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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.”


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. Read the rest of this entry…

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Local High School Students Face Off at Annual Yeshiva University Debate Tournament

Wandering the corridors of Furst Hall at the Yeshiva University Wilf Campus on Sunday, December 18, would have revealed an unusual sight. Nearly every classroom on the second and third floors contained six individuals in business dress—some with rolled-up sleeves, others swiftly taking notes—all methodically but passionately arguing over the intricate nuances of the ethics of scientific research.

Yoni Zolty and Elan Stochel represent YUHSB at The Great Debate.

Taking part in the 23rd annual Great Debate, these aspiring orators belonged to 11 Jewish high schools in the greater New York metropolitan area. Started by Harriet Levitt, English teacher at Yeshiva University High School for Boys (YUHSB)—The Marsha Stern Talmudical Academy, in 1988, the Great Debate offers Jewish high school students an opportunity to participate in a large formal deliberation among their peers from other schools, a relatively difficult task as most debate meets occur on Saturdays.

This year’s participating schools included the Ezra Academy, Hebrew Academy of Nassau County (HANC), Maayonot, Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School, Ramaz High School, Rambam, SAR High School, SKA High School, Torah Academy of Bergen County (TABC), YUHSB and Samuel H. Wang Yeshiva University High School for Girls, with the Jewish Educational Center and DRS High School observing.

YUHSG's Shani Pollack and Mindy Schwarts debate Eli Shulman and Meir Freidenberg of YUHSB.

The Great Debate joins the ranks of the Red Sarachek Basketball Tournament, the Wittenberg Wrestling Tournament and the Yeshiva University National Model United Nations as one of the many annual events that exposes Jewish high schools to the Yeshiva University community.

Teams either had to argue for or against the resolve that stated, “The scientific community should make use of results obtained from unethically performed research.” The results? TABC took first place and YUHSB placed second.

“Debate has the power to change students from self-absorbed individuals into deep-thinking intellectuals,” said Levitt. “Once they get into debate, they turn into different creatures. They realize that there are two points of view on everything. I notice that students on the debate team in my classes are much more likely to speak up with confidence.”

YUHSB's Freidenberg and Shulman

The student participants expressed a variety of reasons for attending. Ari Himber, a senior at HANC, aspires to attend law school in the future and wanted to hone his skills. Zachary Fineberg, a senior at TABC, had a different reason. “I guess I am just a polemical guy,” he said. “I love debating people.” Others simply enjoyed the intellectual exercise, like SAR senior Aviva Leshaw, who said, “I feel alive when I am debating and picking apart an argument.”

Many enjoyed the social aspects of meeting new people within the greater community and studying new topics. “This is a great opportunity to meet new people and learn more about different controversies in our world,” said Shifra Arnheim, a Maayonot senior.

Many of these students had participated in other YU-sponsored events in the past: from previous great debates to attending the Yeshiva University Dramatics Society Production of 1776 or the annual Seforim Sale.


Area High School Students Convene on Wilf Campus for Debate Tournament Sponsored by Sy Syms School of Business

“This debate is very simple,” began Shua Brick, a senior at Yeshiva University High School for Boys/Marsha Stern Talmudical Academy (YUHSB). “We complicate it with percentages and numbers, but ultimately, this is a simple argument.”

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Facing his two opponents, teenagers like himself, and a pensive judge, Brick spread his hands wide. “My grandfather lives at home with us because of a stroke,” he said. “First I thought this debate was about him. Then I realized it would affect me. Not my grandchildren or my children—me. What would we do without Social Security?”

More than 116 debaters from 16 local yeshiva high schools were asking the same question. On Sunday, YUHSB hosted the 22nd Annual M.T.A. Cross-Examination Debate Tournament at Yeshiva University’s Wilf Campus. Sponsored by the Sy Syms School of Business and known also as the “Great Debate,” the competition drew experienced debaters from a spectrum of schools. The big issue up for discussion: Congress’s proposed legislation to privatize Social Security by allowing Americans to invest a portion of the tax in private retirement accounts.

During three rounds that each featured 25 simultaneous matches, students demonstrated their expertise, passion and self-possession, name-dropping congressional authorities and discussing the nuances of retirement ages in Sweden, Chile and France. Judges, who ran the gamut from veteran debate coaches to college students who participated in the tournament in high school, delivered oral critiques at the end of each round to point out strengths and flaws in each debater’s style.

“It’s not like speaking in a telephone booth,” said Harriet Levitt, who organized the first debate in 1988 to give yeshiva students a forum to hone their skills, since national competitions are typically held on Saturdays. Chair of the English department and debate coach at YUSHB, Levitt has mentored hundreds of students on technique and style. “You have to be sensitive to how you’re being perceived and present your case in an organized fashion,” she explained. “The skills students develop, of researching thoroughly and relating to others, are very important in today’s world of instant communication.”

