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JCAT Reflections by Ms. Lauren Henkin

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Chanukkah Sameach, Kehillat Schechter! 

Almost a year ago, Sheri Gross introduced me to an 8-week program run by one of her MTEI instructors, Dr. Jeff Stanzler, who is also the Director of Interactive Communications and Simulations Group for the School of Education at University of Michigan. Dr. Stanzler’s amazing Jewish Court of All Time (JCAT) program was a perfect fit for our Language Arts curriculum; so I was all in to suit up and lead this new initiative.

Over the past 8 weeks, our 7th and 8th grade students have entered Language Arts with one question: “is it a JCAT day?!” The excitement is contagious!

What Exactly is JCAT: 

The Jewish Court of All Time is an online simulation platform where middle school participants from both day and congregational schools “meet” to debate timely issues. What makes JCAT such a special – and I would argue vital – experience, is two-fold and aligns so beautifully with both Schechter’s educational philosophy and my teaching style. First, the scenario always uses Jewish history to frame discussion of current issues, helping students develop critical thinking skills, historical empathy, and discover what it truly means to learn, all in a very student-centered, creative way. Next, because I love incorporating theater and role play into my class, the most intriguing aspect to me was that when students post in the forum, they are not speaking as their 12-14 year old selves. 

Each participant selects a figure – historic or fictional, dead or alive – and assumes the character’s personality and point of view. On JCAT, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel converses with everyone from John Osoff, Michael Twitty, Maya Angelou, Lorraine Hansbury, Katniss Everdeen, Jimi Hendix, and even Elmo. Because students only interact in character, they don’t know if they are speaking to another Schechter student in the other grade or if it’s a student all the way in Seattle. 

In addition to the other middle school students and their teachers, an undergraduate class – Learning Through Character Play, taught by Dr. Jeff Stanzler – is behind the screen. Jeff and his students also play characters, acting both as “seeds” and mentors to the middle school participants, guiding them through thought exercises and character interactions. The undergraduates also facilitate the “green room,” the only discussion board in the experience where students can “get out of character” to seek advice or talk about their own personal experiences. 

This Year’s Scenario: 

This year, following the Department of Defense Naming Commission’s decision to “remove any names, symbols, displays, monuments, and paraphernalia that honor or commemorate the Confederate States of America” by December 31, 2023, students worked on the very timely issue: determining the fate of the Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. 

The memorial, which opened to the public in 1914, was sculpted by a Southern Jewish artist and Confederate soldier named Moses Ezekiel; Ezekiel and several other Confederate soldiers are buried at the base. At the time of installation, the memorial was a gesture to reunify the United States after the Civil War, because both Union and Confederate troops are buried in this section. However, the memorial contains images that, in modern times, are seen as glorifying the Confederate cause while also dehumanizing and sanitizing the realities enslaved people faced. 

The Process

After some light initial research, students submitted character choices from all different times, races, religions, and backgrounds, and were assigned based on those preferences. I’m especially proud of our students who stepped outside of their comfort zones, choosing to portray characters whose opinions and beliefs were the opposite of their own. 

Students dug into their character’s history, researching everything: their motivations, beliefs, major life events, and lasting legacy / impact. To really step into character, they also answered a series of interview questions, like how a character’s friends / enemies would describe them, what would truly upset their character on moral grounds, what objects might be of particular interest / importance, and more. Ultimately, this became the content of their JCAT character profile, a 3-5 paragraph introduction posted as a sort of “Facebook” page on the JCAT forum, which is the first way that students “meet” and communicate with other participants at the beginning of JCAT. 

From there, over the course of weeks, students slowly unraveled the history of Southern Jews, the Confederate Memorial, Moses Ezekiel, the role Jews have played in past Civil Rights movements, and the controversy surrounding such statues that was amplified with the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville in 2017. 

We reviewed each weekly prompt as a class to provide additional context, which always led to rich, meaningful discussions and debates both in and out of character. These discussions also led to laughing fits like, when in Fruma-Sarah fashion, students needed to respond to Moses Ezeikiel’s ghost. 

