On screen Jacob Colchamiro of Short Hills, a 10th grader at the Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School (RKYHS) in Livingston, appears relaxed and calm, even charismatic as he answers question after question thrown at him in Hebrew by Israeli linguist Dr. Avshalom Kor. This despite being watched by thousands on TV and others in person — including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
On Yom Ha’Atzmaut, May 9, in a broadcast from Jerusalem televised across Israel, Colchamiro, who seemed unflappable in the depth and breadth of his knowledge on Tanach (an acronym that stands for Torah, Neviim, and Ketuvim, or the Five Books of Moses, the Prophets, and later writings — such as Psalms and the Book of Esther), remained on stage among a dwindling number of contestants. At the beginning he was one of 16; by show’s end, he was one of two. Ultimately, Colchamiro finished second in the Chidon HaTanach, the international Bible competition for Jewish youth.
“It was a really pleasant surprise,” he told NJJN about taking second place, sitting in the library on his first day back at RKYHS after his whirlwind trip. “The quality of the competitors — not just the one who won, but so many others — was very good. So, it was nice to be able to get to that position.” Colchamiro, the only diaspora Jew among the four finalists, sported an orange and blue RKYHS kipa throughout the competition.
After a year of preparation Colchamiro missed just one question in the final round: Which king of Israel reigned in Samaria for six months? (The correct answer for those still scratching their heads: Zechariah, not to be confused with the prophet of the same name.)
Colchamiro called the final round against eventual winner, Israel’s Yonatan Weisman, “very intense.”
“I felt more in control in some of the previous rounds than when I got to that round,” he said. “I was a little bit more just excited to be there and I wasn’t able to concentrate as much as I wanted on those questions with the prime minister standing there.”
Bibi or no, Colchamiro was quick to give the champion his due. “[Yonatan] totally deserved it. His knowledge — I think it was on another level.”
Some local folks say the same about Colchamiro.
“Reaching this pinnacle is a reflection of Jacob’s determination, focus, and talent,” said Rabbi Eliezer Rubin, head of school at Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy (JKHA) and RKYHS. “We are very proud of Jacob.”
Said Rabbi Mendel Bogomilsky of the Chai Center Chabad of Millburn/Short Hills — where Jacob, his parents Kimberly and Eric Colchamiro, and two siblings are members — “He’s a smart kid, and he has a good memory. Those are gifts. But he also uses them. He works hard.”
The international Chidon (quiz), in which students from around the world progress through different divisions of the competition, began in 1963 as a side event to an adult competition and was initially held every other year. (The adult chidon still exists as a separate event in December.) Sitting prime ministers have been in attendance each year since its inception.
A year ago Colchamiro won the U.S. division in a national competition. About 500 high school students completed preliminary exams, about 200 competed in New York City, and four represented the U.S. in Israel. Each country — this year 15 participated — secures a certain number of spots in the international competition, which includes a two-and-a-half-week travel experience for the participants, who visit the places in Israel described in the Tanach.
Participants take a written test at the beginning of the trip, and only 16 of the 89 qualifiers advanced to the televised competition held at the end of the tour. The U.S. competition is sponsored by the Jewish Agency for Israel, and the final competition is sponsored by the Israeli government.
To prepare, Colchamiro studied every day — half an hour a day at the beginning, several hours a day as the competition drew nearer — he said. RKYHS provided him with a coach, Rabbi David Chamudot, assistant head of school, who would quiz Colchamiro several times a week.
It’s not the first Torah competition Colchamiro has mastered. He participated in the Torah Bowl league at JKHA, and his teams won the championships in grades seven and eight, and division championships in grades nine and 10. He also placed first in the 2018 Yeshiva University High School Bekiut Program, an extracurricular Gemara study competition, and he serves on its leadership board.
A seventh-grade Tanach teacher first piqued Colchamiro’s interest in the competition. When no one had the answer to the teacher’s question, he told the class, “You’d be destroyed in the Chidon HaTanach,” Colchamiro recalled. “I decided to find out what this Chidon HaTanach was.”
At first he was impressed by the knowledge of the competitors, and a little intimidated. “You always see it on TV, and it looks almost like a little bit unattainable,” he said. Now, he sees that it’s a process. “You don’t just walk up on stage and start getting hundreds. It was a very intense preparation, but it’s necessary to prepare like that to succeed in the end.”
He acknowledged that there was something surreal about the whole experience, and tried to have fun to relieve some of the anxiety. “I was actually a lot more nervous in the days preceding the competition,” Colchamiro said. “I thought I was going to have a breakdown or something when I was on the stage, but then once I was there, in the moment, it was a lot different. I was much more in control.”
Sitting in the school library, Colchamiro smiled graciously as fellow students and a few teachers dropped in to shake his hand. He was feeling something of a letdown after the intensity of emotions, and wondering how he would fill the void with the competition in the rearview mirror.
And even though he was clearly uncomfortable with the request, he reluctantly agreed to let the school fete their champion with a welcome-back assembly that afternoon. That’s Colchamiro’s price of fame.