Teaching ‘Civic Spirit’ In The Trump Era


A veteran history teacher at SAR High School in Riverdale, Rivka Schwartz was, like many people in the United States, disturbed by the vitriol she heard during the presidential campaign two years ago.

Particularly upset by comments made by many members of her Modern Orthodox community, including from SAR students, she took part in discussions on the topic under the auspices of the school’s Machon Siach research institute. But she also looked for a more extensive opportunity to bring her students a message of mutual respect and the importance of citizenship and of the country’s democratic institutions, which have seemed under attack in the Trump presidency.

That opportunity will start next month.

Schwartz will lead a weekly, semester-long senior elective course on American citizenship. SAR is among 12 local private religious high schools — half of them Modern Orthodox; half Roman Catholic, part of the La Salle educational movement — taking part in a pilot program coordinated by the year-old non-partisan Civic Spirit organization.

Civic Spirit, incubated at Hillel International and shepherded by Rabbi Robert Hirt, a former vice president of the Yeshiva University rabbinical school, calls itself the first-such effort to introduce the teaching of civics — long a staple of most schools in the U.S. until supplanted by STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects several decades ago — into religious schools.

Funded for an initial three years, the project is then intended to expand to other schools across the country, probably including Protestant and Muslim institutions, Rabbi Hirt said. It’s another sign of remedial civics education in the U.S.; according to the Center for American Progress, only nine states and the District of Columbia require a full year of civics education, and test results and surveys indicate that few citizens have a basic knowledge of the structure of the government and of civic institutions.

Schwartz wants to correct that at SAR.

She has designed her course’s curriculum to reflect Torah values, particularly prophetical teachings. To prepare for her new course, she was among a few dozen teachers and administrators who participated in a recent, week-long orientation seminar at the Upper West Side Macaulay Honors College.

Each of the participants, who will individualize his or her course to the needs of the students and the school’s philosophical leanings, shared ideas with colleagues, heard presentations on such topics as “The Value of Citizenship” and “Religion and Democratic Virtue,” and received a 220-page spiral-bound photo-copied curriculum whose cited experts ranged from Plato and Thomas Jefferson to Horace Mann and Herman Melville.

The project stresses the thoughts of the Founding Fathers, said Tamara Mann Tweel, director of Civic Spirit, who works in Hillel International’s Office of Innovation. “You need to explain the value of citizenship … from a religious perspective,” she said.

“Gratitude,” said Rabbi Hirt, who helped develop the project with his wife, Virginia Bayer, a philanthropist and former president of the Upper West Side synagogue The Jewish Center, “is a Jewish concept.”

As part of the project, each school will develop a hands-on civics-related project. Schwartz said she will let her students help determine the focus of their class’ activity. The civics class of the Yeshiva University High School for Girls will concentrate on voter enrollment, said Audi Hecht, a history teacher.

The Catholic schools, many of which have a large number of minority students, many of whom are from immigrant families, will emphasize concepts familiar to their communities. The civics course at Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School in the Clinton Hill section of Brooklyn will center around race, for its overwhelmingly African-American student body, said history teacher Petrus Fortune.

Schwartz said she will judge her class successful if she hears more willingness to listen, “even when we disagree with each other. I want the students to understand what their American citizenship means, beyond their name on a passport.”