The Jewish Court of All Time: Role Playing for Civic Engagement
By Meredith Katz
The Jewish Court of All Time (JCAT) online simulation program is a William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education program that exemplifies our commitment to building inclusive communities of learners at school and in the wider world. The fall-semester simulation is run in conjunction with the Interactive Communications and Simulations group at the University of Michigan School of Education and is generously funded by the Covenant Foundation.
In JCAT, middle-school students in Jewish schools assume roles of historical and contemporary figures, delve into a court case based in Jewish history, explore its current impact, and debate issues in the voices of these characters. For example, this year’s case explored the attempted neo-Nazi march in Skokie, Illinois, in 1977–78, and related this event to tensions between freedom of speech and hate speech and antisemitism today. Other topics have included immigrant experiences, freedom of religion, memorials to historic events, and the experience of various marginalized communities. JCAT provides students with an opportunity to practice historical research and creative and persuasive writing, all with the goal of building civic dispositions of perspective taking and empathy. In fall 2019, 19 schools participated in two parallel JCAT simulations, reaching over 400 students in what essentially served as a laboratory for digital citizenship. Students’ online engagement was enhanced by graduate student mentors who enter the conversation in character, and by their classroom teachers who are key figures in facilitating and scaffolding this open-ended learning experience.
Rachel Silton, a seventh-grade teacher at the Emery/Weiner School in Houston, is a veteran JCAT teacher who appreciates the role-playing conversations created in the JCAT space. A 2013 William Davidson School alumna, Silton did not have a chance to participate in JCAT as a graduate student, but eagerly accepted the challenge of taking on a new program in her second year of teaching. She comments:
The entire JCAT experience is in of itself inclusive in nature. Students playing characters across the spectrum of age, socioeconomic background, and geography are given even footing to explore issues of historic significance that always have connections to issues of concern in our modern world. Essentially, students who, under any other circumstance, would never even know about each other, are inclusively and collaboratively learning together. In adopting the persona of a historic or modern character, students must inevitably step outside of themselves and employ skills of empathy and historic research to think from the perspective of another and then present their writing as such. In encountering the views of their character as well as the other characters gathered at JCAT, students are exposed to myriad points of view in an inclusive and safe space. As a result, they develop more deeply nuanced views about these topics of monumental significance in our own world.”
One of Rachel’s students described their JCAT experience, “While I was doing JCAT, I realized that some people were not knowledgeable about things like hate speech, racism, and antisemitism. I had an epiphany that if people who use hate speech knew more about the topic, then maybe they would change their mind. This simulation definitely gave me new ways to think about the topic.”
Many Jewish educators are actively exploring the challenge of talking about issues of diversity, race, and privilege through a Jewish lens in their Jewish settings. JCAT takes the position that Jewish history is an integrated story and that our learners are best served by exploring Jewish history from multiple perspectives. By framing our JCAT cases to highlight the interaction between Jews and non-Jews, and by welcoming an inclusive cast of Jewish and non-Jewish characters to the simulation from across time and geography to comment on current public issues affecting us all, JCAT creates an opportunity for Jewish learners to start considering their roles as citizens of multiple communities.
Meredith Katz is the clinical assistant professor of Jewish education and JCAT project director at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of JTS. Interested in JCAT for fall 2020? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article is part of a series from the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of JTS on training educators to lead inclusive learning communities.