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Bruriah Lays Down the Law

Mock Trial Team Advances to County Semi-Finals

Bruriah’s mock trial team has advanced to the Union County semi-final round after a victory against Kent Place of Summit on Wednesday Night, Jan. 13. The mock trial team also won its competition the week before which helped position them to advance to this week’s semis.

The mock trial competitions are sponsored by the New Jersey State Bar Foundation. Teams are presented with legal cases, complete with full transcripts and all the materials needed to argue their sides. The trials take place in courtrooms at the Union County Courthouse in Elizabeth. Attorneys from the NJ Bar serve as judges for the case. Teams are awarded points from the judges based on how well they satisfy the competition’s criteria.

Seniors comprise Bruriah’s mock trial team. Leila Hertz and Esther Seif (Monsey) led the prosecution. Their witnesses are portrayed by Eli Azizollahoff and Avigail Goldberger (Teaneck) and Chana Ross (Highland Park). The defense is led by Tamar Klein (Spring Valley) and Rebecca Siegel (East Brunswick). Devorah Miller, Sophia Stepansky and Tova Felsenthal (all from Passaic) portray the witnesses for the defense.

“Prosecutor” Hertz said of her experience as a lawyer, “Everyone’s eyes are on you and there’s so much pressure to say the right thing and be confident and know how to manipulate if need be. You have to remember so many little things like making eye contact with the judge and the jurors and the witnesses, and the proper courtroom etiquette, and you have to remember all the objections, and where to face at certain times. But all these little things are so important, they can impact your entire presence up there and they can really make it or break it for you and your team!”

The witnesses summed up their experiences this way: “It’s scary [to be on the witness stand]. But it’s also really cool because you get to see the room differently and also you’re pressured to answer really quickly. It’s also that you’re a different person so you have to act completely different and everyone is focusing on you and listening to you so it’s interesting.”

“It’s very cool, really intimidating,” Chana Ross added. “It’s probably both easier and harder than being a real witness because some aspect of the trial is scripted and it’s really cool to use acting skills and memorization to create a whole persona. You really just embody someone and take on a totally different personality which is really cool. In the moment you get so into the person you’re playing and you get so involved in the case that you really get attached to your side and you really want to either prove the person guilty or prove them innocent. And when you’re connecting to the jury and talking to them and presenting to them, you almost feel this desperation to win the case, not for the sake of winning, but because you’ve gotten very involved in the case itself, in my experience.”

The same case is assigned for the duration of the competition to all teams. Each school prepares a defense and a prosecution for the case and competes simultaneously against other schools on the same night. In Bruriah’s case (pun intended), the defense and the prosecution each won their individual competitions to earn the points that advanced them to the semis.

Asked what it’s like to finally see all the effort put in come to life, Ross answered, “It’s really incredible, exciting, and nerve-wracking, but it’s awesome. Each trial is totally different from one another as well as the one that we practiced with our teammates. It’s so incredible and realistic.”

“It’s honestly crazy going from your practice in a classroom in your high school and then all of a sudden you’re in a courtroom with a judge peering down at you from his stand and it’s so real, you never see it coming!” said Hertz. “It was definitely shocking at first, but then it feels so good to finally see what you’ve spent so much time practicing and memorizing and preparing finally all come together.”

In order to be successful at mock trial, schools spend an untold amount of hours preparing their cases, looking at them from every angle possible to be able to present their case, cross examine the other side and offer a strong summation. Coach Debby Oratz and actual attorneys Ira Heller and David Katzenstein guided and advised Bruriah’s team through the nuances of the case.

The experience gives the competitors real-world experience. As Felsenthal sees it, “It’s taught me to really pay attention to the details and that the small things really matter, and you have to be really careful with what you say and what you do. It’s also taught me public speaking. It’s taught me to grow and be a good person—the whole experience and the way it’s affected me.”

“Being on the mock trial team has definitely strengthened my appreciation for teamwork,” Hertz added. “I’m usually very independent but this experience has taught me how important it is to have people support you and to work together and grow together as you’re all aiming together toward this goal. And then when you succeed, it’s way better sharing a victory together with all your teammates than, you know, giving yourself a pat on the back all by yourself.”

At the time of this printing, Bruriah was awaiting the announcement of who its opponent would be.

The goals of the mock trial competition are to increase comprehension of the historical, ethical and philosophical basis of the American system of justice. To demystify the operation of the law, court procedures and the legal system. To help students increase basic life and leadership skills such as listening, speaking, writing, reading and analyzing. To heighten appreciation for academic studies and promote positive scholastic achievements. To bring law to life for students through active preparation for and participation in the competitions. The goal is not to win for the sake of winning, but to learn and understand the meaning of good citizenship in a democracy vis-a-vis our system of law and justice. In this sense, all the students who participate will be winners.

By Susan Rifkin

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