E. Bay teen travels to Big Apple for big Bible contest

For Northern California students, the competition is a double hurdle. After successfully vying against nine other youngsters in the regional competition, Bourkoff had to travel cross-country to the national event in New York. He kept his expenses down by staying with relatives.

Benny Resnikoff and Liat Resnikoff, Berkeley cousins, also qualified to compete nationally. But neither was able to attend the New York event.

Bible contests, popular in Israel and on the East Coast, test participants' knowledge of trivia, milestones and mitzvot. Knowing he would be expected to have Exodus, Samuel I and Ruth at his fingertips, Bourkoff memorized the names of Moses' descendants, as cited in Exodus VI. Remembering lineage, lifespans and the like for multiple-choice exams is not an easy task, and Reuben's relatives have tongue-twister names: Nepheg, Jamin, Jachin, Jemuel, Elzaphan, Sithri.

Bourkoff knew them all.

"They asked specific names and specific places that normally you wouldn't pay much attention to," said Bourkoff, a student at Berkeley Midrasha and a member of Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley.

"The details were precise, so you have to know it perfectly. The test in New York was a lot harder than the [qualifying] test I took here."

Bourkoff, who has been Orthodox all his life, began preparing for the contest last spring at the suggestion of Midrasha teachers David Henkin and Diane Bernbaum. Henkin participated in the annual contest three times as a teen and thus was an ideal tutor.

In addition to his participation at Berkeley Midrasha, where he studies Talmud, Bourkoff also attends minyan at Beth Israel several times a week, where Rabbi Eleazer Finkelman works with him in his study of Torah and Talmud.

"He's a kid who has a real warm devotion for traditional Judaism, for Jewish sources and for other people," said Finkelman. "He's such a wonderful guy."

Unlike many of the contestants, who include a large number of yeshiva students competing in a separate division, Bourkoff began preparing for the national competition roughly a month before the New York trip. He studied the three books of the Bible, memorizing key events and themes.

"I was always fascinated" with the Bible, Bourkoff said, noting that "Judaism has always been a major part of my life." His father was born in Israel and all three Bourkoff children have Hebrew names.

After graduating from Tehiyah Day School in El Cerrito, Bourkoff entered Berkeley High, where he is on the wrestling team. He wears a kippah all the time.

"I think I'm fortunate to live in a place like Berkeley because everything that's different is accepted and appreciated," he said.

"Personally, I'd like to go to yeshiva," he added. But there are no Jewish high schools in the East Bay. "Luckily, there are a lot of opportunities to study and learn with rabbis and teachers, a lot of knowledgeable people."

Bourkoff estimates that he'll have to raise his score by about 20 points to win the contest and the opportunity to compete internationally in Jerusalem. He's getting ready.

"Hopefully, I'll advance further," he said. "I'm going to study a lot more than I did."