Modeling and Learning Thriving Through Civic Engagement


How can Jewish students, in all their various educational settings, thrive both in the Jewish community and in broader society? In the United States, the broader society aims toward a pluralist democracy. A plan for thriving in that society must include experiences navigating and balancing one’s multiple identities, particularly through engagement with others. In addition to building connections with Jewish texts, values, and rituals, engaging as a Jew must include interacting with the others with whom we live on equal terms. This approach builds on, but is not the same as, a commitment to tikkun olam that while valuable, often frames the interaction on unequal terms: Jews giving the help to those “others” receiving it.

How can we envision a more expansive type of thriving, especially in the short term, while we have students in our programs? Civic education has always been the main project of the public schools. Historically, progressives and traditionalists have consistently touted model citizen production as the outcome of their pedagogical approaches of choice. Jewish education, in its predominantly complementary forms, has gone through ebbs and flows itself in emphasizing the “American” component of students’ hybrid identities. In the 1920s, Jewish institutions responded to pressure to prove the compatibility of their religious and cultural agenda with American values. However, an effort to promote the engagement of Jewish students in the broader society has since not been the main focus of the many Jewish educational endeavors focused on Jewish continuity.

How, then, might we start to frame civic education today? Dr. Diana Hess—in her book Controversy in the Classroom: The Democratic Power of Discussion—argues for the centrality of controversial issues as subject matter around which to build skills of deliberation. She atomizes deliberation into concrete skills that must be practiced as part of civic education, including reason giving, listening, and perspective taking. While these skills can be integrated into different content areas, including Judaic studies, working with these skills in isolation does not promote civic engagement by osmosis. Learners need direct, facilitated opportunities to deliberate about their roles as Jews in the broader society and to engage with others inside and outside the Jewish community. Ideally, this deliberation leads to action. These are tall orders for programs used to seeing themselves as battling American culture in order to make head and heart space for Judaism. How might a focus on the skills of deliberation accommodate the identity-building program of Jewish education?

The Jewish Court of All Time (JCAT), a 10-week online simulation for American and Canadian middle school students in the Prizmah Jewish day school network, blends these two desired outcomes—exploring Jewish identity and practicing deliberation. JCAT was started by the University of Michigan’s Interactive Communications and Simulations Group and is currently administered by The William Davidson School in partnership with the University of Michigan, with generous sponsorship by the Covenant Foundation and the William Davidson Foundation. Through an online platform across several schools, students research and play historical and current personalities who debate a complex issue that situates Jewish history in a broader context. The characters are assigned through student choice with teacher discretion. They represent a variety of backgrounds—Jewish and those of other faiths. Students research their characters and are introduced to the background of the case by their classroom teachers. They then respond to prompts in character and initiate interaction with other characters through a variety of public and private channels on the website. There are always twists and turns, the building of alliances, and a vote to bring closure. In the fall of 2017, 450 students from 15 day schools participated in two parallel simulations. Characters ranged from the Jewishly predictable—Theodor Herzl, Emma Lazarus, and Benjamin Netanyahu—to the less expected—Han Feizi, Frieda Kahlo, and Bob Dylan.

JCAT plays out over 10 weeks; as such it is an extended role-playing activity. This allows students the time to “become” their characters as the games advances. Significantly, the process of figuring out what one’s character would say starts with the questions: What would I say? Why do I feel this way? What from my previous experiences and background leads me to answer this way? Students explore their own identities as they explore the identity of their characters.

Each year the JCAT case is purposefully structured around big ideas. This year we debated the need for a memorial for the passengers of the MS St. Louis. Students engaged with the ideas of memory and memorialization and issues of personal vs. group or national responsibility. The case connected current American conversations about memorials and immigrants to the Jewish historical experience, underscoring the hybrid identities of North American Jews.

In this excerpt, PBS personality Gwen Ifill, played by a JCAT project director, interviews St. Louis Captain Gustav Schroeder, played by a sixth-grade student:

Gwen Ifill: What motivated you to assist the passengers of the MS St. Louis, especially when you didn’t know them and aren’t Jewish yourself? Was there a moment in your life that served as motivation to take action?

Gustav Schroeder: It was the right thing to do. Just because I was not a Jew at a time when some people hated Jews did not mean that I had to hate them too. Although I did not share their beliefs nor understand all of their traditions, I made sure to give them space where they could pray.

Ifill: Do you consider yourself a hero?

Schroeder: No. I did what’s right, that’s all. If you did what was right, I would not call you a hero. If doing the right thing makes me a hero, then I guess we all are heroes sometimes.

This exchange showcases the deliberation skills of questioning, reasoning, and perspective taking, and, one has to imagine, the internal monologue of a Jewish boy playing a non-Jewish German ship captain in the 1930s.

Certainly, role-playing and deliberation can and should take place offline, face to face. However, as an online program, JCAT offers some unique advantages with regard to civic education. The extended time frame is matched by an extended character pool way beyond the diversity of a single class of characters. An online simulation also provides a useful opportunity to practice interaction in an unpredictable social setting akin to the real-world social media outlets with which the students are familiar. At the same time, the asynchronous format gives students space to reflect on comments coming in and to research and draft answers, often with feedback from teachers and classmates. This “wait time” is an important aspect of civic behavior.

Obviously, JCAT on its own is not real-world engagement between Jews and people of other backgrounds, although individual schools often arrange programs in their communities as a result of their participation. Rather, JCAT is a starting point for framing Jewish identity as a balancing act that requires engagement with the other. JCAT role-playing offers a sustained opportunity for students to reflect their character’s ideas against their own and to deliberate with others—Jewish people and people of all backgrounds. Notably, when students are asked what they are taking away from the JCAT experience, the most common response has to do with the idea of multiple perspectives. Students gained “the knowledge of what people that think differently than me think about” and “the ability to see a problem from more than one perspective.” This ingredient, evolving empathy for the other, is crucial as we engage our learners in a Jewish experience that enables them to thrive as human beings and engaged participants in a larger society.

Dr. Meredith Katz is clinical assistant professor of Jewish Education in the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary. She is also a project director for the Jewish Court of All Time (JCAT). Meredith’s background as a social studies educator drives her current research interests in Jewish history and Jewish civic engagement curriculum in Jewish educational settings.