“Can you BELIEVE what Montefiore said?!” The Jewish Court of All Time Project”

July 7, 2022

This post tells the story of one school’s participation in a special pilot for congregational schools of the Jewish Court of All Time (JCAT) web project, a pilot co-sponsored by MTEI and directed by Jeff Stanzler of the MTEI faculty. The post starts with some background on JCAT, followed by a conversation between Jeff and Alison Weikel (MTEI Cohort 7) about the experience of students from Temple Shir Tikva in Wayland, Massachusetts, where Alison is the Director of Education, and it concludes with some brief comments about how this work reflected some of MTEI’s Principles of Professional Development.

Introduction  (Jeff)

Using imaginative role-play combined with engaged research and mentorship, The Jewish Court of All Time (JCAT) is a web-based simulation that has served Jewish day schools across North America for over ten years. Each year, the simulation asks the question, “What does it mean to learn from history?” in the context of different scenarios connecting aspects of Jewish history with contemporary issues. In Spring 2021, a special version of JCAT, co-sponsored by MTEI, was offered to congregational schools, and this project was again offered to congregational schools in Spring 2022.  In this article we will describe the project itself and offer a sense of how it unfolds in the classroom and its impact on student participants. We will also discuss how JCAT aligns with key MTEI Principles.

Student participants in JCAT portray significant figures from across the range of human history. After an extended period of research and introductions, the characters are convened to discuss a contemporary issue with historical resonance. For example, Spring 2022 participants investigated questions of free expression and the response to hate speech inspired by the proposed march by neo-Nazis in Skokie, Illinois in the late 1970’s, a city with a large Jewish population that includes many Holocaust survivors. Simulation activity ranges from considering the points of view of several “voices of resistance,” who offer different visions for responding to hateful speech and action, to examining relevant primary source documents, such as when guests consider which of the freedoms highlighted by the First Amendment to the American Bill of Rights were (or would have been) most important in their lives and times.

The intellectual and creative work of JCAT is perhaps best captured in the moment when, for example, Emma Lazarus and Yitzhak Rabin sit down to discuss whether the American Civil Liberties Union was right to defend the right of neo-Nazis to march in Skokie. Neither student playing these luminaries can look in “the back of the book” to see what was really said when these two people spoke about this matter, since this conversation never happened. Instead, the students must draw upon what they’ve learned about their characters, and what they know about the issue at hand, so that they can engage in conversation, leveraging aspects of the work of the historian (“what evidence can I draw upon to craft a plausible sense of what my character might think?”) and the actor (“how might my character express their thoughts?”). Participants engage in discussions with peers and also with university student mentors, who seek both to honor the work of the students and to challenge them to think more deeply about their character and about the issues at hand.

JCAT in the Classroom (Alison)

What initially appealed to you about JCAT? 

I had been an admirer of JCAT for many years… as an educator, as a researcher, as someone who loves innovative, experiential learning. I read all I could find written about JCAT, and knew that because it was a program for day school learners, I would likely never be involved with it firsthand.

At Temple Shir Tikva, we are working to  focus on social-emotional learning, relationships, and a Mussar curriculum to explore middot, or character/soul traits. I was curious about how an online project like JCAT could offer learners a window into history while stretching their creativity and confidence in trying on another person’s perspective and voice.

When Jeff contacted me about the congregational school pilot, I could hardly contain my excitement. It was like being invited to hop the fence and join a party I had been longing to attend. I was eager to introduce this opportunity to the Shir Tikva learning community.

Talk about the class that did JCAT and what you hoped doing the project might accomplish.

During the 20-21 school year, due to the pandemic, we made the choice to hold our learning program completely online. For the past few years, our 7th grade core class has been “Narratives of the Holocaust” and Rhonda Magier-Cohen, the fantastic teacher of this class, uses personal stories from her life and her family, first-person narratives from survivors and upstanders, and other primary sources to bring students into the learning in a deep and meaningful way. During our online school year, Rhonda adapted her lessons to the Zoom classroom and we talked often about how difficult it was, using this platform, to create the kind of brave space necessary for vulnerable conversations about this topic and time in history.

With the combination of a yearlong Holocaust course, and the fact that issues of injustice and antisemitism could be found in local, national, and international news almost daily, we suspected that taking a close look at the intersection and collison of free speech and antisemitism would be both relevant and compelling. Our Zoom classes were 45 minutes long, and JCAT provided a way to extend the students’ learning, with asynchronous opportunities (meaning they signed in at home) that encouraged expressiveness and critical thinking.

This school year (21-22), we returned to in-person learning, and Rhonda and her students co-created a classroom community that allowed for the shock and sadness of the worst moments of human history to co-exist with the trust and hope that people have the power to support, love, and save each other. By the time she introduced JCAT in the second semester, the students were through the devastating parts of their study and were focusing on inspiring stories of upstanders as well as their own potential powers to heal the broken world. They were ready to apply their learning to a realistic scenario, and to extend their thinking to the modern and (unfortunately) relevant topic of antisemitism.

How did you introduce the project, and how did you seek out student buy-in?

