Thirty-nine students representing seven Los Angeles area Jewish high schools,* including Valley Torah Boys and Girls Divisions, competed in the Jewish Public Forum Debate Tournament, Sunday, Dec. 22, at Hillel Harkham Hebrew Academy in Beverly Hills. The debate topic, “Resolved: Popular Culture Is Having a Lasting, Negative Impact on Jewish Teenagers,” set the stage for many lively and sometimes heated discussions.
The tournament is organized by the Jewish Speech and Debate League, whose founder and executive director, David Finnigan, is also the debate coach at VTHS, YULA and at other secular schools. The League is creating speech and debate competitions for Orthodox high schools and middle schools whose students cannot compete at secular debate tournaments, usually scheduled on Fridays and/or Saturdays.
As participants are all students in Jewish schools, the use of Torah examples is integral to the Public Forum Debate format, notes Effie Zisblatt, a parent volunteer judge. “Not only did the participants offer persuasive and well-prepared arguments, but more importantly, they supported their arguments with Torah values and hashkafa [philosophy]. The integration of Torah principles into each debate rendered the tournament unique among other competitions of its kind,” Zisblatt says.
The all day tournament consisted of five preliminary 37-minute rounds with the win-loss record from each of those rounds determining which debate teams would compete in the final round. In most cases, two-person debate teams competed against each other in separate boys-only and girls-only divisions. The VTHS Girls 20-member debate squad sent eight teams to the tournament and the VTHS Boys 18-member debate squad sent seven teams.
In the final Girls Division round, the Valley Torah High School (VTHS) team of Tzipporah Levine and Yehudit Kaszirer won first place, beating the Yeshiva University Los Angeles (YULA) second place, three-person team of Sarah Lipman, Aviya Zarur and Noa Zarur.
In the Boys Division final round, after debating solo all day because his partner never arrived, Tarbut V’Torah (Jewish community day school in Orange County, CA) debater Adam Jacobs took first place, giving the Valley Torah Boys team of Michael Kawas and Daniel Mishail second place in the boys’ competition.
Speaker awards were presented to the debaters who accumulated the top speaking scores from their rounds’ judges on a scale of 20 to 30 points. These points are separate from the win-loss record used to advance debaters to the final round.
Girls Division Top Speakers were:
-4th Place (tied): Sharon Aharonoff and Zipporah Levine
(both from Valley Torah Girls)
-3rd Place: Aviya Zarur (YULA Girls Debate Team Captain)
-1st Place: (tied) Deena Denbo (Valley Torah Girls) and Sophia Blumenstrauch
(Valley Torah Girls Debate Team Captain)
Boys Division Top Speakers:
– 5th Place: Eric Bazak (Shalhevet High School)
– 4th Place: Daniel Mishail (Valley Torah Boys Debate Team Captain)
– 3rd Place: Yehuda Kelman (Valley Torah Boys)
– 2nd Place: David Markson (YULA Boys Debate Team Captain)
– 1st Place: Adam Jacobs (Tarbut V’Torah)
The first place teams and Top Speaker Award winners received medals engraved with their names. Second through fifth place winners received “Superior Speaker” certificates.
Each debate round was judged by experienced, secular debate tournament judges plus volunteer parents and faculty including: Effie Zisblatt, Dr. Roy Blumenstrauch Joel Gedzelman, Jacques Ohana, Jessica Lidergot, Rabbi Shalom Denbo, Rabbi Asher Biron and Miriam Striks (Valley Torah), Shmuel Zarur (YULA), Rebecca Bubis (Tarbut V’Torah) and Rabbi Ephraim Osgood (Hillel Harkham).
Finnigan is very pleased with the participation in the tournament and looks forward to including more teams next year, including some from outside the Los Angeles area. He thanked Hillel Harkham Principal Jason Ablin, Administrative Assistant to Head of School Gabrielle Sab and Board of Directors member Regina Raphael for “their diligent efforts in creating a welcoming environment as the host school.”
*Participating schools: Shalhevet High School, Tarbut V’Torah, Valley Torah Boys High School, Valley Torah Girls High School, YULA Boys High School, YULA Girls High School and Yeshiva High Tech.