Mock Trial Team Wins Admiration, Respect--and 20th in Nationals
The nine students of the Maimonides School delegation to the National High School Mock Trial Championship in Atlanta have returned to the Bay State with not only a 20th place ranking, but also admiration and respect for their uncompromising stand on religious principle.
The contest took place May 7-10, with trials scheduled for Friday and Saturday. Back in April, when the school’s request for alternate trial times was denied, the students were prepared to forfeit rather than violate observance of Shabbat. However, an 11th-hour policy reversal opened the door to a full competitive experience for the team–not to mention a memorable Shabbat in the Atlanta community.
After winning the Massachusetts championship March 27 in a classic courtroom battle (in Faneuil Hall) against Sharon High School, the Maimonides team embarked on a six-week ride that culminated with television appearances, compliments from judges and coaches, and freewheeling discussions with fellow students late into the night. Oh yes, there were also two scrimmages and four trials packed into 33 hours.
The 27-member state roster was pared down to eight for the nationals: Captains Harry Chiel, Michael Kosowsky and Leah Sarna, fellow seniors Avi Fuld, Pnina Grossman, Natan Kawesch and Hana Snow, and juniors Steven Fine and Benjamin Niewood. The delegation also included David Fredette, the Suffolk County assistant district attorney who serves as attorney-coach, and Rabbi Roy Rosenbaum of the limudei kodesh faculty.
While the students developed strategies and practiced courtroom techniques in response to new case materials, adult supporters confronted the National High School Mock Trial Board’s policy prohibiting changes to the tournament schedule to accommodate religious obligations. Still, as the group departed for Atlanta, it was expecting to take part only in two Friday trials, then celebrate Shabbat in the community as the tournament continued on Saturday.
The team had scheduled three scrimmage trials for Thursday, May 7, trying to get as much as it could from what it understood would be a truncated tournament. Then, around 9:15 Wednesday evening, the students learned that the national organization had consented to scheduling four official trials – one Thursday afternoon and three on Friday. It turned out that Judge Doris L. Downs, chief judge of Fulton County Superior Court, had decided to close the courthouse to Mock Trial if Maimonides was not accommodated.
The word came by telephone to the room of Rabbi Rosenbaum, where team members had gathered. “We were all practicing, when he got a phone call. The room became silent, then he told us, then we cheered for a couple minutes, and then went right back to practicing – we had to be able to do our best,” Michael recounted. “After we got all the good news, Harry gave the team a quick pep talk. He told us that now, all of a sudden, we were ‘in it to win it,’” Leah said. “When we found out … I felt an adrenaline rush,” added Avi. “We began to utilize every minute, perfecting everything.”
From 10 a.m. Thursday to after 6 on Friday, the Maimonides team packed in two practice trials and four actual ones (not to mention a photo session and negotiations with courthouse security to clear Shabbat clothing on hangers). "I didn't think the first day was too bad because the trials were in the hotel," Steven commented. Friday, in the courthouse, "trial after trial after trial got a little tiring. Yet by the third trial, I felt more casual."
“The back-to-back-to-back trial day was amazing and exhausting at the same time,” said Pnina. “I would have never thought it possible before we actually did it.” Leah acknowledged that on Friday afternoon, “once I was done with my stuff, I totally zoned out. I'm normally super alert during trials, but after nearly three trials, my attention span was exhausted. I drew pictures of the scoring judges on my legal pad.”
“We usually have a week to prepare between Massachusetts trials. Here we had to make our changes almost instantaneously and be prepared to use new material 20 minutes later,” Harry pointed out. “It was pretty difficult to adapt, but our team was pretty good at thinking on its feet.” The students also discovered that “the national competition is a lot more about performance than the law,” Harry added. “We mostly stuck to our game, but we knew not to make certain objections, and that we could get in things that normally would be objectionable.”
How was the Maimonides delegation received after days of escalating publicity? "From the second we arrived, everyone knew who we were because of our kippas, and people would just walk right up to us and tell us they hoped everything worked out,” Ben recounted. “The other teams were super nice and friendly. Before we got accommodated, they all wished us luck when we passed them and they saw the boys' kippas,” said Pnina. “The other teams were extremely encouraging,” Avi added. “Multiple times throughout the week, team members and coaches approached us and told us how proud they were of us, and we did the right thing by fighting it.”
The students took a van to their hosts’ neighborhood; on the way, “we celebrated Pesach Sheini with some matzah that Pnina brought,” Leah noted. “Our hosts were great. The whole community was extremely supportive,” Michael reported. “They all welcomed us with open arms and lots of food, and we had an amazing Shabbat experience there.” "They really showed us the true meaning of Southern hospitality," said Natan. Pnina added, “The Atlanta community was adorable. They were totally shepping nachas from us.” Friday night dinner was at the home of former Maimonides School parents Jeff and Barbara Weener, and the seniors had a nice reunion with their former classmate Kobi Weener.
Rabbi Adam Starr of Young Israel of Toco Hills hosted a lunch that included students from Yeshiva Atlanta. “We got to know some really nice kids, and hear all about their lives and school,” Leah said. After mincha at Young Israel, the students conducted a panel about Mock Trial. “The community was so gracious, asking polite questions and commending us on our menschlichkeit,” Leah said. “Everyone on the team got to answer at least one question.” Ben added, “The rabbi just kept telling us over and over how much of a kiddush Hashem it was, and it made us all feel great to know that the support of the entire Jewish community was behind us.”
“Our community will be talking about and remembering this visit for a long time to come,” said Jeff Weener. “The students represented Maimonides in a way that all here want to model. The menschlichkeit the team exhibited, in their interactions and when questioned as a panel, showcased their upbringing and schooling. The school couldn't have asked for better ambassadors of its mission than this group.”
Returning to the hotel late on Motza’ei Shabbat, the Maimonides students “hung out for the rest of the night with the friends we made from New Hampshire, Kansas, Iowa, Illinois, Delaware, Alabama, Hawaii, California, Virginia, and more,” Leah reported. “Slowly, conversation evolved into a discussion about religion and religious schools. We were out in the hallway, and more and more people joined us. Atheists, a Reform Jew or two, Catholics, Protestants, all came to discuss God, faith, the Bible and religious practices… Iowa[’s team was from] a religious Catholic school. We really hit it off with them, talking about our faiths and our schools and our states and communities.” Michael noted, “Iowa was really supportive, and we all had a great time hanging out with Iowa.”
Sunday morning, the students learned their scores. “Most of them seemed, well, fair,” Leah observed. “We are all ecstatic with how well we did,” Michael declared, “and I hope that next year's Maimo team will do even better.” Steven won an Outstanding Witness Award for his performance in the first trial, and Leah an Outstanding Attorney Award from the second.
Steven and Benjamin are the only underclassmen in the Atlanta delegation. Next year, "It will be tough to live up to this year's team," Steven acknowledged. But he emphasized that, because of the Nationals, "I think I have doubled my understanding of Mock Trial. Just seeing all these other teams playing at such a high level helps me understand the system more."