Rhonda offered a connective thread, a personal story of hearing about the actual Skokie event (around which this year’s simulation was based) on the TV news as a little girl. She told this story, a first-person narrative, and captured the students’ attention as they imagined Rhonda, and likely themselves, in the story. Next, Rhonda created ‘secret envelopes’ with the characters’ names and some background information to kickstart their research. Some envelopes had articles, books, or links to reading materials. Some had a DVD; some had photographs with captions. I imagine that in a day school setting, the students could have more class time to work on becoming their characters. Since we met for 45 minutes a week for this class, the students would need to do some of the work at home. Rhonda sent a letter home to parents to help them understand both the excitement around and the expectations for their teen’s participation. Many of the parents read or watched the background materials with their teens. Each week, Rhonda sent reminders to the class over text and email, and she paid attention to who was up-to-date with their responses. She made connections between the characters (without revealing their identities) to support the students in responding to each other in character: Aly Raisman and Mark Spitz are both athletes. What might they talk about? How would the experiences they have had in high-level sports affect their decisions in the court case? Jeanne Daman, Janusz Korczak, and Sir Nicholas Winton all nurtured or rescued children during the Holocaust. What motivated them? Where did they find their courage and moral compass? How would they respond to each other?

Rhonda held little contests for the students–which characters would be the first to post each week? Which would make the highly motivating Highlight Reel on the home page of the simulation, a call-out to all participants of the top responses and interactions? With which other characters can your character interact?  She offered small prizes and rewards–either a special delivery of candy or the choice of having her make a tzedakah donation in their honor. At the end of the simulation, she wrote personal notes and gave gift cards to the top four most active participants. 7th graders live in the liminal space of young teenhood–sometimes a candy bar is highly motivating and sometimes they position themselves as the upstanders about whom they have been learning. Just as they fluidly stepped into their JCAT characters, they stepped into this new role in their own personhood journey with courage and conviction.

In a brilliant move of modeling, Rhonda had the class take on a character (Leonard Montefiore) as a group. She logged into JCAT and shared her screen on a large monitor for the whole class to see. They decided together how to participate and respond as Montefiore and this helped students prepare to respond individually in their own characters’ voices.

What were your biggest surprises in doing JCAT?

Our biggest surprise in the 20-21 school (online) year was how much JCAT engaged students who were otherwise struggling to engage– whether that was because of the stress of the pandemic, the excessive screen time that learning (in all areas of their lives) required, or any number of reasons why young teens lose interest in learning. Students who were previously not showing up to class or who were sitting silently in class with cameras off were suddenly motivated and participating in the simulation. We used class time to work with individual students in breakout rooms to support their participation.

In this school year (21-22) our program met in person and we had more time to devote to the simulation. The momentum seemed to build each week and I loved to visit the class and hear the students’ questions and insights. Our surprise this year was really more of a delight than a surprise. It was something we had hoped would happen in participation in JCAT, and is best captured in the reflection of one of our students at the end of the semester:

“JCAT helped me be open to other points of view, even if I didn’t agree.”

Oh, if only the world could learn from this wise 7th grader. What a place it would be.

JCAT and the MTEI Principles (Jeff)

The success of JCAT rests on students being willing to speak in character and embrace the theatricality of the simulation. Because of this, JCAT attends carefully to the “Intentional Creation of Community” in which participants must “feel comfortable taking risks, being vulnerable, and developing trusting relationships.” Participants must respect the risks others take in embodying their characters, practicing ways of disagreeing about ideas without engaging in mockery or derision.

One important MTEI principle foregrounded in JCAT is “Teachers Learn and Learners Teach.” JCAT offers interpretive space and creative support for the student participants, placing primary value on thoughtful engagement with questions to which there is no single correct answer. It is expected, rather, that students will be able to explain the thinking that led to their character saying this, and in this particular way. This creative space prioritizes student ingenuity, and often results in teachers and mentors seeing expressive possibilities for student-portrayed characters that would not otherwise have occurred to them, thus further sparking their thinking.

There’s another dimension of “Teachers Learn and Learners Teach” that needs to be named. As the project director, and the ostensible “teacher” here, I learned so much about my own project from the ingenuity with which Alison and Rhonda infused their participation in JCAT. I take it as a positive sign that inventive educators like Alison and Rhonda found room in the project to express their creativity, making it fully theirs while shining a light on new possibilities for others.

We conclude with something else we say in our description of MTEI’s “Intentional Creation of Community” principle that applies here: “As a sense of community fosters learning, so, too, learning together fosters the creation of community…building a professional and relational collaborative learning community is both how we do our work as well as an outcome of our work.”

Alison Weikel is the Director of Education at Temple Shir Tikva in Wayland, MA where she uses and shares her learning from MTEI Cohort 7 on a daily basis.

Jeff Stanzler is an MTEI faculty member and he co-directs the Jewish Court of All Time (JCAT) project. 

MTEI participants interested in taking part in the Spring 2023 JCAT simulation for congregational schools are invited to contact Jeff at: jstanz@mtei-learning.org and can get more information at: https://icsmich.org/book/jcat/