Embodying Civic Spirit
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Embodying Civic Spirit

Group works with local faith-based schools to teach civics

On the cover: Civic Spirit’s staff — from left, education director Nina Taub, program director Yael Steiner, executive director Rabbi Charles Savenor, and pedagogy advisor Tiphanie Shoemaker — flank Abraham Lincoln at the entrance to the New-York Historical Society during the cohort’s meeting this summer. (Photos by Shulamit Photo + Video @shulamitphotovideo)
On the cover: Civic Spirit’s staff — from left, education director Nina Taub, program director Yael Steiner, executive director Rabbi Charles Savenor, and pedagogy advisor Tiphanie Shoemaker — flank Abraham Lincoln at the entrance to the New-York Historical Society during the cohort’s meeting this summer. (Photos by Shulamit Photo + Video @shulamitphotovideo)

There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of civic spirit in the country today.

It seems that tribalism, deep cynicism, a belief that truth can be countered with “alternative facts,” and hatred of anyone defined as the other, no matter how idiosyncratic or, let’s face it, ridiculous that definition might be, has gotten in the way of basic civility, much less a commitment to civic-minded commitment, engagement, and action.

It’s been years since civics has been taught in public schools, critics contend — who has time, in the avalanche of other mandates? — and if that’s true of public education, how much more true is it in faith-based schools? After all, those schools are inherently tribal, rather than inclusive.

Some of this criticism seems to be true, although truth rarely is that heavy-handed, but a four-year-old nonprofit organization, Civic Spirit, works to counter that.

Civic Spirit provides training to educators who work in religious schools, helping them to teach American history and values in a way that makes clear that American values are consonant with religious values, and that the schools’ students are valued parts of the American polity. It also, in some ways as a byproduct of its central work but also as a prime example of it, encourages interfaith work and understanding, giving students whose lives are encompassed by their own communities the chance to meet, talk to, and work with people in entirely different communities.

Every year, Civic Spirit works with a cohort of teachers from across the country; after the yearlong program ends, the cohort joins the group’s other alumni as the connection continues. Many Jewish day schools from northern New Jersey have sent teachers to Civic Spirit programs.

Rabbi Charles Savenor of Manhattan is Civic Spirit’s new executive director. “We provide training in civic education to Jewish, Catholic, Christian, and Islamic schools,” Rabbi Savenor said. (We should point out to our readers that although, yes, Catholics are Christian, the term “Christian school” generally means a Protestant school, often though not always an evangelical one. Catholic schools are generally but not always parochial schools; some are independent.)

“Part of what we do is not only provide civic education, but promote the need for it,” he said. “We’re often asked if civic education isn’t the same thing as American history. It’s part of it — but only part. It’s history and also some political science; it’s about how the government works, and what our responsibilities are to each other, as citizens or residents, and what civic skills are necessary to secure and maintain our democracy.”

Civics used to be part of the curriculum at public schools, he said, but “after the Cold War, there was a sense that democracy had won. Hey, we got this. It’s over.” It was what the political scientist Francis Fukuyama called “the end of history” in 1992.

But as it turned out, Dr. Fukuyama was wrong. History has continued to march all over us, in its leaden boots. But it took a while for reality to catch up with theory. “There was ‘no child left behind’ in public schools, and teachers felt they had to teach to the test, and then there is the promotion of STEM” — that’s science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, all crucial topics but not all that a thoroughly educated person should learn. “So what happened — the unintended consequence — is that civics got squeezed out,” Rabbi Savenor said.

In fact, he added, “research shows that at least a third of Americans can’t name the three branches of government, and that youth today don’t trust the government, and feel a high degree of helplessness and hopelessness in regard to American society and democracy.

“Distrust of the government didn’t begin in the last 20 years, or with the 2016 election,” he continued. “It began with Vietnam. And then there was Watergate, and the civil rights movement.

“But my professional opinion is that social media has made it much worse. It was more gas to a flame. It created a dynamic where I can say whatever I want to your virtual face, and if you don’t like it you can close the app or you can respond.

“This generation that grew up on social media, and even the ones before, that didn’t, have forgotten what it’s like when we’re face to face, not Facebook to Facebook. We have to learn how to dialogue across difference.

“That’s where Civic Spirit comes in.”

