Debate Midrash Sparks School Debate

By: Alexa Szafranski (10th Grade)

Normally, only the topic of the Debate Midrash is discussed at length by students and faculty, but last week’s session sparked talk about the Debate Midrash forum itself.

The Debate Midrash this past Thursday was the first to be led by the new student-driven Debate Midrash Committee, headed by Noah Dobin (12th Grade). Since its inception two years ago, the open forum discussions have been led by administration and faculty. Having the debates organized and run by students marks an effort to choose topics of interest to the student body. Many said this has had a positive impact.

“It’s really good that we have an assembly of students who can also help pick the topic and also in an appropriate way because they know what the kids in their generation would react to in a certain way,” said Natalie Alishayev (11th).

Last week’s discussion, the second Debate Midrash meeting of the year, centered around  negative depictions of Jews in current films. Preceding the debate, students were asked to watch the trailers of the movies One of Us and Disobedience, both about Jews who have left the Hasidic community.

The following question was posed to the students: “With the release of movies villainizing aspects of the religious Jewish Community like One of Us and Disobedience, how should we, members of that community, approach and react to the events shown?”

Students and faculty expressed different opinions regarding issues of the community as presented by the movies. The conversation started with the treatment of individuals within and after leaving the religious community, specifically the Hasidic community, before transitioning to the topic of homosexuality from the Jewish perspective.

“These topics are important for observant Jewish teenagers to discuss moving forward into the real world,” Dobin said.

Many students felt that the Debate Midrash ended off positively.

“I thought it was good,” said Sam Farkas (10th). “Everyone voiced their opinion, and more people got up this time to discuss this kind of controversial topic; better than any other topic.”

However, some students left the debate with a feeling of dismay, and were unsatisfied with the topic and the conduct of the students during the debate.

“It was unproductive. No one was listening to each other and no one understood each other,” Ariel Arwas (11th) commented on the nature of the assembly.

Assistant Principal Rabbi Assaraf agreed that this was not the best of the debates, but not because of the topic itself. He felt the debate was lacking in student participation.

“We had 150 kids in that room. I think 12 to 15 distinct voices were heard,” said Assaraf. “That’s a really low percentage, just ten percent. That’s really, really low. That’s not what I celebrate.”

Lack of student participation has been an issue in the Debate Midrash forum since its beginning in 2016. The debate’s original purpose was to serve as a healthy, productive setting for students to voice their opinions, but the absence of large student input has many wondering if the current setup is the cause of this issue. Rabbi Assaraf’s solution to this was to pass the leadership of the Debate Midrash topics to Noah Dobin and other students. By making it student led, he thought the topics discussed could engage more of the student body.

“My solution to the problem was to hand it over to the students. This was the first one that was truly student led, and that’s something we need to celebrate.”

Despite this debate being student led, the participation from the students remained very low. This is partially because many students feel uncomfortable voicing their opinions in the so called “safe space” of the Debate Midrash, where no one is supposed to be criticized for their opinions.

“If you stand up and say something, and if it’s not what the school agrees with, like the majority opinion, everyone who holds that is going to come and attack you for it,” said Batya Fruhman (11th).  “They’re going to have so many things to say and it’s very rare that they say it in a nice respectful way. It’s very much like, ‘you’re wrong and here’s why.”’

People who regularly participate in the discussion also noted the negative connotation it can bring to a person’s name.

“In certain kids’ eyes I’m the devil because of my opinion,” Alex Farkas (12th) said. “But I’m not really afraid of what anyone thinks of me or about voicing my opinion or anything like that.”

After the debate, the juniors and seniors stayed behind to continue the discussion. Many said this conversation was more intimate than the first because of the smaller size of students, resulting in a significant increase of student participation.

Making the debates a safer more open-minded discussion zone is a key goal for Noah Dobin and the new Debate Midrash Planning Committee that is being assembled.  

“One of the reasons for the Debate Midrash in general is to equip students with the tools to speak publicly on their views,” Dobin said. “However, we realize that there is an issue of people being afraid to speak and we are looking at solutions to make it more of a safe space where everyone feels their opinion can be expressed.”

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