What drives a middle school student to enter a national Bible knowledge competition and make it to the top ranks of teenage Bible competitors in the world? Sheer passion and hard work.

Caleb Gitlitz was one of 21 students from Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School, most of them high school students, who qualified for the 2016 U.S. National Bible Contest for Jewish Youth (known in Hebrew as Chidon HaTanach) held in New York City last May.

Caleb, who was 13 at the time, won first place in his age group. His prize was an all-expenses-paid trip to Israel, where he and the other national winners attended a two-week long Bible camp and competed for the chance to appear in the televised international round of the contest to take place on Israel Independence Day on May 2, 2017.

Despite his stellar performance in the national competition, it seemed like a long shot that Caleb would qualify for the international round. After all, out of the 74 finalists from more than 39 countries who were sent to Israel, only 16 students would make the cut. Yet Caleb beat the odds, placing sixth in the international contest.

Caleb’s win represents a two-year commitment to studying more than 400 chapters of Tanach that’s driven by a deep love of the subject. For Caleb, the power of Tanach is found not only in the breadth of the knowledge but in the substance of the content.

“The Tanach is what binds Jews to each other and to our history. Hashem talks to us through the Tanach, and its messages of thousands of years never disappear,” he says.

“Caleb loves Tanach and lives it out loud,” his mother, Teri Gitlitz, says. “At this competition, he was the underdog. He is 14. He learned the material in English. How was he ever going to make it to the top 16? It’s an amazing accomplishment and we’re so proud.”

Rabbi Mordechai Abrahams, chair of Beth Tfiloh Middle School’s Judaics Department and one of Caleb’s advisors, says that the entire school shares his pride. “He went to Israel and did us all proud,” Rabbi Abrahams says. “When he returned to school, everyone celebrated him and he dealt with it in a humble, grateful manner.”

“He went through every loophole, from the local to the national to the international level,” says Dovi Nadel, American coordinator of the National Bible Contest. “On top of that, it is the Hebrew speakers who tend to qualify at the top. To know that much material, to have the recall to remember it in the split second the question is asked, it’s a real treasure Caleb can carry for the rest of his life.”

For Caleb, the trip to Israel, where he had the opportunity to meet Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and activist Natan Sharansky, was one of the best parts of winning the contest.

“I gained a lot of friendships,” he says. “It was also a huge honor to meet such important people, not just because of their fame but because of their important roles in the modern Jewish world.”

Caleb’s enthusiasm is just the sort that Beth Tfiloh hopes to ignite in other students who participate in its Tanach program. Since Rabbi Abrahams launched the program four years ago, more than 65 Beth Tfiloh students have participated at some level of the Bible contest, including two winners at this year’s nationals, Ryan Joseph and Ahron Frankel. The Tanach curriculum has become an integral part of the school’s mission to inspire learning.

“The kids really throw themselves into it,” Rabbi Abrahams says. “It’s given the whole school an opportunity to connect to Tanach, to Eretz Yisrael, to our history and to God. Watching clips of Caleb in the final round of 16 made everyone at Beth Tfiloh realize that the goal is realistic, it’s doable, and others from our school can get there.”

Hanni R. Werner is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.

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