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!”