By Zachary Weiser
Last month, I had the opportunity to participate in a nationwide mock Jewish law competition in Houston, Texas called the Moot Beit Din Shabbaton (sponsored by Prizmah, the national day school network). Our participation was made possible through Yachad MN, an after-school/weekend Jewish education program for Minneapolis high school students. The Yachad staff talked to all of the teens about the program, and I thought it would be fun to learn more about Jewish law and be able to relate it to a current day situation.
Our competition team consisted of eight high school freshmen; a number of us are graduates of Heilicher, others attended the Minneapolis Talmud Torah. We prepared for months through a special Yachad course, taught by Heilicher Jewish Studies teacher Elena Levitt. Our preparation consisted of studying a theoretical, contemporary case, in which a woman seated in a self-driving car swerved to avoid a pedestrian and instead hit another car, causing injury to the other driver. We studied a variety of Jewish sources, constructed our arguments, and wrote a position paper to address the questions of 1) who was at fault and therefore should pay for damages, and 2) should the company be required to change its self-driving car programming to avoid future accidents like this. In our paper, we used a wide variety of Jewish sources to argue that the company should pay for damages, but because the swerve saved the pedestrian's life, the company should not be required to change the car's programming.
Finally, the big day arrived, and we departed for Houston. The competition was on a Sunday, but throughout the rest of the long weekend, there were many opportunities to tour the city (including the NASA Space Center!) as well as explore who we are as Jews. The teens who participated from throughout the country came from all backgrounds - Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and some who were unaffiliated. There were many different options for minyanim (prayer services), and lots of ways we were encouraged to explore our Jewishness through worship, song, and movement. Shabbat was a time for us to not only bond with people that we had just met that weekend, but also to build closer friendships with the rest of our group. Following Shabbat, there was a mad rush to make sure that everything we needed to get done got done. We practiced a lot that night even though we already felt very prepared!
The other teams' presentations were very interesting and I enjoyed listening to everyone's opinions on the case. Going into presentations we thought that many of the other groups would have the same judgment as ours, but in reality many sides of the argument were presented. Our teams made the best possible case, and although we didn't "place" in the competition, we were very proud of what we accomplished. I learned so much more about Jewish law and how it can be applied to situations that might arise in the 21st century. I would definitely encourage other teens to participate in this competition next year.
Zachary Weiser is a Heilicher alumnus, class of 2016.
Photo: Advisors Amy Weiss (far left) and Elena Levitt (upper right)
Students clockwise from upper left: Josh M., David K., Zachary W., Emily Z., Ivy G., Avital H., Ruby S., Sofia S.