America.