Hundreds of European yeshiva students traveled to the Far East in 1941 to escape Nazi persecution. Before settling in Shanghai, they temporarily stayed in Kobe on the Japanese island of Honshu. Realizing that they could have crossed the international dateline, many observed two days of Shabbat each week.
Was that the right decision?
Students from Atlanta Jewish Academy and five other high schools debated that question in the fourth annual Touro College Beis Medrash L’Talmud-Lander College for Men Model Beis Din competition in New York last month. The tournament allows Orthodox high school students to debate halachic dilemmas.
For the fourth time, Torah Academy of Bergen County in Teaneck, N.J., won the competition. AJA finished fourth.
The other teams came from DRS Yeshiva High School in Woodmere, N.Y., the Mesivta High School of Greater Philadelphia, Rambam Mesivta in Lawrence, N.Y., and Yeshivah Ohr Yisrael of Boston.
“The Model Beis Din guides students to fully understand the dynamic nature of halacha — how the Torah can inform and confront contemporary moral and legal challenges in the most sophisticated way,” said Rabbi Yonason Sacks, the rosh hayeshiva of the Beis Medrash L’Talmud, who directs the program. “My goal is to validate the students’ learning and to inspire them to learn more.”
Each high school received details of the scenario and relevant halachic sources in September. An adviser at each school helped students study the texts and craft their arguments.
“Preparing was intense,” said Abe Schoen, who formed the AJA team with Zach Mainzer. “The first step was trying to understand the complexities of the case. Then we had to figure out how it fits with all that we have learned previously. The model beis din definitely improved my analytical skills and comprehension of halachic law.”
Rabbi Jacob Czuper, a Lander College alumnus who advised the Atlanta team, said: “Our students can feel the inspiration here. They are learning college-level material and being challenged to defend their positions.”
The first round of the competition used a debate format. Each of two teams argued for or against the court’s decision in front of four judges from the Beis Medrash L’Talmud faculty: Rabbi Ephraim Tanenbaum, Rabbi Aryeh Lebowitz, Rabbi Shmuel Marcus and Rabbi Sacks.
In the second round, individual teams argued for what they believed to be the correct decision, and the judges questioned them about how they reached their conclusions.
Because the matter is subject to debate, the winners were chosen based on the quality of their presentations and their mastery of the different opinions and Talmudic sources, as well as on how well they supported their findings.
Moshe Sokol, the dean of Lander College for Men, said the beit din competition lets young Orthodox men experience Torah study at an advanced level. “We seek to demonstrate to students the broad reach of the Torah, which touches and transforms every dimension of life,” he said. “The Model Beis Din program inspires high school students to deepen their understanding of the chosen topic, while they challenge themselves by competing with other outstanding young men from across the country.”