Authors Posts by Alex Petroski

Alex Petroski

Alex Petroski

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Rella speaks out against standardized testing in 2015. File photo

A community and school district stalwart will be returning to his position for at least one more year, following a unanimous school board vote to extend his contract.

“I know where I’m going next year now, thank you,” Superintendent Joe Rella said to applause when the board vote to extend his contract passed at Monday’s board of education meeting. “Nowhere.”

Rella has opposed extending his contract any further than the 2016-17 school year, according to Susan Casali, the district’s assistant superintendent for business.

The extension came with a 2 percent pay raise, bringing Rella’s salary to $212,160 for the next school year. His health care contributions are remaining the same, with him kicking in 17 percent to his premiums.

Many Comsewogue residents as well as those within the greater Long Island and New York State areas know Rella for his vocal opposition to state testing and the Common Core Learning Standards. He has hosted or attended numerous protests and forums on the topics, and spoken against the standardized testing practices that he says are harmful to children.

The superintendent started working in Warriors country as a music teacher at John F. Kennedy Middle School. Before becoming a district administrator, he served as the Comsewogue High School principal.

Holtsville Hal, his handler Greg Drossel and Master of Ceremonies Wayne Carrington make their way onstage to cheers and applause on Groundhog Day. Photo by Alex Petroski

To the delight of about 100 people in attendance on Tuesday, it was announced that famed Brookhaven groundhog Holtsville Hal did not see his shadow, indicating spring would come early this year.

Excited Holtsville Hal fans collected streamers as a keepsake from Groundhog Day. Photo by Alex Petroski
Excited Holtsville Hal fans collected streamers as a keepsake from Groundhog Day. Photo by Alex Petroski

Hal made his yearly Groundhog Day appearance at Brookhaven Town’s Holtsville Wildlife and Ecology center at about 7:30 a.m., before a crowd with fresh memories of being walloped with more than 2 feet of snow in a recent blizzard.

Tradition says that if Hal — or, as he’s known in the Town of Brookhaven as a throwback to the classic Bill Murray movie “Groundhog Day,” the Great Prognosticator of Prognosticators — sees his shadow when he wakes from hibernation on Groundhog Day, the community is in for six more weeks of winter.

“As I stood by my burrow and looked to the ground, there was no shadow for me to be found,” Brookhaven Town Highway Superintendent Dan Losquadro (R) read from a large scroll as Hal was presented to the mass of onlookers. “So kids and their families, put away your sleds and snow blowers.” There were raucous cheers.

Holtsville Hal is presented to a group of young onlookers on Groundhog Day. Photo by Alex Petroski
Holtsville Hal is presented to a group of young onlookers on Groundhog Day. Photo by Alex Petroski

Holtsville Hal was handled by Greg Drossel as he posed for photos with Master of Ceremonies Wayne Carrington, Councilmen Neil Foley (R) and Dan Panico (R) and Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D), members of the Holtsville Fire Department and many others. He even posed for a selfie with one young admirer.

Last year, Hal also predicted an early spring. This year he might be right, if only just for Tuesday, as those who woke up early to attend the event were treated to a mild, sunny morning by the time the groundhog made his much-anticipated appearance.

With the viewers in good spirits, Carrington reminded the crowd to donate whatever they could to the ecology center to support its programs.

This version corrects the spelling of Councilwoman Valerie Cartright’s name.

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Team “Extra” Ordinary poses for a photo before jumping into the cold water of Cedar Beach during the 6th annual Polar Plunge last November. Photo from Robert Fitton

A 12-year-old student from North Country Road Middle School in Miller Place raised over $5,000 for the Special Olympics. All that Robert Fitton had to do was jump into the near-freezing Long Island Sound at Cedar Beach last November.

That’s exactly what Fitton and his team of 16 middle school students did as part of the 6th annual Polar Plunge, a yearly tradition around the country where people sprint into freezing waters to raise money for various causes. Fitton was recognized and honored at the Miller Place School Board meeting last week, accompanied by his mother Concetta; father, Robert; sister, Mary; and brother, Thomas.

It was actually the third time that Fitton had taken the courageous dive into unfathomably cold water. In 2013, inspired by the birth of Thomas that July, Concetta Fitton convinced him to give it a try. Thomas was born with Down syndrome. Fitton said the idea to raise money for the Special Olympics was easy because Thomas might one day take part in the games. For now, Fitton see’s his younger brother as a budding football, wrestling or baseball star.

