Three-time champ JCHS team hosts moot religious court

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The pressure was on for Jewish Community High School of the Bay at the Moot Beit Din, a mock trial and debate competition on Jewish law.

For one, the San Francisco school was serving as host on April 3 for 22 teams from across the United States and Canada. And for another, the JCHS team has claimed top honors for the past three years.

“The judges’ questions were tricky, but we did our best,” said Talia Beck, a junior at JCHS. She spoke just after she and her teammates — Elijah Jatovsky, Tzvi Miller and Danny Robinow — presented their oral arguments against human cloning.

The JCHS team took honors for written arguments in the contest. Team members are (from left) Talia Beck, Elijah Jatovsky, Tzvi Miller, Danny Robinow and their coach, Rabbi Mark Asher Goodman. photo/patricia corrigan

Moments later, the judges announced that the team from Tanenbaum CHAT Wallenberg Campus in Toronto took top honors in the advanced division. JCHS won the Judges’ Choice award for best written argument, a group effort that included the four who presented oral arguments and eight other students: Adi Alouf, Alex Ben Jakov, Evan Fenner, Tina Geller, Ethan Hall, Ruth Hollander, Benjamin Preneta and Jake Rosenberg.

Rabbi Mark Asher Goodman, a Jewish studies teacher at JCHS and the coach for the Moot Beit Din team, said later that it didn’t take his students long to come to terms with not taking the top prize. “Winning three years in a row sets ridiculous expectations,” he said.

Pride in the JCHS team was evident on the face of Rabbi Howard Ruben, head of school, who was beaming when the four-hour event ended.

“We are all thrilled that our kids have this opportunity to demonstrate their creativity and learning, applying Jewish law to real-life situations,” he said.

RAVSAK, the Jewish Community Day School Network based in New York City, chooses a new case for Moot Beit Din each year on a topic that has not yet been adjudicated within a halachic (Jewish law) framework. Cases in years past have included the permissibility of torture, the obligation to save another person’s life while risking your own and the rights and limits of intellectual property.

Students receive details on the hypothetical case four months in advance. With guidance from team advisers, students research source materials, compare legal principles and then submit written legal briefs expressing their positions. Oral presentations take place at the competition, which was held on the West Coast this year for the first time.

Some 108 students participated in front of a large audience. Judges included Rabbi Marvin Goodman, executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Northern California; Rabbi Dorothy Richman, rabbi in residence at Berkeley Hillel; and Rabbi Josh Strulowitz of Congregation Adath Israel in San Francisco.

Moot Beit Din has been in existence for 10 years, and under the direction of RAVSAK for four years. “The competition is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Elliott Rabin, director of educational programs at RAVSAK. “Everything else that surrounds the three-day event is more important, especially that students passionate about Judaism get to meet and spend time together.”

Goodman agreed. “It’s great to get all these kids in the room, with the attention centered around knowledge, morals and ethics,” he said. “These students all prize studying, books and learning. They think it’s fun to have a political argument with friends over lunch. These kids are the future ‘Jeopardy’ contestants.”

The day of the competition, the students are told the order of their arguments, and then each team is given six to eight minutes to present those arguments. This year, JCHS went last.

“It’s hard being last,” Goodman said. “You watch the other teams, and sometimes you get psyched out when you hear points you didn’t think to bring up.”

Yael Kornfeld, 16, a member of the team from Denver Jewish Day School, said watching and waiting to go on was “nerve-wracking.”

Kornfeld said she and her teammates enjoyed their time in San Francisco, which included a Duck Tour and ice cream sundaes at Ghirardelli Square. The students also collaborated on a service project and attended services together.

Every team takes home a Lucite plaque, and every participant in the oral arguments gets a Moot Beit Din T-shirt. “By the end of the competition, the students care more about the connection with other students who take Jewish learning seriously than they care about the plaque,” Goodman said.

“As a team coach and a rabbi, that plaque reminds me that the study of Torah is for its own sake,” he added. “Knowledge is the real prize everybody takes away from Moot Beit Din.”

Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.