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Young scholars forge tight bonds and unforgettable memories during intensive weekend-long event

Two hundred 5th-8th grade students from throughout the world amazed rabbis, teachers, and spectators with their knowledge of Judaism’s 613 mitzvahs in two national events.

One hundred girls and 100 boys, representing 77 yeshiva day schools, participated in the finals of Tzivos Hashem’s 10th annual Chidon Sefer HaMitzvos (Contest on the Rambam’s Book of Mitzvahs), and in the process forged solid bonds of friendship.

The boys’ finals took place in Pittsburgh from March 11-14, and the girls’ finals were held in Los Angeles from March 18-21.

“The children’s grasp of the material was simply astounding,” says Rabbi Yerachmiel Benjaminson, executive director of Tzivos Hashem, one of the largest Jewish children’s organizations in the world. “Within seconds, they answered questions from memory that many scholars and even rabbis couldn’t answer without consulting a source.”

More than 3,000 students from across the United States and Canada took part in the program, which was initiated as a means of fulfilling the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s wish that every man, woman, and child learn the Rambam’s (Maimonides) magnum opus Mishneh Torah or the more abbreviated Sefer HaMitzvos, which explain all of Judaism’s 613 mitzvahs.

To make the material accessible to grade-school children, Tzivos Hashem created a series of workbooks for students that explain each mitzvah, its source in the Torah, and the reason behind it. More than 100 schools have incorporated the workbooks into their regular curricula.
The Chidon Sefer HaMitzvos finals represented the culmination of this study.

In addition to a two-hour written exam, the participants—who were the winners of “semi-final” competitions in their various schools— also were grouped into teams of 6 to create and perform hilarious skits that included as many mitzvot that they had learned as possible.

But the real highlights of the finals were fun-filled, fast-paced “game-show style” quizzes. In full-scale multimedia productions, complete with computer-generated question boards, flashing lights, buzzers, sound effects and music, the children impressed the judges, their teachers, and a capacity crowd with their knowledge of seemingly obscure commandments.

After the winners were announced, everyone enjoyed an outstanding performance by noted mime Dan Kamin for the boys, and a rousing concert by renowned singer Chanale Felig for the girls.

The children, who were hosted by local families, also enjoyed inspiring Shabbatons, which included a communal Sabbath meal, singing, stories, speakers, and games. In addition, special outings -- ice-skating, swimming and basketball for the boys, and roller-skating and a day at California’s famous Knott’s Berry Farm amusement park for the girls-gave them added time to socialize and alleviate some of the tension of the competition.

According to Rabbi Shmaryohu Weinbaum, Tzivos Hashem’s program director, “Even though these children were competing in an intense contest, the common bond of learning Torah brought them together,from being strangers to feeling virtually like Brothers & sisters.”

When the weekends concluded, the children bid each other teary farewells with promises to keep in touch. 32 youngsters took home the coveted prizes of religious books, but according to everyone who organized and attended the Chidon all of these elite students were winners.