The organization was founded after the 2016 election, in response to the ugly divisions that it exposed. Its cofounders, Rabbi Robert S. Hirt and Virginia Bayer — “he used to be a senior vice president at Yeshiva University, and she is a past president of both the Heschel School” (that’s a community day school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side — “and the Jewish Center” — an Orthodox shul, also on the UWS — “and they were concerned about the country’s polarization,” Rabbi Savenor said. “Not about who was elected, but about the state of civil discourse. How could we ever cross the great divides that we saw? So they brought together thought leaders, clergy members, civic leaders, not only Jews, and talked about what they could do to help.

“Part of their vision was that if they were going to make an impact on society, it couldn’t be focused only on the Jewish community. They knew that we needed partners in other faith communities.

“That’s when they identified this niche, that there was no requirement that faith-based schools teach civic education. That civic education had to be promoted, and that people had to be trained in it.

“It was a prescient move, because as they worried about civic discourse, and about how American history was taught, civics and history were becoming contentious in classrooms all over the country. That means that teachers needed support. How do you approach American history and civics in a way that brings people together instead of dividing them further?”

It is important, Rabbi Savenor stressed, to know that “Civic Spirit is a nonpartisan, multifaith organization. We don’t take a political position. We don’t have a political agenda. As educators, which is what we at Civic Spirit are at our core, we believe that people will arrive at their own conclusions and make their own decisions.

“Our own opinions are not germane to our work. We are idealistic rather than ideological. We believe that if people are trained to have conversations about contentious topics — or any topics, for that matter — there can be positive outcomes.”

Civic Spirit’s approach is three-pronged, Rabbi Savenor said. It’s about civic belonging, democratic fluency, and civic skills.

It’s all about balance. “We call ourselves multifaith, not interfaith. Our agenda is civic education, working together in our own communities and making a larger community together.”

He was drawn to it because he’s a rabbi — he came to Civic Spirit after eight years as the director of congregational learning at Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan, a job he loved but decided to leave as the pandemic was ending because, well, the pandemic was ending. But there was more. “Over the last couple of years, as I watched what was happening in society, I asked what I could do, as a member of society, as a member of the clergy, as an educator, as a parent of a senior and a freshman in high school. I want them to inherit a society that is safe, trusting, hopeful, and optimistic.”

So he was drawn to Civic Spirit.

Civic Spirit runs teacher training programs for cohorts of educators; it offers an intensive and whenever-the-pandemic-permits in-person summer workshop, followed by programs over the course of the following school year, and then alumni programs after that.

“We work with 15 to 20 schools a year,” Rabbi Savenor said. One or two teachers per school comes to New York, and they listen to experts in their fields talk, they talk to each other, and they learn.

“There are differences between faith groups,” Rabbi Savenor said. When they study text together, “we find that we Jews are used to the chavruta experience and vigorous debate. It is part of who we are. In other communities, it’s not so much. Their understanding of the text comes from the interpretation of the text that they receive, and embracing that understanding is part of their faith. It creates an interesting dynamic when the educators are learners. It takes a while for them to understand the different approaches to educational norms and assumptions.”

So although the idea of drawing the cohorts of educators together is the fairly abstract notion of civic education, the realities of multifaith work, of understanding that real people are behind the abstractions, underlie the work and bring it to life. “We talk not only about civics but about faith, and faith becomes the connector,” Rabbi Savenor said.

Karina Judith Ortega of Youth Revive in Dallas, left, and Civic Spirit’s education director, Nina Taub of West Orange, work together.

The first cohort, in 2019, drew educators mostly from the Amtrak corridor. The next year, with covid stopping all in-person gatherings, the cohort, like the rest of the world, moved to Zoom. Making lemonade out of the pandemic’s lemons, “we had over 150 educators from 30 states,” Rabbi Savenor said.

Civic Spirit also runs programs for students. “In 2019, Civic Spirit Day brought together around 200 students from about 10 schools,” Rabbi Savenor said. Students “learned each other’s stories, and then worked together across differences on a civic challenge.” It’s been online only since then, “but we are planning on restarting it in person in the spring of 2023.” The organization also is planning a program for delegates to regional meetings. It also plans to expand to summer camps, where the opportunity for in-depth experiential learning is huge.

Civic Spirit has worked with teachers from local schools over the last few years, including the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston; Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls and Torah Academy of Bergen County, both in Teaneck; the Idea School in Tenafly; and the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford, as well as the nearly local SAR Academy in Riverdale, right over the bridge, which counts many local children and teenagers among its student body.

