Jewish Journal


January 17, 2008

Passover scholastic debate conflict resolved, sort of


After months of contentious back and forth over the scheduling of the statewide high school debate tournament on the first night of Passover, Jewish leaders and tournament organizers have reached a half-hearted detente that will not change the date but will ensure such a scheduling snafu will not happen again.

As part of the compromise, orchestrated by State Assemblyman Lloyd Levine (D-Van Nuys), the California High School Speech Association also wrote a letter of apology to its coaches, teams and the Jewish community -- a move the independent umbrella organization had refused to make at a board meeting in September.

"The California High School Speech Association regrets the unfortunate and unintentional conflict of the 2008 state championship tournament with the important holiday of Passover," the statement reads. "The California High School Speech Association takes enormous pride in the diversity of its membership. It is our desire to express our apologies that our actions will cause Jewish members of the speech community distress at having to choose between the Passover celebration and participation in the state tournament."

Jewish leaders were satisfied with the statement, but disappointed that the date was not changed.

"Obviously we did not win on the most important point, changing the date, but the board's actions in [January] were far more sensitive to the Jewish community than they had been in September," said Doug Lasken, a debate coach at Taft High School in Woodland Hills and CHSSA board member, who brought the conflict to light last June. "For this reason we feel the struggle has been worthwhile."

More than a thousand coaches, parents and students will spend three days, April 18-20, at Santa Clara University at the annual tournament, which culminates the year of debate competitions for schools across the state. The second day of the tournament -- a date set more than a year before the event -- coincides with the night of the first seder, the most observed and family-oriented ritual on the Jewish calendar.

Lasken and more than half his team could not attend the tournament, so they voted to boycott the event. Debate teams from Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies and Oaks Christian High School in Westlake also voted to boycott the state debate tournament.

They will attend an alternative debate tournament on March 29, sponsored by the Los Angeles Unified School District, which wrote a letter of concern to CHSSA in October.

The Anti-Defamation League, the Board of Rabbis of Southern California and the Jewish Community Relations Councils of Los Angeles and San Francisco spent seven months trying to impress upon CHSSA how central the seder is to the ritual and family life of a broad swath of the Jewish community. They lobbied the group to explore a date change and offered their help to do so, but CHSSA continued to maintain that because venues were booked and paid for it was too late to change the date, which had been set more than a year in advance.

"Renowned pitcher Sandy Koufax never played on Rosh Hashanah and chose not to pitch during the World Series because it conflicted with Yom Kippur -- the World Series was not moved," Sharon Prefontaine, CHSSA president, told the Daily News in November. "Hank Greenberg, on the other hand, played on Rosh Hashanah but not on Yom Kippur."

"As much as we might want to protect them from it," she continued, "we understand that our students will have to make some difficult choices, at times, relative to their personal beliefs."

That attitude toward any religious or ethnic community was not acceptable to many in the Jewish community.

"We don't feel that high school students should have to make that kind of decision," said Alison Mayersohn, senior associate director of the ADL's Pacific Southwest Region. Students who work toward a goal all year shouldn't have to "make the choice between your religious observance and your family holiday, or to reach the pinnacle of success in an extracurricular activity."

Levine got involved this fall, meeting with both sides and bringing them together for a meeting in December. As a result of those meetings, the CHSSA board voted in January to insert into its bylaws a stipulation that it will avoid scheduling the tournament on major religious holidays, "within reason." It also voted to issue the apology, but voted not to have the apology posted on its Web site. It left up an earlier explanation that does not contain the words "regret" or "apology."

In a final irony, the alternative debate is scheduled for a Saturday.

While Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, who was not involved in organizing the LAUSD debate, says he would have preferred a date that would have included Sabbath observers, it is Passover's near universal observance among the Jewish community that made this scheduling conflict akin to having the tournament on Easter Sunday.

"What I have said from day one, what we have been repeating over and over again to speech association officials, is that this conflict is so poignant and gut-wrenching for families because Pesach is a home-centered observance," Diamond said. The alternative high school debate tournament, sponsored by LAUSD to accomodate Jewish students who cannot attend the statewide debate tournament scheduled for Passover, has been expanded to two days, Saturday, March 29 and Sunday, March 30. For information, contact tournament director Dlasken514@aol.com.

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