“You can always give back,” Fitton said. “It’s personal to me because he’s so cute. It was really supposed to be a fun thing at first, but it got more serious once it progressed. In general you can always give back.”

The harsh water temperature wasn’t enough to slow Fitton down after his first plunge in 2013.

“The first year was by far the worst,” Fitton said. “The day we did the plunge it was frigid. Last year was really cold, too. Once you get into that water you don’t really feel it.”

Fitton’s parents are proud of their son for turning the event into a yearly cause. Fitton told his dad in 2013 that he didn’t want him to join him in the freezing water because “I want to do this for my brother, I’m doing this myself,” according to the elder Robert.

“I never thought that he got what it was to tie it into the Special Olympics,” Concetta Fitton said about her son’s first plunge. “I didn’t think he put two and two together, but then he’s running into the water yelling ‘this is for Thomas,’” she said.

Team “Extra” Ordinary—
Ella & Nathan Botticelli
Spencer Bruno
Isabella DiGregorio
Robby Fitton
Ryan Gilbert
Casey Gilbert
Justin Klein
Andrew Marino
Gregory Marino
Katie Marino
Patrick McNally
Ann McNulty
Matthew Petrie
Denise Pizzo
Hannah Rathburn
Julia Schreck
Dominic Testa
Michael Vallary
Nicholas Vallary

Back then it was just Fitton and one of his cousins taking the plunge. However, inspired by the costumes and celebratory nature of the event, Fitton decided to approach the 2014 plunge from a leadership role. He registered a team and got together about eight friends, according to Concetta Fitton.

In 2015, the number of teammates Fitton lead doubled, and after hanging flyers, calling family and friends and posting on social media asking for sponsors.

The team calls themselves Team “Extra” Ordinary, a nod to Thomas and the extra chromosome associated with Down syndrome. The team also wears blue and yellow to each event, to represent the colors for Down Syndrome Awareness.

Fitton wanted to be clear that he did not accomplish this on his own. He said that without his teammates, he wouldn’t have come anywhere close to the $5,000 mark.

“We don’t do enough to recognize somebody that goes above and beyond,” North Country Road Principal Matt Clark said as he presented Fitton with his award at the board of education meeting. “This is well above and beyond in my opinion … with his leadership skills and his ability to facilitate a team, they did a fabulous job. I want to recognize Robert for his endeavor and his dedication to his brother as well.”

Clark added that he doubted this would be the last time that Robert would be acknowledged by the district for doing something admirable. His mother said that he felt guilty that his friends weren’t recognized for their efforts in raising the money at the meeting as well.

“You always want to think that your kids are awesome,” she said. “Just to know he’s doing this, taking the leadership role and doing this for his brother, it’s amazing … He’s a good kid and he’s doing this for a great cause. We’re extremely proud of him.”

Her husband agreed.

“I was very happy because, anytime you volunteer to give back to the community is very important, and the fact that he did it for my other son is extra special,” he said. “If you get them to do this at a young age hopefully they continue to do it and give back.”

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Senator Chuck Schumer is taking wireless network companies to task for poor service in areas of Long Island. File photo by Elana Glowatz

The dangers of social media and overall Internet use for children will be the topic of conversation at a parent workshop at Miller Place High School on Tuesday night.

Thomas Grimes of NY Finest Speakers gives a speech. Photo from Grimes
Thomas Grimes of NY Finest Speakers gives a speech. Photo from Grimes

Retired NYPD detective Thomas Grimes will be the speaker at the event, which is open to all parents in the district, from elementary through high school.

“The goal of the parent Internet safety workshop is to understand potential life-threatening scenarios, social networking and how to protect your child from innocent behaviors that predators utilize to plan the perfect ambush,” a press release from the district about the event said.

Grimes was a 20-year veteran of the NYPD and now owns “NY Finest Speakers,” a company which was formed in 2007 and is made up of former detectives and a former secret service agent, according to their website. Those officials are “dedicated to educating and protecting today’s young people and their parents from threats posed by Internet usage and drug involvement,” the release said.

During his 20 years in the NYPD, Grimes spent time in various task forces focused on organized crime and drug trafficking.

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Talking wine with Louisa Hargrave

By Alex Petroski


The frigid temperatures and daunting weather last weekend aside, spring is right around the corner. It’s never too early to start thinking about fun weekend activities for the warm weather. I could think of none better to act as a guide to the vineyards of the North Fork than the woman who is widely considered the “Mother of the Long Island wine industry.”

