Jewish Journal

No debate about it—California high school tournament takes place on Passover

Updated 2007-10-02

by Julie G Fax

Posted on Sep. 30, 2007 at 8:00 pm

The annual California high school debate tournament traditionally attracts more than 800 contestants to its weekend-long event, many of them Jewish and all of them students who have worked long and hard to prepare for the intense competition. Last May, when it was discovered that the next tournament, which long ago was scheduled for April 18-20, 2008, would conflict with the first night of Passover, Jewish leaders requested a date change from the California High School Speech Association (CHSSA), an independent group that organizes the event. They were ignored.

After additional attempts to change the schedule failed, Jewish leaders this week issued an "Action Alert," asking people to contact the CHSSA and their school districts to pressure organizers to reschedule the tournament.

On Wednesday, L.A. City Council President Eric Garcetti and City Councilmember Jan Perry, both of whom are Jewish, were expected to introduce a resolution to the L.A. City Council calling upon the CHSSA to change the date, according to Josh Kamensky, a spokesman in Garcetti's office.

"There has been a real lack of flexibility," said Alison Mayersohn, senior associate director of the Anti-Defamation League's (ADL) Pacific Southwest Region. "I think the irony is this is a group that sponsors debate tournaments, and one would expect that there could be a lot of open debate."

The Southern and Northern California offices of the ADL and the Board of Rabbis, as well as the Jewish Community Relations Committees of the Los Angeles and San Francisco Federations have worked together in protesting the date.

CHSSA president Sharon Prefontaine says the date has been on the calendar for more than two years and that changing it now would require breaking costly contracts with blocks of hotels and with Santa Clara University, where the tournament is scheduled to be held.

The annual State Speech and Debate Tournament attracts thousands of coaches, students and parents to the culmination of local and regional competitions. Everyone agrees the scheduling conflict was inadvertent, and even Jewish board members of CHSSA did not realize the problem until it was pointed out last spring. But because the family-oriented seder is the most observed ritual on the Jewish calendar, many students and coaches will not be able to participate and could lose their motivation for the year-round debates leading up to the state tournament.

CHSSA would not comment directly for this article, but referred inquiries to a statement recently posted on the organization's homepage: "We know that this conflict will force some of our membership to make a very difficult choice. Despite many individuals' involvement in the planning of the tournament, this circumstance was not realized until late May 2007. By the time it was brought to our attention, the venue [Santa Clara University] and the hotel blocks had already been contracted for. We pledge to make every effort to be aware of important religious and cultural dates in the future and take them into account when scheduling future state championship tournaments. We also encourage our membership to notify CHSSA in a timely manner of future dates that might create scheduling difficulties," the statement reads.

The words "apology" and "sorry" were removed from the final draft after prolonged debate among CHSSA board members, according to Doug Lasken, a board member and coach of the debate team at Taft High School in Woodland Hills, who exposed the conflict last May.

CHSSA also refused to issue an apology when Jewish leaders appeared before its board Sept. 15. At that meeting, Jewish community representatives asked for a date change, or at least a two-week period to work with CHSSA to investigate the feasibility of a change.

CHSSA voted down both motions, which Lasken proposed. The board also denied a request by Jackie Berman, an education specialist with the San Francisco Federation who was speaking on behalf of the Jewish Public Affairs Committee of California, to issue an apology.

"I find this astonishing and frustrating, and I take that as a slap in the face to the Jewish community," said Southern California Board of Rabbis executive vice president Rabbi Mark Diamond, who competed as a high school student on the debate team. "There is an attitude here that is profoundly disturbing, a total unwillingness to grapple with the issues, to even apologize for the mistakes and to work with people of good will toward trying to resolve this. There seems to be an attitude of, 'Tough. Too bad. Life is filled with difficult choices.' And I do not accept that."

Being granted slots at the Sept. 15 board meeting was the first direct response Jewish organizations have had from CHSSA.

Prefontaine, a teacher in Northern California, did not respond to letters in June from the Jewish Community Relations Committees of San Francisco and Los Angeles, who were alerted to the issue by Lasken.

In response to an inquiry from The Jewish Journal in July, Prefontaine sent a statement detailing the logistical and procedural impossibility of changing the date.

While CHSSA operates on the academic calendar and does not meet over the summer, momentum has been building among the Jewish community as Lasken has gotten more organizations involved. But additional letters in September from the Federations as well as ADL went unanswered.

Jewish, Christian and Muslim faith leaders, of the Los Angeles Council of Religious Leaders, signed a letter of support after Diamond alerted the group to the situation.

Diamond also called in Dr. David Long, secretary of education for the State of California, who has worked to facilitate communication with CHSSA. Prior to the Sept. 15 meeting - which Diamond couldn't attend because it was on the Shabbat after Rosh Hashanah - Long arranged for a phone meeting between Diamond and a CHSSA vice president. Diamond says he felt like he was "talking to a wall."

Caron Spector, associate director of The L.A. Federation's Jewish Community Relations Committee, is baffled by CHSSA's insistence that rescheduling is impossible, since she has worked with similar situations where dates for large events were changed with even less notice. Spector is coordinating the Action Alert. Concurrent with efforts to reschedule the tournament, the coalition is trying to get a formal commitment from CHSSA to avoid future conflicts - especially since CHSSA bylaws state the tournament must occur on one of the last two weekends in April. With dialogue and debate on the issue hard to come by so far, Jewish leaders are hoping CHSSA will stand by its own stated goals, as posted on the group's mission statement: "Every student will develop interpersonal skills necessary for establishing understanding among members of a diverse society," one goal reads.


California High School Speech Association

Jewish Community Relations Council of San Francisco

Jewish Federation of Los Angeles, JCRC

Click here for JCRC Action Alert (PDF file)

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