Nina Taub of West Orange is Civic Spirit’s director of education. She went to the organization after teaching at SAR and then, until the end of the last school year, at the Frisch Academy in Paramus. “I taught high school history, and for the last few years I noticed a lot of anxiety in my students,” she said. “I thought it was about covid at first, but last year I realized that it really wasn’t. Last year was a normal school year for us. The anxiety was about the world.

“I came to school the day after the war in Ukraine started, and the kids were worried about being drafted. I was shocked. I was also teaching a current events course for seniors, and they felt a lot of anxiety about their future, and the future of the world. I noticed that a lot of the kids were not exactly apathetic, but very skeptical about everything.

“They were raised in a world of misinformation and disinformation, with everyone trying to trick them. A student said that there was no such thing as a fact; that the U.S. has its facts and Putin has his facts.

“Everyone has noticed how our political beliefs and religious beliefs have become linked,” she continued. “Jewish day schools are not so politically diverse anymore”; in fact, schools’ parents seem to self-select. “I had to figure out how to do something about this.

“Any time I designed or taught a course as a high school teacher, it was about getting people to understand each other’s perspective,” Ms. Taub said. “To feel historical empathy. I was trying to get students to understand that people make the choices they make in context. I taught a class on Black history. I wanted to get Jewish kids to understand another perspective on American history; to be able to look at the world through another people’s eyes.

“That’s what drew me to Civic Spirit. It’s a place where dialogue was a value, and so was collaborating across differences.

So when the Civic Spirit job opened up, she applied for it and got it.

Cary Riker of the Torah Academy of Bergen County and Dacy Jirovetz of Milwaukee Jewish Day School are members of the 2022 cohort.

She’s looking forward to creating opportunities for students that are collaborative rather than competitive, “to try to work together to find a common solution” to the common problems that both beset and divide people.

She’s excited about the Civic Spirit Day. “We want it to be not just a day, but a yearlong process in which kids collaborate with other schools, or across groups in their school,” she said. “We want them to say, ‘Here is an issue, we will research it, understand the history, understand what other towns have done to solve it, and we will make a proposal.’

“It is focusing on students’ anxiety and hopelessness and shifting it toward working together. It’s focusing on small victories, on collaborating, on moving the needle. It’s really nice to do a canned food drive, and drives like that help, but it’s about what more can we do? How can we help stop the crisis, instead of just putting a Band-Aid on it?”

Faith-based and other private schools offer some advantages if you are going to teach civic education, Ms. Taub said. “Public schools have to be neutral; faith-based schools already have a sense of community and belonging. They already are geared toward helping the world. Tikkun olam” — repairing the world — “is a value across all traditions.” Working to help repair the world “expresses your Jewish values, but also your American values. It is your civic duty.

“Schools, especially faith-based ones, are charitable, mission-driven places, but the values usually are framed as Jewish or Catholic,” or, of course, the tradition of whatever the faith upon which the school is based might be. “But they’re also American values, and doing them is your civic duty.

“We are impelled to do this because we are in the image of God, but we reframe for students that this is also your civic duty. This is what makes good citizens. There is nothing wrong with turning inward, but we also want to look outward.”

Beryl Bresgi is the director of language arts and humanities at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County, and Harley Ungar teaches social studies. They both were part of Civic Spirit’s cohort last year; Ms. Ungar was at the summer intensive, and Ms. Bresgi joined her later.

They both raved about the program.

“We always put an emphasis on civics in the social studies program here, and we heard that Civic Spirit was working on the same set of issues, and also partnering with schools of all faith traditions,” Ms. Ungar said. “Our kids are blessed by being part of the Jewish community,” but she thought it would be both useful and inspirational to work outside it as well.

Tiphanie Shoemaker, Civic Spirit’s pedagogy advisor, center, talks to Beverley Madar of Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School in Brooklyn and Ari Levine of the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston.

It was the summer of 2020, so the program was on Zoom, as it was during the summer of 2021; Ms. Ungar feels that she gained as much as she lost by the tradeoffs the situation demanded. She might not have been able to make connections as deep as she’d been able to if she were in person — because that’s a counterfactual, she’ll never know — but instead she was able to engage with other teachers from far away, and to learn from professors who might not have been able to spare the time to join them in person.

