A biblical achievement

For the first time in over 30 years, a non-Orthodox Israeli took first place in the International Bible Quiz. ‘Metro’ gets to know 15-year-old Sagiv Lugasi.

Sagiv Lugasi and his family following the final contest (photo credit: LUGASI FAMILY)
Sagiv Lugasi and his family following the final contest
(photo credit: LUGASI FAMILY)
It is only fitting that the International Bible Quiz, founded by David Ben-Gurion in 1958, should take place each year on Israel’s Independence Day. The message underlying this choice is clear: modern Israel’s history and national identity are eternally and inextricably connected with the Bible and Jewish literature at large.
In that respect, one’s familiarity with the Bible should have little to do with religious observance. As the centerpiece of the Jewish national ethos and of Western civilization as a whole, it ought to be found on the bookshelf and deep within the heart of every Israeli, regardless of religious convictions. Without a thorough knowledge of the Bible, one’s understanding of Jewish history and culture, and even of the Hebrew language, cannot be but cursory.
Yet somehow, an utter ignorance of the Bible among younger secular Jews has become an accepted norm in Israeli society, commensurate with a slow but steady shrinking of Bible studies in the secular school system over the past three decades. Israeli teenagers attending a secular high school will receive two weekly hours of Bible classes, compared with seven weekly hours in the state religious school system.
Itself indicative of the same trend, the International Bible Quiz has consistently been won by religious teenagers; it would therefore seem the baton in our generation has been handed over to a minority within the Jewish people.
Last week’s quiz shattered that norm.
On Israel’s 69th Independence Day, for the first time in more than 30 years, an Israeli from a non-religious background beat the odds and took first place in the prestigious contest held in Jerusalem’s International Convention Center. Fifteen- year-old Sagiv Lugasi from the ORT High School in Ma’alot-Tarshiha overtook 15 other talented contestants – themselves the finalists of nearly 100 top contestants from around the world – in the final round of the contest.
Lugasi’s impressive victory is the culmination of two intensive years of study in preparation for the contest. “The Bible has become an integral part of my routine,” he remarks. “Since I began these preparations, not a single day has gone by without opening it.” The deep and comprehensive reading of more than 400 chapters covered by the contest, out of the Bible’s 929, demanded an extraordinary dedication of his time well beyond normal school hours.
Escorting Lugasi on his arduous journey was well-respected Bible teacher Boaz Hadad from Nahariya, who has been preparing gifted students for the International Bible Quiz for 15 years.
When Hadad handpicked Lugasi for his pupil, it was not intuition but hardearned experience that allowed him to recognize his potential to succeed.
“Sagiv had no more knowledge of the Bible than most kids his age when he entered middle school,” Hadad explains.
“But he had all the key components to go far in the field. He has a quick mind and sharp memory, strong motivation and no less importantly, a supporting family that pushed him to work hard.”
Extraordinarily, Hadad has invested all this time in his many promising pupils entirely as a volunteer. Despite receiving no financial incentive from the Education Ministry, Hadad was committed to this endeavor out of a firm belief in its importance to the future of Israeli education.
“The Bible is a way of life,” he emphasizes.
“Its stories and fables are all very much relevant to the modern world and our own personal experience as human beings. The Bible presents a very sober view of the world; it hides nothing and embellishes nothing, and is rife with human error. Ultimately, it provides us with truly valuable lessons on how to be better people.”
The indispensability of the Bible to a profound understanding of Jewish history was no less important in driving both teacher and pupil to brave this odyssey together. The former prides himself not only in his student’s remarkable achievement, but even more so in instilling a genuine love of biblical folklore and the chronicles of the Jewish people that goes far beyond the scope of the Book of Chronicles.
“I was surprised to discover just how little of my own history I had known,” recalls Lugasi. “We learn very little of it at school, and we are missing out on a very rich and fascinating story. The more I studied for the contest, and the more knowledge and understanding of the Bible I accumulated, I began to realize how privileged I am to have this gift. Very few in my generation take the time to appreciate it.”
After meeting fellow competitors from around the Jewish world, from Russia to Australia, in the days running up to the contest, Lugasi now attests to the pleasure of having seen the same enthusiasm for the Bible in his diverse group of peers. “We came from very different backgrounds, very different experiences, but somehow all had this one thing in common. The Bible ties in all Jews together, and it was very strongly felt in the room.”
After the contest, Education Minister Naftali Bennett visited Ma’alot-Tarshiha’s ORT High School and commended Lugasi’s exceptional achievement, remarking on the invaluable message it bears for all of Israeli society.
“The Bible belongs to all of us,” he noted. “In those schools where teachers breathe life into its pages and turn it from an ancient text to a living story, the story is passed on and the students inherit a love of the Bible.”
Lugasi himself recalls enjoying the process of delving deeper into the thicket of the biblical universe, long before he felt a competitive spirit in time for the contest.
“I never expected or even imagined that I would win,” he chuckles. “I just had a great time learning, and I feel very lucky to have had this opportunity.”
Perhaps with time, like Lugasi, more and more Israelis will gradually come to appreciate and enjoy the great national treasure that awaits them on the bookshelf.