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Calif. bar exam moved for observant Jews

Tisha B´Av at the Western Wall in Jerusalem in August 2003. (Brian Hendler)

Tisha B´Av at the Western Wall in Jerusalem in August 2003. (Brian Hendler)

LOS ANGELES, May 11 (JTA) — The State Bar of California, yielding to an eight-month lobbying effort, will excuse observant Jews from taking the bar examination on Tisha B’Av. Reversing an earlier denial, the Committee of Bar Examiners rearranged the schedule so that observers of the fast day of Tisha B’Av can take the first portion of the three-day test on July 28, instead of July 27. “It shows that the state bar has a heart, though it’s sometimes hard to find,” said professor Laurie Levenson, of the Loyola University law school. Others credit two persistent Jewish lawyers, and pressure by state legislators and civil rights groups, for securing the date change. Under the committee’s ruling, Tisha B’Av observers must file a statement from a rabbi confirming the applicant’s religious beliefs and a petition promising not to contact or seek information from those taking the exam July 27. The petition and statement must be received by June 15. Instructions are available at www.calbar.ca.gov under “Admissions.” Before the May 1 ruling, seven applicants had petitioned to be excused from taking the exam on Tisha B’Av. The whole matter likely would have slipped under the radar but for attorney Baruch Cohen, an Orthodox Jew. In late August 2003, Cohen was casually checking the dates for the 2004 bar exam when the July 27 date raised a red flag. Cohen then sent a letter to the state bar’s Admissions Office explaining the significance of Tisha B’Av, a day of fasting and mourning that marks the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, among other Jewish calamities. Eating, drinking and bathing are forbidden during the 25-hour fast. “The California bar examination is challenging enough as it is,” Cohen wrote in his letter. “It must be hard to imagine what it must be like to take the grueling exam, while fasting and not showering since the night before.” Two weeks later, Roberta Scharlin Zinman, also a Los Angeles lawyer, joined the fray and sent her first letter to the state bar. Zinman, who is not Orthodox, argued that four other states, New York, New Jersey, Illinois and Missouri, were permitting observant Jews to postpone from July 27 the state portion of the test. Zinman also pointed out that provisions for changing test dates were available to persons with physical disabilities. In November, the American Civil Liberties Union — on behalf of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, the Muslim Public Affairs Council and a Christian clergyman — asked the state bar to take up the Cohen and Zinman requests. Nevertheless on April 1, with the deadline looming to apply for the bar exam, the admissions committee refused to OK the move. Jerome Braun, the committee’s senior executive, told the Los Angeles Daily Journal, a legal trade publication, that the bar couldn’t “review personal beliefs and practices” for each of some 13,000 test takers, and that “we can’t tell the distinction between people with genuine religious beliefs and others seeking an extra day of test preparation.” Braun also was concerned about leaks of test questions and the logistics of arranging different test sites. An infuriated Zinman then turned to the state legislature and asked Assemblymen Alan Lowenthal and Paul Koretz for help. Both lent their support, and Lowenthal gathered the signatures of 45 legislators for his letter. That apparently got the attention of the bar’s board of governors, which in mid-April issued an “emergency” policy instructing its committee to offer “reasonable accommodations” if an exam date conflicted with a religious holiday. After an hourlong closed session on May 1, the committee unanimously reversed itself and approved the Tisha B’Av accommodations. To avoid future conflicts, Zinman has volunteered to send a Jewish calendar to the state bar.

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