They’re also skills whose value only increases as students move on to college, graduate study and professional careers. “So much of college is constructing arguments about assigned topics, the precise crafting of ideas,” said Simeon Botwinick, ’11 YC, who was a president of the YUHSB debate team and now serves as editor-in-chief of The Commentator. Rabbi Eli Cohn, a teacher at YUHSB who debated in high school and was one of the judges in Sunday’s competition, agreed. “The ability to articulate an argument, evaluate a thesis and respond to a claim are all skills that I use daily,” he said.

“Communication skills are absolutely critical to people in all areas of business,” said Michael Ginzburg, dean of Sy Syms. The business school began sponsoring the debate tournaments last year to emphasize this need to potential students. “Many people think we’re only concerned with quantitative skills, but having the best analytic or number skills without having an ability to effectively communicate the results of your analysis will not lead to success in business.”

For debate participants, the competition was a rare opportunity to gauge their abilities against other students from differing milieus and education models. “Being with all these people from different backgrounds is good practice,” said Jason Lefkovitz, a junior at North Shore Hebrew Academy. “It takes you out of your comfort zone.”

Participating schools included YUHSB, Samuel H. Wang/ Yeshiva University High School for Girls (YUHSG), the Jewish Educational Center of Elizabeth, NJ, the Yeshiva of Flatbush, Ramaz, HANC, and Maayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls among others. Michael Guggenheim and Daniel Goffstein, a YUHSB team, came in first place, with Daelin Hillman and Emma Goldberg of the Abraham Joshua Heschel High School in second.

The “Great Debate” is also responsible for many new friendships. “I think it’s good to be put together with other students who have common interests in academic settings,” said Leah Sladen, a sophomore from SAR Academy, one of the participating schools. Botwinick agreed. “In college, most interactions with other schools are through sporting events, but this is talking intelligently and conversing. I have friends in college today that I met through debate.” He added: “We definitely had something to talk about!”


From left: Dr. Jack Snyder, Prof. Bryan Daves, and Kenneth Roth.

Feb 24, 2005 — Kenneth Roth and Dr. Jack Snyder, experts and policy makers in the field of human rights abuse, were featured speakers in a debate on human rights and sovereignty Feb. 23 at the Beren Campus. The event was the first in a series of lectures sponsored by the Dr. Marcia Robbins-Wilf Scholar-in-Residence Program at Stern College for Women, and was coordinated by Prof. Bryan Daves, assistant professor of political science at YU.

At issue in the debate were questions about how to stem imminent or ongoing mass slaughter, when international intervention is appropriate, and what tactics of intervention will succeed in light of the affront to national sovereignty that such intervention usually poses.

According to Mr. Roth, who is executive director of Human Rights Watch, the largest US-based international human rights organization, most governments resist foreign pressure to make them maintain order and reduce conflict (though in some cases a country will invite intervention because its government has lost control). He said the threat of international tribunals has been a successful tool in the push to make them abide by international human rights norms.

Dr. Snyder, who is Robert and Renée Belfer Professor of International Relations in the political science department and Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University, disagreed that tribunals are effective deterrents. He said that justice follows, rather than leads to, political change and that meaningful change depends on having a strong political coalition behind it that adheres to strong political norms.

The “Human Rights and Sovereignty” series commemorates the 60th anniversary of the end of the Holocaust. The next lecture, “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide,” is slated for March 1, 8 pm at the Schottenstein Cultural Center on the Beren Campus (239 East 34th Street between Second and Third Avenues). It will feature Pulitzer Prize-winning author Samantha Power, Harvard University Kennedy School of Government faculty member and founding executive director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. The lectures are free and open to the public with a valid photo ID.


Terri Ash, right, one of the participants at the economics debate. At left is Shoshana Herman, who introduced the debate.

Oct 25, 2004 — Students from Stern College for Women and Sy Syms School of Business on the Beren Campus recently presented persuasive arguments focusing on economic issues at the heart of this year’s presidential election.

The presentations were part of an interactive debate, featuring commentary from about 20 audience members made up of Beren Campus students. The combination made for lively discussion and tested the preparation of those presenting the arguments.

Organized and sponsored by SCW’s Economics Club, the event focused on issues including: the privatization of social security, welfare reform, stem-cell research, abortion, private vs. public education, and one-issue voters. Those students who presented arguments included: Terri Ash, Eliana Bauer, Adina Borg, Jennifer Feldman, Rachel Levenson, Gali Portnoy, and Stephanie Schneebaly.

Sarah Topr Agadjani, president of the Economics Club, said she planned the interactive debate as an opportunity for students to explore and discuss serious issues. Though the Economics Club sponsored the debate, Ms. Agadjani said the issues were broadened to include some less economic in nature, such as abortion and one-issue voting, although economics were tangentially related to all arguments presented.

Professer Dennis Hoover, lecturer in Economics on the Beren Campus, said all seven arguements were well articulated and persuasive. But, according to rules of the debate, he chose three he thought were best.

Professor Hoover singled out the presentations by the following three students: Terri Ash (private vs. public education); Gali Portnoy (stem-cell research); and Adina Borg (one-issue voters). All three students were awarded $50.

Ms. Agadjani summed up the evening when she said it was “an honor to go to school with such smart and well-spoken women.” She said she felt everyone who attended the debate “will be more well-informed as a result.”