Two weeks ago, as 650 middle school students debated religion and secularism in France in an online platform, reality intervened with the horrific news of terror attacks in Paris. Whenever terror strikes, educators face the challenge of determining how to acknowledge and process the violence with their students even as they themselves struggle to make meaning of an unfathomable situation. For a group of 35 educators facilitating RAVSAK’s Jewish Court of All Time (JCAT) in their middle school classes, these questions took on an immediacy because of the unique educational environment in which their students were deeply engaged.
Through JCAT, an online simulation in Jewish history generously supported by the Covenant Foundation, middle school students at Jewish day schools across North America adopt the personas of historical figures and interact with one another in character through a fictional trial grounded in historical fact. This year’s trial centers around two Parisian high school students, a Jewish boy and Muslim girl, who challenge the French ban against “ostentatious symbols of religion” in an effort to regain the right to wear a kippa and hijab to their public schools. Supported by faculty and students at the University of Michigan, Davidson School of Education at JTS, Hebrew College, and the University of Cincinnati, middle school students explore the case by examining relevant historical documents, developing their positions through research, in-class activities, and online discussions with other characters.
Moments after Shabbat ended, JCAT teachers posted to the group listserv, noting the connections between the Paris attacks and the JCAT trial and seeking guidance on how to appropriately address the attacks within the context of the program. Teachers shared discussion prompts, articles, and activities to help students process the news. University faculty responded with suggestions on how to frame these conversations and, in their role as simulation hosts, posted speeches on the site acknowledging the attacks and opening up discussion about whether the trial should continue as planned in light of a tragedy at once half a world away and at the same time, so incredibly close to home.
Through activities and discussions both in the classroom and on the JCAT site, students had the opportunity to process their own feelings about the attacks, and by interacting in character, came to understand the events through multiple perspectives. Students expressed a range of emotions and opinions while speaking in the voice of their characters. French citizens including President Hollande, Delphine Horvilleur, and Emile Zola posted statements condemning the attacks, expressing sorrow, and calling for solidarity. Golda Meir, David Ben Gurion, and Zev Jabotinsky and other Israeli figures shared their perspectives on extremism and terror, and questioned the intense media focus on Paris when terrorist attacks are a daily occurrence in Israel. Muslim participants including Zinadine Zidane and Malala Yousafzai expressed concerns that anti-Muslim sentiment would create bias in the case. Students posted and responded to speeches, changed their profile pictures to images of Paris, and responded to polls about whether the trial should continue. No one would want this kind of coincidence between real life and the simulation, but once it presented itself the JCAT community reacted to create opportunities for important dialogue.
As the program coordinator, watching these layers of online interaction between teachers and students was a heartening experience in a time of darkness and uncertainty. Teachers struggling with how to discuss the Paris attacks with their students had a community of educators to turn to for support and guidance. Students were provided with safe spaces in their classroom and online, to explore their feelings, questions and fears, to develop empathy by taking on someone else’s perspective, and to engage in nuanced discussion. These core skills, habits of mind and learning communities fostered through JCAT are central to the work of Jewish day schools and RAVSAK’s vision for Jewish education, and form a powerful response to senseless acts of violence.
Yael Steiner is the student programs coordinator at RAVSAK. JCAT is a RAVSAK program in partnership with the University of Michigan, University of Cincinnati, JTS Davidson School of Jewish Education and Hebrew College with the generous support of The Covenant Foundation.