Caleb Gitlitz knows his Bible. The eighth-grader from Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School held his own in this year’s Bible knowledge contest known as Chidon HaTanach, finishing in the top eight of the international portion.
Gitlitz, who competed with 73 other finalists from 39 countries, was one of just four to represent the United States in the international final after securing his spot at last year’s national competition.
“It was a huge honor,” said Gitlitz, who recently returned from the contest in Israel. “Not just any person gets to do this, so I felt like I had to represent my country and my school to the best of my ability.”
This year marked the first time Beth Tfiloh, where Gitlitz and his family also go to synagogue, has competed in the international contest in Jerusalem, which was televised in Israel on Yom Ha’atzmaut. Next year, Ryan Joseph, an eighth-grader at Beth Tfiloh, will follow in Gitlitz’s footsteps after winning this year’s national contest on Sunday.
The competition, open to Jewish students in grades six to 11, is sponsored by the Jewish Agency for Israel. Preliminary exams are sent to schools from December to March, and the highest scorers from five separate divisions are invited to the national competition in New York in May. The international contest takes place the following year.
Beth Tfiloh sent more than 20 students to last year’s national Chidon HaTanach, where students were tested on their understanding of 70 chapters of the Tanach.
Gitlitz, 14, emerged victorious in the English division, earning a two-week all-expenses paid trip to Israel to participate in a Tanach camp and the international contest.
In many ways, Gitlitz compared the contest to a spelling bee. Instead of words, there are biblical verses and phrases, requiring contestants to apply their knowledge on a variety of texts in the form of oral responses and multiple choice questions.
For Gitlitz, identifying and finishing fragments of biblical verses and rattling off geographic facts of the ancient Land of Israel, among others, have always come naturally.
“Oh, I absolutely enjoy learning everything the Tanach has to offer,” Gitlitz said. “It’s fun to see how much I can remember.”
In preparing for the international competition, Gitlitz applied steely eyed, stone-faced determination as he drilled down more than 420 chapters of information from the Tanach.
Gitlitz said he spent at least an hour a day — whether it be in class, after school or even sometimes on Shabbat — navigating through material. There were also weekly Skype sessions every Wednesday night with Rabbi Ezra Frazer, longtime coordinator of the U.S. contest, to ensure Gitlitz was grasping the vast amount of material.
“The previous week before we talked, I would go over about 10 or 11 chapters of the Tanach,” Gitlitz said. “I would become familiar with them, and Rabbi Frazer and I would discuss them in detail. Any questions I had on them, he would advise me to make note cards on key phrases and sayings.”
Rabbi Mordechai Abrahams, who coaches Chidon at Beth Tfiloh, said Gitlitz put in “a lot of hard work” and knew that his work ethic would pay off.
“Early on, it was evident that Caleb had this incredible amount of dedication to learning everything he could on the Tanach,” Abrahams said. “He just had something different about him than most, and we’re really hoping he can lay the foundation for others to follow his lead.”
In Israel, where he was joined by his family, Gitlitz had met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was on hand for the contest.
Gitlitz said Netanyahu offered him a simple piece of advice.
“[Netanyahu] spoke about how he studied Tanach,” said Gitlitz, who said meeting the Israeli prime minister was one of the highlights of the trip. “When [the contestants] met him, we introduced ourselves, and he reminded us to just enjoy what we were doing [in Israel] as Jewish people.”
Though his cumulative score wasn’t high enough to take first place on the international stage, Gitlitz came away from the experience still feeling like a winner.
“I really, really worked hard at this,” Gitlitz said. “Learning the Tanach is a really rewarding experience, and it teaches you a lot about both Judaism and yourself.”
Upon his return, Gitlitz was treated to a hero’s welcome. Members of the Beth Tfiloh clergy honored him with a personal Tanach inscribed with his Hebrew name, and his peers celebrated with a special ceremony in his honor.
His mother, Teri Ershler Gitlitz, said the support he received from Beth Tfiloh students, faculty and staff was “overwhelming” and “humbling.” The effort, hard work and sacrifice Gitlitz demonstrated, she added, made it a worthwhile experience.
“It was really an incredible and rewarding opportunity for him,” Ershler said. “I think it was a lot more than he or any of us could have imagined.”