‘The people that work at the wineries now work together. I think it’s something that does evolve as a region goes along.’ — Louisa Hargrave
‘The people that work at the wineries now work together. I think it’s something that does evolve as a region goes along.’ — Louisa Hargrave

Louisa Hargrave and her then-husband Alex Hargrave were pioneers of the Long Island wine scene back in the early 1970s. The couple drove cross-country to Napa Valley to learn more about the art of growing grapes in 1972, Louisa Hargrave said in a phone interview this week. Though they knew nothing about wine, the couple was eager to learn and to find an ideal place to grow grapes that would produce delicious, French-style wines.

“If you’re pioneers, you’ll be the ones with arrows in your backs,” Hargrave said was a piece of advice she was given before she began her wine growing endeavor on Long Island. “We’re 24 and 25 years old. If this doesn’t work we’ll try something else. We were very excited to find this special place,” she said.

Long Island’s climate was especially conducive to growing nicely ripened fruit, the Hargraves would soon find out once they got to work.

“[The wines] had a particularly vivacious quality. The reds came out a little bit lighter then we had hoped, but they had such complexity,” Hargrave said. Things have only gotten better with improvements to technology and technique. Teamwork has also played an important role in the development of the region as a whole, Hargrave said.

“One of the things I see that’s so terrific now is there were separate capsules of people then; now it’s a real industry,” Hargrave said. “The people that work at the wineries now work together. I think it’s something that does evolve as a region goes along. I have seen it in California. There are some people that are so dogmatically noninterventionists that look at the grapes and hope they turn into wine.”

Those noninterventionists with that frame of mind are luckily few and far between on Long Island, according to Hargrave.

When asked what her favorite wineries to visit from her current residence in Jamesport are, Hargrave answered quickly and definitively — Pellegrini Vineyards in Cutchogue. Her answer comes with a bit of bias however, being that her son Zander Hargrave is currently their winemaker.

“I visit my son’s winery quite often,” she said with a laugh.

McCall Wines in Cutchogue was another of her favorites that she mentioned. McCall is the true essence of the North Fork (winemakers Russ and Brewster McCall),” Hargrave said. “To go there, it’s just so low key. It’s really just the essence of the North Fork.”

For her favorite wine picks, other than Zander’s Pellegrini Sauvignon Blanc, Hargrave mentioned Lenz Cuvée, a sparkling white from the Lenz Winery in Peconic made by winemaker Eric Fry, which she said was on par with French Champagnes. As far as reds go, Paumanok’s Petit Verdot from winemaker Kareem Massoud stood out to her.

For the last leg of winter, bundle up, grab some Long Island wines and fantasize about warmer days ahead on the North Fork. Also, keep an eye out for the “Get to know a Long Island winery” series once a month in Arts & Lifestyles.

Devin Mollberg steps into mixed martial arts arena

Devin Mollberg, left, trains at Red Dragon Jiu-Jitsu in Centereach. Photo from Mollberg

Some people watch mixed martial arts fights on television and think “that’s brutal,” or “that’s barbaric,” or “that’s too violent.” Some don’t know what it is at all.

But North Shore native Devin Mollberg described the anything-goes, hand-to-hand combat style differently.

“It’s really exhilarating…It’s just an adrenaline rush,” said Mollberg, a 28-year-old Ward Melville High School graduate and a veteran of the United States Marine Corps, about his favorite pastime. Mollberg grew up in Stony Brook, where he returned home from Afghanistan following his second tour of duty in late 2014. His first tour deployed him to Japan and South Korea. During his enlistment, he was stationed in Twentynine Palms, California.

“It’s kind of a tough transition,” Mollberg said in an interview last week about adjusting back to home life after four years in the military. “It’s kind of like, you leave home and then when you come back four years later everything’s a lot different. So it’s kind of tough getting back into the routine of things.”

Mollberg, like countless other veterans, said he realized the importance of finding ways to regain a feeling of normalcy upon returning home. Mixed martial arts has provided him with that.

“I started doing Brazilian jiu-jitsu when I was a teenager,” Mollberg said. “I’d always trained jiu-jitsu and boxing even throughout my entire enlistment. I would train at schools in California.”

Mollberg has been involved in two jiu-jitsu tournaments in his life, one in Okinawa, Japan, and one in 2015 in St. James. He said he decided to use his boxing, jiu-jitsu and military training blend to pursue a mixed martial arts career. Generally speaking, the most successful MMA fighters tend to use a seamless blend of multiple disciplines to create their own style.

