NA Jewish Students Participate in Moot Beit Din

Students study and prep until the last possible second, in whatever areas they can find; photo courtesy RAVSAK.
Students study and prep until the last possible second, in whatever areas they can find; photo courtesy RAVSAK.

by Michal Cahlon

It is six weeks after the annual RAVSAK Moot Beit Din competition and Shabbaton, in Kansas City, MO. The teams have returned to their respective cities, the trophies and certificates have been put on display.

As faculty advisor to the Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy team, I have chaperoned students to this competition four times (Toronto, Washington DC, Philadelphia and now Kansas City). During this time the team has grown from one student to seven (although only four travel to the competition). On two occasions, our team placed second in its division.

The intense experience of the Moot Beit Din weekend is the culmination of a seven month effort that began the preceding September with the recruitment of the team. Over the past seven years, Moot Beit Din has gained recognition and prestige within our school community, and students typically begin asking about it as soon as the year begins.

“I first heard about Moot Beit Din when I was in 6th grade, my sister was on the team that year and it sounded like the coolest thing ever; you got to study Jewish text and go on a trip. I love it; looking at the law […] I think it’s fascinating, I like to know WHY we do what we do.” – E

When the case and sourcebook arrive in October, team meetings are scheduled and the crafting process begins. It is this crafting process that engenders textual engagement and transformation. Advisor styles vary; I prefer a hands-off approach, wherein I am present at the Moot Beit Din team meetings but say little unless the students ask a question directly. It is critical to me that the students grapple with the sources on their own and determine a workflow that will work best for them. I sit back and watch as the students make their own path, marshalling both their Jewish studies knowledge and their teamwork skills in pursuit of a solution.

The students read the case and sources and argue about them. Those who have been on Moot Beit Din in prior years share their experiences, while new members propose new ways of doing things, which are sometimes accepted and sometimes shot down. Roles are assigned and re-assigned as everyone finds their place in the process. Tools include the technological and the traditional: laptops and tablets are turned on and the brief is created as a collaborative document in the cloud, but an old fashioned wooden gavel and block are used to open and close team meetings.

Students new to the process often attempt to render a decision based on their ‘gut feeling’ prior to consulting the sources, while those with prior Moot Beit Din experience advocate for close reading of texts and for allowing the sources to drive the decision. The students’ appreciation for Jewish law grows simultaneously with their appreciation of nuance; the solution to the case is not a matter of identifying who is “right” and who is “wrong” but rather a matter of discerning between multiple “rights”. Conversations between old and new take place: ancient texts and young students, older commentators and contemporary ones.

As the first deadline approaches, students use Google Hangout to arrange team meetings outside school hours, and school lunches turn into working lunches. Finally, on January 31, 2014, the completed brief is sent to RAVSAK, and the team has a short respite before turning its attention to the oral presentation.

“I like the presentation part because I want to be a lawyer. I can remember the laws better within the context of a case.” – H

As the focus shifts so do the roles. One student adapts the brief to slides and others impersonate the judging panel, coming up with potential questions. Time flies when you’re studying Jewish texts. As we are the host school, the students take on additional responsibilities, creating ice breakers, painting a welcome sign and planning recreational activities.

The team arrives at the hotel and the lobby fills with young people talking excitedly. The social aspect of Moot Beit Din takes center-stage as the students encounter old friends and make new ones; the convivial spirit will last through to the end of the competition. This aspect of Moot Beit Din is critical; students form lasting connections with young Jewish people from across the USA and Canada, connections which they will renew and expand in future encounters, whether in summer camp or in college, or simply online. The socialization also ensures that the competitive aspects of the weekend are tempered by courtesy and sportsmanship; teams are supportive of each other, offering and giving technical support and enthusiastic encouragement.

Moot Beit Din makes you more confident because you have to talk to people you don’t know [in order to] go around and make friends.” – L

“I have seventeen new friends on Facebook.” – J

As the competition winds down, I reflect on the beauty of this experience. Moot Beit Din allows my students to experience a true machloket le’shem shamayim, a conflict/disagreement for the sake of heaven, as well as exercise their ahavat Yisrael and derekh eretz. It is a credit to RAVSAK that they continue to enhance and stimulate Jewish learning by reaching back to our history and culture through a contemporary lens. My students return to their school energized and enthusiastic, and we are already looking forward to next year’s competition.

Learn more about Moot Beit Din and see videos from this year’s competition at:

Michal Cahlon is Department Chair and MS/US Jewish Studies Teacher at Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy, Overland Park, KS.