Chabad’s Five-Year Program of Youth Learning
Two eighth graders learned the entirety of Torah-based laws.
Chana Shapiro is an educator, writer, editor and illustrator whose work has appeared in journals, newspapers and magazines. She is a regular contributor to the AJT.
Chabad provides many opportunities for Jews of all ages to acquire Jewish knowledge, and “Chidon Sefer HaMitzvot’s” program of self-directed study, for fourth through eighth graders, currently has more than 6,000 students participating, from 40 countries on six continents. The program is commonly known by participants simply as Chidon, which means “quiz” or “contest” in Hebrew.
Yaffa Antopolsky and Menucha Sharfstein, eighth-grade students in Chaya Mushka Middle School, completed the rigorous five-year challenge to learn the Biblical sources, details, and practical uses of all of Judaism’s 613 mitzvot. Five years ago, when the girls were in fourth grade, they began to study, not in a class in school, but on their own, and they were recently among a group honored in New York.
Learning the details of all 613 Torah directives is not easy; however, Antopolsky and Sharfstein enjoyed the challenge. Antopolsky remarks, “The Chidon program is a perfect way to learn all the mitzvot and actually have fun doing it!”
The 613 mitzvot contain both positive and negative commandments and can be divided into the laws governing a person’s relationship with G-d, like not worshiping idols of other religions, and the laws governing a person’s relationship with other people, like staying away from troublemakers.
Participants explore increasingly complex material with online lessons and five books that progress each year, with different commandments to be studied. Each book is divided into units. In a single unit, participants study one or more related mitzvot and learn their Biblical sources and everyday applications.
One chapter of the first book cites the general mitzvah to “Love all Jews as much as you love yourself,” which includes specific mitzvot to welcome guests, celebrate joyfully with a bride and groom, bury the deceased, comfort mourners, and visit the sick. Every year, the learning advances to match students’ growing maturity, and the pages of each illustrated book have sidebars with related fun facts and anecdotes about Jewish sages. Study guides help participants review each book’s contents, and an online test covers that year’s material; mastery of content in every grade is a prerequisite for moving to the next grade level.
Younger siblings in both families are involved in the Chidon program. Shira Sharfstein, Menucha’s mother, notes, “Kids have an incredible drive for competition, especially when it’s fun! Enter the International Chidon Competition and kids have just that, while gaining a vast amount of Jewish knowledge! Studying the mitzvot in Hebrew and English and knowing all the intricate details for practical life application puts real power in kids’ hands and gets kids busy with something interesting and productive.”
After successfully completing five years of study, 2023 participants were invited to Chabad headquarters in New York, where they enjoyed fun activities and received a commemorative hoodie. Girls who scored above 80 percent on tests from all five books received a medal and plaque. Prizes were also awarded for subject mastery to students in the lower grades. This year, a ceremony and mitzvot-knowledge contest was held at New Jersey’s Newark Symphony Hall, where graduates of the program were honored. The event featured a live band and popular Chabad singers. Teams and individuals vied amicably in increasingly challenging competition rounds, demonstrating their knowledge, and understanding of the 613 mitzvot.
Esther Antopolsky, Yaffa’s mother, states, “The kids who participated in the Chidon program have gained an enhanced understanding of the mitzvot and developed important time management and study skills to prepare for the yearly Chidon tests. Significantly, they’re filled with pride in their accomplishments, and we’re proud of them. There have been so many occasions where we have had a discussion at the dinner table or they were introduced to a new subject in school, and they say, ‘I know about that; I learned it in Chidon!’”
Menucha Sharfstein summed up the experience, “It was challenging, but worth it in the end, because we feel like we accomplished something important.”
Note: How do we come up with 613 mitzvot? Divine directives appear throughout the Torah and comprise 613 mitzvot, according to Jewish scholars, and were codified by 12th century sage, Rabbi Moses Maimonides.