Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Q&A: Chabad.Org Editor Earns Second Place in International Bible Contest 

The Chabad.org team is blessed with incredibly talented writers, programmers, "Ask the Rabbi" responders, reporters and editors. We were thrilled to learn that Rabbi Alexander Heppenheimer, a copy editor on our editorial team, earned second place in the International Bible (Tanach) Contest for Adults on Dec. 22, the last night of Chanukah.

After he returned home to Brooklyn, N.Y., from the finals at the International Convention center in Jerusalem—attended by Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a host of dignitaries from Israel and the Jewish world, and thousands of others—Heppenheimer took some time to talk about his attention to detail and passion for learning, and, of course, about the contest itself.

Q: Can you first share a bit of background about yourself and your family?

A: I grew up in Southern California and then Israel before moving to the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn when I was 9. My wife and I have six children, the last of whom was born just a few weeks ago. Aside from Chabad.org, my main employment is tech support for a software company, which is great because it allows me to work at home. At Chabad.org, my job is to comb through the content we generate, carefully looking for grammatical errors, typos and anything else that may seem off, including incorrect citations to Torah sources and adding additional citations whenever possible. I also enjoy volunteering to edit publications for my children's school.

Q: Clearly, you have a passion for getting information right. How did you develop an interest in Bible specifically?

A: The Rebbe writes in Hayom Yom (entry for 19 Adar I) that "even ordinary Chassidim were lucid in their knowledge of Tanach. They had a customary procedure: After davening Shacharit they studied Mishna; then while folding tallit and tefillin they would recite a certain set portion of Tanach, so apportioned that they concluded Tanach every three months." When I was 14, I decided to try to learn the whole Tanach in three months one summer. At that point, I didn't understand a lot of it, but it was my first time completing the entire work. All throughout my childhood, I enjoyed reading translations of Tanach with commentaries, such asTorah Anthology and others. Among my friends, I've developed a reputation as someone who's somewhat familiar with Tanach, so this competition was just something that I naturally gravitated towards.

Q: How did the contest work?

A: First, there was an online exam with 50 questions. Anyone who scored well went on to the semifinals in their region. Here in New York, there were 13 semifinalists, and the competition was already pretty stiff. Yair Shahak, who teaches Hebrew at Yeshiva University in New York, came in first place, and I and another fellow tied for second; the three of us went on to Israel for the international competition. Once I was slated to go to Israel, my wife encouraged me, even though it meant leaving her behind for Chanukah with an infant and a houseful of older children.

Q: How much studying did you do?

A: The contest doesn't cover all of Tanach, but it does include a fair amount of it. There were some parts that I was less familiar with, so I put some serious effort into brushing up my knowledge of the latter prophets, and the books of Iyov (Job) and Mishlei (Proverbs).

Q: How would you describe your experience in Israel?

A: It was wonderful. All in all, it was a wonderful experience of ahavat Yisrael [love for one's fellow Jews];everyone was helping each other, sharing study material and tips, and just drilling each other. Everyone knew that one contestant's gain was another's loss, but no one looked at it that way, which was beautiful. We spent Chanukah going on trips, studying, testing and studying some more. On the final night of the holiday, 16 of us participated in the final round, which was held onstage. I have to admit that I was nervous. Perhaps the most intimidating part was when each of us was presented with a rapid sequence of questions, which we had to answer as fast as we can. Thank G‑d, I did well on that.

Q: Now that you've won, what's next?

A: Well, actually, on the way back from Israel, I was thinking about the Hayom Yom I told you about earlier, and how most people don't follow it. I had the idea of perhaps creating a regular cycle that people can join that will allow them to complete Tanach (except for Chumash and Tehillim, which we complete already as part of Chitas) on a trimonthly basis. At this point, I'm fine-tuning the basic details of the cycle, to make sure that the portions will work out evenly, but I think this can be something that many people will embrace. And for those who feel that an average of 170 verses is too much per day, I propose a yearly cycle, with an average of 42 verses per day.

Q: Thank you so much, Alex, for sharing that with us. Mazal tov on your accomplishment, and good luck with your project. We look forward to hearing more about it.

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