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YU High School for Boys Celebrates 25th Anniversary of Great Debate Tournament

When Harriet Levitt began teaching English at Yeshiva University High School for Boys (YUHSB) / The Marsha Stern Talmudical Academy in 1982, she saw a tremendous opportunity to enrich her students’ education through a competitive sport that had long been her passion: debate. “The degree of intellectuality that exists at the high school was amazing to me,” she said. “Our students argue gemara back and forth every morning. I realized the activity of debate would push that even further.”

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Harriet Levitt, along with her husband, Dan, formed the Yeshiva Debate League in 1988.

Having loved her own experience as a high school and college debater, Levitt wanted YUHSB students to be able to participate in the National Forensic League. But there was a problem—the League’s debates all took place on Saturdays.

Undeterred, Levitt began recruiting thoughtful judges and organizing debates between YUHSB and its sister school, the Samuel H. Wang Yeshiva University High School for Girls (Central). Levitt and her husband, Dan, also a college debater, began inviting other schools in the tri-state area, and before long local high schools and yeshivas were calling them, asking to get involved. In 1988, Levitt and her husband drafted a policy statement and formalized the first Yeshiva Debate League.

Now made up of close to 20 local yeshivas and high schools and celebrating the 25th anniversary of its Annual Cross-Examination Debate Tournament, or “Great Debate,” the League has made an impact on hundreds of students and alumni—particularly at YUHSB, where participation on the debate team is, for many, a highlight of their high school careers.

“I remember being pretty nervous at the beginning of my first debate, then a couple minutes in feeling thrilled and energized,” said Moshe Spinowitz ’97YUHS, who joined the team as a freshman and found himself hooked right away. He enjoyed debate so much that it played a role in his eventual decision to pursue Harvard Law School and a legal career; Spinowitz went on to clerk for United States Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia before becoming an associate at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP.

“I loved learning how to focus on the key issues that are likely to persuade your audience, whether that’s a judge presiding over a debate, a judge presiding over a court, or even the opposition, all while developing rational arguments and presenting them effectively,” Spinowitz said, noting that all of those skills prove critical to him on a daily basis in law. “Mrs. Levitt also really helped build a strong atmosphere of camaraderie among the debaters that made it not just a great educational experience, but a great social experience as well. I stayed in touch with her over the years and she’s been a key mentor.”

For Yehoshua Levine ’99YUHS, that atmosphere of camaraderie helped him feel connected not only to other debaters on his team, but to members of different classes and even different schools in the League. “Debate helped us cross class and school lines,” he said, recalling Levitt’s policy of having senior debaters coach freshmen. After graduating from Harvard Medical School, Levine now finds that he draws on the communication tools he honed in the League regularly as a practicing cardiologist. “Medicine calls for a lot of quick decision-making, critical thinking and multidisciplinary communication and interactions as you navigate the health care system, and those are all things I learned in debate,” he said.

That Levine and Spinowitz are still using their debate skills in two very different but similarly high-powered careers more than 15 years later is no accident—Levitt has always coached her students with an eye toward the future. Her debaters must wear a jacket and tie to every meet, no exceptions. “You are what you wear,” she said. “It puts you in a different mindset than if you’re simply wearing school clothes.” They also must know arguments for both sides of every issue they debate, no matter how strongly they agree or disagree with one in particular.

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YUHSB students argue their case at the Great Debate in 2010.

“I tell them it will help them to know the opposition’s arguments and better equip them to respond,” Levitt said. “When I give students a topic they learn every possible fact about it, becoming mini-experts who are able to speak fluently, write about, and rely on their knowledge of the subject. They come out of the experience asking good questions based on the facts and with really considered, in-depth conclusions.”

Shani Pollak joined the debate team at Central as a freshman because she saw it as a great way to enhance her public speaking skills. “I have been on the team for all four years of high school and was lucky enough to be chosen as one of the captains,” she said. “I know I’ll walk away from debate with the ability to communicate effectively, research rigorously and think critically.”

Levitt agreed. “All of this is training for the mind that can’t happen in any other way than debate,” she said.

This year’s Great Debate was held on Sunday, December 22, at Furst Hall on the Wilf Campus.