After these discussions, characters (called luminaries), use this information to explore the complexities and intersections of: 

  • If memorial removal is hiding history; 
  • How this issue (or any similar ones) may be viewed differently in the near and distant future; 
  • What, if any, consideration should be given to honoring an artist’s legacy; 
  • Whether discussing a memorial’s fate was the best use of our time, or if we could be working on other pressing issues

Ultimately, this week, everyone will cast their ballot in the final poll about the memorial’s fate, as characters decide if the memorial should: 

  • Be removed but the base where soldiers are buried left unchanged; 
  • Be destroyed immediately; 
  • Be relocated to a museum with context to explain its historical significance; 
  • Remain standing and unchanged 

Our Unique Schechter Experience: 

Early on in the simulation, I began receiving regular emails from Dr. Stanzler confirming what I have always known to be true: our students are motivated, creative, and brilliant. Schechter JCAT characters were featured on the homepage more than any other participating school. 

According to Jeff, the students at the University of Michigan were enamored with our students’ acting abilities and wise perspectives. In fact, when Jeff’s class met on Tuesdays and Thursdays, Gross Schechter students were so often the focus of all of their conversations that the students eventually requested a Zoom with our students, just so they could speak to and officially “meet” the students who were such an integral part of their own learning experience. 

As Jeff told us via Zoom, our students and their genuine engagement and enthusiasm became the textbook through which University of Michigan students learned. He added that these accomplished undergraduates walked into class assuming they would mentor middle school students. Instead, middle school students mentored them. 

Following our Zoom last week, I can confirm that Gross Schechter students have celebrity status on the University of Michigan’s campus. Watching college students be legitimately starstruck by our students is definitely a top 10 moment of my teaching career. 

What We Learned: 

In a time of such divisiveness online, I find our JCAT experience to be of even greater significance. Our students far surpassed what I hoped they would learn in JCAT. They are evidence that it is possible to participate in civil discourse, to listen to comprehend instead of argue. 

I’d like to share some of the things we can all learn from their wise reflections: 

  • “[Character play] enhances the experience by showing me how different people would react to these problems. It also gives everyone participating, a time to step into someone else’s shoes and learn about a person they might’ve not known a lot about, then get to act like them” – Stella Barnholtz
  • “If we came as ourselves… there also might be fewer diverse people; therefore, there wouldn’t be much to argue about as there is only one side. Also, if we played ourselves and not different characters, we wouldn’t get the opportunity to learn about different historical and modern figures in depth the way we did” – Micah Chupnick
  • “Sometimes [there] aren’t just two sides of a disagreement. For example, the memorial that we have been talking about in JCAT has many different ideas/sides. We could have a totally different opinion [than] the person that we are playing, and that makes you learn and understand their opinions and reasonings in ways that you might not otherwise” – Tory Friedman
  • “This process has changed the way I want to approach issues in the future. It really helps to present new ideas and perspectives that you need to consider when making decisions that I didn’t even think about before. At the beginning of this process, I didn’t think twice about the monument being totally destroyed, but now with the help of my characters, other characters, the prompts we have, and discussions we have in class, I have learned that there are other things to think about, and that this is a way bigger issue that need to tackled one step at a time” – Lyla Levin
  • “JCAT has helped me feel like I have a voice in making decisions. My character has influenced me to be more confident about myself, when I look at my character’s achievements and everything she had to go through to make these achievements it showed me I can get through things that get in the way” – Victoria Philip
  • “It has helped to show me that people can have different opinions than my own and still should be validated. It has made me stop and think, instead of immediately arguing and assuming that I am automatically correct. It really showed me things about myself and others that I hadn’t realized before and has really improved some of my discussion, etc. skills! If you only debate as yourself, you limit your perspective and box yourself in. You aren’t forced to think as others would, which can impair your debating and discussion skills. I [took] note of everyone else’s thoughts (while still keeping my own in mind), and [looked to] see if there are things that I have been exposed to that make me feel as though I need to amend my answers” – Aria Risling

As Jews, we are taught the words of Shimon HaTzaddik: “on three things the world stands: on Torah, on service, and on acts of human kindness.” As teachers at Gross Schechter Day School, we are taught the words of Mr. Boroff: “on four things a Schechter education stands: knowledge, skills, creativity, and joy.” 

Fortunately for me – for all of us at Schechter, really – our kehillah is a place where all seven are fundamental values that are so much more than simply “allowed;” they are at the forefront of everything we do. These values are the reason we could experience JCAT. 

As we head into Shabbat and Chanukkah, I am, as always, grateful for Kehillat Schechter. For the many ways Schechter embraces and encourages teachers and students to take risks that elevate our teaching and learning. For the privilege to learn with and from the phenomenal students in our school. And above all, for the light and hope our Schechter students provide, not only to our community, but to everyone with whom they interact.