The inaugural event for Civic Spirit, a program dedicated to engaging students at religious schools in civics—the study of the rights and duties of citizenship—took place on Wednesday, May 1. Civic Spirit Day took place at the JCC Manhattan on Amsterdam Avenue, with roughly 140 students and 240 adults including teachers, speakers and staff. The program is only a year old, beginning as a way to bring religious students of different faiths together to learn how to engage in their democracy, and participating schools spent the year teaching various civics or government courses in conjunction with the program.
According to the National Education Association, all 50 states require some form of instruction in either civics or government in public schools, and 90% of public school students take at least one civics class. Religious and parochial schools do not always have this requirement, and because of this, these students may be less informed about their government. “Civic Spirit Day was designed to give the students of our Civic Spirit network the opportunity to meet and connect with others who come from very different backgrounds…religious schools have so much to add to our national conversation. They cultivate character development and service in their students,” said Lindsay Bressman, Civic Spirit’s director of communication.
There are currently 13 schools participating in the program, both Jewish and Catholic, including MTA, Central, Frisch, SAR Academy and Ramaz. The day kicked off with a non-denominal “Prayer for America,” which students had written prior to the day of the event, responding to the prompt of: “What are you grateful for? What do you hope for a government designed by and for the people?”
The students were then faced with a challenge: to talk about the impact they had on their community or vice versa, but to a group of students they had never met, from partner schools. In this exercise, students were encouraged to find similarities between their communities and backgrounds, different as they may be. Although this activity introduced students to each other, they were truly brought together when working on a common goal: creating a poster and a radio “ad” for a potential volunteer program to help better New York City. Serena Bane, a 12th grader at the Frisch School, said, “It was a really good experience to interact in a structured yet still relaxed setting with people I never would have otherwise met.”
Civic Spirit Day was meant to cater to students ages 12 to 18 (middle through high school) but some students felt certain aspects of the event were more appropriate for sixth or seventh graders at the oldest. Eliana Suldan, a 12th grader at the Frisch School, was one of many who expressed this sentiment: “It felt like they were babying us, it was too warm and fuzzy. They should have incorporated more political discussion instead.”
A survey was sent out to students the night after Civic Spirit Day, asking them to rate their experiences and leave comments about what they liked or what could have been changed. According to Bressman, “We are carefully reading through surveys and assessing how we can refine our activities to better serve the needs and desires of our students and educators.”
Civic Spirit also has plans for new programming in the coming year, including “action civics” training for teachers and a student leadership council that will work with local government. The group presents its mission as critical for teaching the next generation of voting-age citizens that they have the ability to bring about change in their government. Fortunately, Civic Spirit inspires those years away from voting up through those eligible to vote in the next election in exercising their Constitutional right to “alter or reform” our democracy for the public good.
By Ariella Weiss
Ariella Weiss is a senior at The Frisch School who is currently interning at The Jewish Link.