“We got to learn from outstanding teachers,” she said. “There was an emphasis on pedagogy — how do you convey the knowledge and skills to students? And we were able to build relationships with teachers from across different faith communities who also teach social studies.

“Because I teach middle school, I was able to communicate and collaborate with other middle school teachers,” she continued. “I sought them out. I found a couple who were incredibly helpful. We shared lessons plans and bounced ideas off each other.

“I ended up doing a program with the founder of a Catholic school called the Lunem Verum Academy in the Boston area. I found her comments to be really thoughtful and provocative; we began talking offline and decided to do a program together.”

“We had three sessions where the children from both schools met on Zoom,” Ms. Bresgi said. “They studied a piece of text together. It was from Bereisheit,” the Book of Genesis, “about creation and resting and Shabbat. Our rabbi, Efrem Reis, conducted some of it, and we had small breakout groups where students were able to talk to one another.

“The discussion was about the text, but it was also to help them understand the different ways in which our religious traditions look at text and work with it. Rabbi Reis gave a more talmudic understanding of how our tradition works, and they had a Ph.D. student in Christian theology talk about how they approach text, and how it enters into liturgy, and how they pray. We talked about how you look at text and incorporate it into your belief system.”

“Our first session was more general,” Ms. Ungar said. “The Jewish kids tried to explain the point of keeping kosher, and the Catholic kids explained what Lent means for them.”

“One of the Catholic students said the Jewish approach reminded him of Thomas Aquinas, and he wondered if he learned it from the Jewish tradition,” Ms. Bresgi added.

Civics education is vitally important, the two teachers agreed. “It is in vogue these days, at least for American kids in this slice of the universe, to be negative on what America is, and how messed up we are,” Ms. Ungar said. “There is a dark side of our history, and we want to acknowledge it; we want to be critical and reflective. But we also want to be mindful of the benefits of what we have created as a country. We want to balance the good and the bad. We want to understand how government works, and to give the kids a sense of agency.

“I know it sounds cliched to say this, but they are our future leaders. We want them to feel ownership.

Rabbi Savenor, Civic Spirit’s executive director, talks with Professor Diana Schaub of Loyola University Maryland, who was among the educators teaching the teachers this summer.

“Civic Spirit has a framework that they call the head, the heart, and the hands. We use that metaphor. I remind our students that the head is understanding our history, and the heart is feeling connected and responsible for the future and making a difference.” The hands are the tools we all need to connect head and heart; to do the basic work that has to be done. “It means helping our students to develop the skills that enable them to be effective leaders. It’s media literacy.”

“Media literacy is about being able to sort truth out from propaganda,” Ms. Bresgi said. “It’s about being really literate; about being able to understand, read, and think critically.”

“Civics can be an empty term,” Ms. Ungar concluded. “Civic Spirit helps provide the blueprint and the pedagogical tools so we can implement that framework. We need head, heart, and hands, and Civic Spirit gives us the tools for all of them.”

Leah Litland teaches at the Kushner Academy. To say she loved her experience as a member of Civic Spirit’s most recent cohort would be to understate. “Pretend that I’m not a teacher or a member of the school,” she said. “Pretend that I had a million dollars. I wish I did, because I would give it to Civic Spirit.

“They’re that good.

“They’re in the business of creating the most fair, the most open opportunity for people to engage with civics in our democracy.

“It was one of the best PDs” — professional development programs — “that I have ever been to. And I have been teaching” — and so going to PDs — “for decades.”

She and a colleague, fellow Kushner teacher Ari Levine, “are just two people, but we have been impacting more than 100 kids.” Because each school is asked to send at least two teachers to each cohort, when those teachers return to school, they don’t feel like they’re doing something hard to explain to outsiders within the four walls of their classroom bubble. They can share ideas; they have a shared vocabulary and framework.

“It’s exciting — I’ve been teaching for 40-something years, and Ari is in his fourth year. The program ignited a lot of excitement for both of us.”

She and Mr. Levine are working together on a program they plan to start in the spring. “The kids are excited about it,” she said. “It’s a contest about the Supreme Court, and they’re really excited.

Kushner social studies teachers Linda Litland and Ari Levine were part of the same Civic Spirit cohort this summer and are working on a project together now. (Courtesy JKHA)

“Since when have you heard about kids getting excited about being quizzed on the Supreme Court?”

