September 26, 2023
September 26, 2023

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First-Ever Shomer Shabbat High School Group to Compete at Nat’l Speech and Debate Tournament

In less than two weeks, a group of Jewish students will make history at the 2023 National Speech and Debate Tournament in Phoenix, Arizona as the first ever Shabbat-observant group to attend the competition. These bright high schoolers hail from the Citron Online District, an organization chartered late last year that enables all students to compete in speech, debate and model congress regardless of religious observances. The Citron Online District, which has been facilitating a variety of online events and competitions, has a number of students who rank in the top four to six percent in the country—and now, they will get the chance to demonstrate their skills in persuasion and rhetoric with fellow top competitors.

The Citron Online District is chaired by Alex Libkind, who works full-time in software but has always had a passion for speech and debate. As a high schooler, Libkind competed in speech and debate, as well as model congress, and by the time his children were old enough to become interested in debate themselves, Libkind had an opportunity to take over as coach of their school’s team.

“The school was a part of the Yeshiva League debate system,” he explained. “And even though it was high school, it was not exactly what a high school debate should look like; it felt more like middle school. The scoring was different, students were only debating one side of a topic and that topic would rotate every tournament. I wanted to change it.”

And so, Libkind approached the principal of the school, HAFTR High School, and asked if they could host a Lincoln-Douglas debate with three other schools in the Five Towns using the national topic. “Students loved it,” he recalled.

The following year, Libkind’s team dropped out of the Yeshiva League as he began to reach out to various other public and parochial schools in the area to gauge interest in Shabbat-accommodating speech and debate tournaments on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. With enough enthusiasm, HAFTR began hosting tournaments for local Yeshivas and other schools in the Long Island Forensic Association, beginning with Lincoln-Douglas and public forum debate, and later adding congressional debate and speaking events.

“Everyone would drive out to Long Island, which limited our reach,” Libkind shared. “But then COVID came around—and we realized we could be offering our programming to schools across the country thanks to the virtual switch. We had teams from New Jersey, Florida and Georgia join us and we all were competing under the auspices of the National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA).”

Even with all of these events and tournaments, there was no formal organization or title for Libkind’s district; that is, until last year, when Libkind approached the NSDA about the qualifying tournaments for nationals, which have always been on Shabbat. “The national tournament is always Monday through Friday,” he explained. “The NSDA realized it was unfair that we did not get the chance to compete, and they gave us a national charter for an online district.”

And so, the Citron Online NSDA District was born in the fall of 2022, and now has 12 schools participating: HAFTR High School in the Five Towns; North Shore Academy in Great Neck, New York; Katz Yeshiva High School in Florida; Rambam Mesivta, also in the Five Towns; Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School in Teaneck; DRS Yeshiva High School in the Five Towns; Ramaz in Manhattan; SAR High School in Riverdale; Stella K Abraham (SKA) High School in the Five Towns; the IDEA School in Tenafly; The Schechter School of Long Island; and Yeshiva University High School for Girls (Central) in Queens.

The Citron Online District’s online tournaments average between 50 and 100 competitors, and include the following: Lincoln-Douglas debate, which is one-on-one; public forum debate, which is two-on-two; extemporaneous debate, in which students are surprised with the topic with less than an hour to prepare and must debate four rounds on both sides; worlds debate, which is a parliamentary style three-on-three; congressional debate; impromptu speaking; biblical speaking, which is a drasha tournament; radio speaking; and poetry reading.

Sam Passner, a senior at the IDEA School, shared his excitement for the national tournament with The Jewish Link and how the Citron Online District has impacted him. “I’ve been competing within a certain group, and now I’ll be able to show my skills to students from all over and demonstrate my passion for this,” he said.

Passner, who will be attending George Washington University and plans to pursue a career in politics or law, explained that he is looking forward to utilizing the skills he’s picked up from competing in speech and debate. “I’ve seen a lot of my fellow competitors become better at being open-minded, since when we debate, we have to understand all sides of the argument. It’s a great opportunity to be flexible in our opinions and build stronger advocacy skills … that’s why I’ve really cherished my debate experience.”

Libkind echoed a similar sentiment—that competing in speech and debate really opens the mind of competitors. “These students have been sort of isolated in the Yeshiva League bubble, and now they’ll get exposure to other students from across the country,” he shared. “It’s really important to appreciate everyone’s opinions and appreciate the arguments on all sides of a topic. In debate, you may not agree with a position, but you have to learn to understand it and advocate for it; that is a real-world skill.”

Once at the National Speech and Debate Tournament, which takes place this year from June 11 to 16, Libkind hopes that the Citron Online District competitors will come to realize that their skills hold up against thousands of other nationally-ranked students. “This is like the Super Bowl … it’s the best of the best. I want them to see other students of their caliber and know that they can hold their own.”

The Citron Online District is raising funds ahead of the competition to ease the cost of attendance, with the ultimate goal of $30,000 before their arrival in Phoenix. To support the first-ever Shabbat-observant NSDA organization, visit

If you’re interested in participating in any of the Citron Online District’s speech and debate events or sessions, please contact Alex Libkind at [email protected] and visit to learn more.

Out of the many competitors in these events, 17 students have qualified for the National Speech and Debate Tournament, all of whom rank nationally with the NSDA:

Miriam Blech (Prose & Impromptu)—Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School

Joshua Reich (Public Forum)—Katz Yeshiva High School

Kaitlin Pollack (Congressional)—HAFTR High School

Batya Kimyagarov (Congressional)—SKA High School

David Mastour (Extemporaneous)—Rambam Mesivta

Sam Passner (Worlds)—IDEA School

Sophia Feiler (Congressional)—HAFTR High School

Maya Karasanti (Worlds)—HAFTR High School

Menachem Lotwin (Worlds)—Rambam Mesivta

Ben Cohen (Worlds)—Katz Yeshiva High School

Joseph Norman (Public Forum)—Katz Yeshiva High School

Michal Mari (Extemporaneous)—HAFTR High School

Noa Sharon (Lincoln-Douglas)—HAFTR High School

Dasi Well (Worlds)—HAFTR High School

Daniel Stein (Congressional)—Rambam Mesivta

Ryan Winkler (Extemporaneous)—North Shore Academy

Elizabeth Mirharoon—North Shore Academy

Channa Fischer is digital editor of The Jewish Link and is the resident 20-something in the office. She resides in Washington Heights.

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