There's no arguing that the girls debate team at Torah Academy of Greater Philadelphia has come a long way in a relatively short time. Only in its second full season, it has amassed an impressive string of victories against educational institutions with larger student bodies and more established debating traditions.
The eight-member squad recently placed first in a regional competition for Orthodox girls high schools. At a meet on April 16 in Elizabeth, N.J., the team beat out four others that hailed from New York and New Jersey. Torah Academy debater Lauren Sherman, 17, placed third overall in individual rankings.
While the debate may have taken place on the same day as the nationally televised encounter between Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the high school participants said that, in terms of style and substance, their meet more closely resembled the Lincoln-Douglas debates than the more recent Democratic presidential forum held across the river in Philly.
"[Debating] prepares the girls in terms of formulating an argument — using logic, knowing how to express yourself without hostility and how to spin your opponent's strengths into your strengths," explained Brendy Siev, who coaches the team and who also teaches English at the Wynnewood school attended by roughly 80 girls.
"Once students are forced to get up there in public and really [be] articulate — use real arguments and real proofs — their writing improves, their thinking improves, and the way they discuss things in class improves," she added.
At two other competitions that took place earlier in 2008, the girls took home first- and second-place honors, respectively, having competed at times against schools that have student populations three or four times the size of theirs. They have one more competition slated for June, though the date and topic haven't been set.
At the April 16 tournament, the girls debated the pros and cons of a topical and contentious issue: Should the federal government deport illegal immigrants?
Sherman, for one, personally supports such a measure; she contends that not doing so sends a message to the world that the United States doesn't care about its own laws.
But after choosing to advocate the other side, she then researched the issue from varying points of view, and her personal convictions became less assured. She said that she now sees the issue of deportation as something "less [than] black and white."
"We do immense amounts of research," said Sherman, adding that it's important to go into a debate with a good idea of what arguments her opponents will utilize. She also noted that the spirit of reasoned argument and debate is imbedded in Jewish tradition, particularly in the Talmud.
"The thrill that I really feel when I get up there — where I have the ability to proudly represent my school and my position — is something that I would love to carry on throughout my life," said Sherman, who hopes one day to become a lawyer.
Teammate Shifra Levy, 17, isn't quite set on law school just yet, though she said her parents are certainly encouraging her to consider it. For now, she's just enjoying the camaraderie and added confidence that debating gives her — not to mention the ability to win an argument or two with family and friends.
"When I think that I am right, I know how to show you that I am right," said the junior.
In addition to the coaching they've received from Siev, team members have gotten some help from a few experienced debaters. One is Rabbi Ephraim Goldfein, a Bala Cynwyd attorney who'd "done a little bit of debating in high school and college." Goldfein has a daughter at the school, although she isn't on the debate team. (She is, however, on the Torah Bowl team, which recently became regional champions and is getting set for the national competition.)
"The skills they bring to bear," he said, "are a tremendous benefit in anything they may do."