This summer, Ms. Litland and Mr. Levine were part of the cohort that met in person, at the New-York Historical Society, for four intense days. It’s been followed up with other online meetings, taught by experts. “It was different because they present the information, and then methods and strategies to implement it in useful and centered ways,” she said. “It wasn’t just theory. It was how-tos.

“The interfaith aspect of it was interesting because it offered us the opportunity to practice what we want our children to do,” she continued. “We want them to have dialogue that is helpful, supportive, and appropriate. There was one session that I thought was so helpful in that regard. It was about reframing divisive topics through dialogue, and she” — the instructor — “walked us through a method for creating safe, useful dialogue.

“I want to use it with my family!

“It was a paradigm change,” Ms. Litland continued, more seriously now. “Teachers like me — give me one more thing to teach, and I will blow up. But this showed us how these pieces of civic knowledge can be woven into what we’re already doing.

“I think that this can change the face of democracy, one teacher and one child at a time.”

Dr. Rivka Schwartz teaches history at SAR. Her involvement with Civic Spirit goes back to its very beginnings, in 2016. “In the wake of the election, and the divisions we saw in society generally, and in our Jewish community more specifically, there was a lot of concern about where things had gone,” she said. “We saw a lack of any feeling of what it meant to be a citizen.” It had all devolved into pure partisanship.

“Robert and Virginia Hirt, the cofounders of Civic Spirit, convened a group that started to talk about how we identify and address the problem.” Dr. Schwartz was part of that group. “What emerged was that religious schools had a particular vantage point to address the issue, because they were used to talking about values.

“We came together that summer, 2017, and brought together professors who were national experts in various fields.” And they also met with teachers from schools based in faiths other than Judaism. They realized that the differences between students in the various schools wasn’t only their religion or ethnicity; it was also about socioeconomics, demographics, immigration status. When they learned together, they also learned about each other.

“How do you talk about Jefferson, for example, when you’re talking to African American or Hispanic students?” Dr. Schwartz asked rhetorically. Some of the facts of Thomas Jefferson’s life would be a hard slap in the faces of other students, but it would not feel as visceral to most Jewish students, most of whom are white. There was also was the challenge of explaining to non-Jewish students how American Jews feel “an affinity to a different country, that is not the United States. How does it feel to be invested in America, and also in the well-being of another country? That had never crossed their minds.”

Later, Dr. Schwartz taught at other Civic Spirit cohorts, so she’s met many of the educators who have participated in it.

The group’s two missions — the primary one, to teach civics, and the secondary one, to encourage multifaith work — necessarily are entwined, she said. “I thought of the interfaith work as a side benefit — but a profound benefit — that has emerged from the work. And that is a very valuable lesson, and something that has carried over to the way Civic Spirit works with students on Civic Spirit Day.

“Instead of saying that we are bringing students together to do interfaith, we say that we are bringing them together to work on a problem that affects people. That way, it’s much more organic, and all sorts of interesting things come out.”

She remembers, from an early session, “when we were asked what we revere. The Jewish teachers all talked about revering texts, and the Catholic teachers talked about revering God. That wasn’t the point of the day — it was just an opener — but it was so powerful. We think differently and talk differently.” Still, “there was a great deal that we had in common. What we didn’t have in common was less about faith and more about race and class and immigration status.

“And so many powerful relationships came out of it, and some of them endure till this day.”

She mentioned a discussion that she had with Petrus Fortune, who teaches at a Catholic girls school in Brooklyn. “We were talking about the Thomas Jefferson problem,” she said. “A lot of us liberal white teachers said he was terrible. And Petrus said, ‘I tell my students that we are not giving up those words.” The Declaration of Independence. “Even if Jefferson didn’t mean it, he gave them to you. To us.’

“So the liberal white Jews weren’t sure, but Petrus said, ‘Take those words with both hands and run with it. Who cares what Thomas Jefferson meant? They’re yours now.’”

If there is any problem with Civic Spirit, it’s that “what it has accomplished is through deep, sustained, meaningful engagement, and that is hard to scale, and it’s labor intensive. You can’t make it happen faster or cheaper. If it means bringing together 24 people in the summer, with all the time and expense that entails, then you have to do it.

“Civic Spirit does great and powerful and valuable work,” Dr. Schwartz concluded. “And it’s work that we need to have done.”

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