He gave MMA a full endorsement as a way for veterans to channel some of their emotions upon returning home.

“It’s definitely a great thing for veterans to get into,” Mollberg said. “It helps you stay calm.”

“Devin’s a goal-setter and a go-getter,” Nick Galatro, a friend of Mollberg’s for about a decade, said in an interview. “When he puts his mind to something he won’t stop until he gets it and he’s probably the most humble guy I know. You will never hear how great he is from his mouth,” Galatro said.

“It’s just an important skill set that I think is something that you should have,” Mollberg said about what initially drew him to fighting. “It’s definitely a passion of mine. I love fighting.” Some of his other passionate interests include rooting for the New York Jets and Knicks. He follows the Jets with the same intensity as a cage fighter.

Though he hasn’t yet been in an MMA “cage fight,” his training and preparation are currently geared toward making that debut in 2016. Mollberg trained for the Brazilian jiu-jitsu tournament in 2015 at Red Dragon Jiu-Jitsu in Centereach. He is in the process of selecting a suitable gym for his foray into MMA.

Long Island natives have experienced some success in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, mixed martial arts’ most popular governing organization.

Chris Weidman, who fights out of Baldwin, spent time as the UFC middleweight division champion. Chris Wade of Islip won his 11th professional bout in a UFC match Sunday.

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Housing committee member Annemarie Vinas addresses the school board at Tuesday’s meeting. Photo by Alex Petroski

With a possible deficit looming, the Smithtown Central School District board of education is moving closer to a decision on the fate of its eight elementary schools, following a public work session on Jan. 19 and a board meeting on Jan. 26.

Discussions between the school board and the community were getting emotional this week.

Superintendent James Grossane, with the help of Assistant Superintendent for Finance and Operations Andrew Tobin, backed up his five recommendations to the school board from a November 2015 housing report with statistics at the work session on Jan. 19.

“I can’t tell you that 2017-18 will be the deficit year, but it’s becoming more and more likely as we look out ahead that 2017-18, maybe 2018-19, if we don’t get those type of increases, we know our expenses are going to go up, we’re going to certainly be facing it at some point,” Tobin said during the work session.

At the work session the board, along with Grossane, discussed the findings of the housing report that made five recommendations, labeled Options 1 through 5, for money saving measures.

Of the five recommendations, all suggested closing at least one of the district’s eight elementary schools. Grossane’s report said that closing one elementary school would save the district $725,000 annually.

Four of the five options included closing Branch Brook Elementary, which caused an uprising among district parents and started a Save Branch Brook movement that included petitions, Facebook pages, presentations to the school board and matching blue T-shirts.

Meredith Lombardi, a resident in the district, made a heartfelt plea to the board on Tuesday night.

“I was in sixth grade and my school district was redistricted,” Lombardi said. “I was ripped from my school. I was told that I was going to be going to a new one.”

Lombardi expressed a fear of putting her three children through the same experience that she had.

“If you allow one of our schools to close, the children affected will never be the same,” Lombardi said.

Lombardi was one of eight “Save Branch Brook” parents who stepped up to the podium to address the board Tuesday night. Katie Healy was another.

“Branch Brook is our most efficient and cost effective school,” Healy said. “Branch Brook is not the school to close. It is the wrong place and the wrong time. Closing Branch Brook will not solve our district’s problems, it will just add more,” Healy said.

At the time that the recommendations were made, it was unclear what lead Grossane to suggest closing Branch Brook as a course of action. Parents from the Save Branch Brook contingent conducted their own housing-committee-style research and concluded that Branch Brook was the elementary school least deserving of closure based on building occupancy, square foot per student, students per usable classroom and utility cost.

They also offered their own recommendation, Option 6, which suggested that based on their findings Smithtown Elementary was the school that should be closed.

It is now clear what led Grossane to suggest Branch Brook for closure, records showed. The number of elementary school classrooms that feed students to the district’s two high schools must be close.

Currently, the eight elementary schools send 116 classrooms worth of students to Smithtown West when they reach ninth grade and 114 to Smithtown East, according to Grossane.

If Branch Brook were closed and district boundaries were not redrawn, 114 elementary classes would still be fed to East, while 96 would be sent to West.

This is a discrepancy that Grossane is comfortable with. Closing Smithtown Elementary, for example, which was put on the table by the community’s Option 6, would result in 114 elementary classrooms for East and 84 for West.

Grossane said that there would be no choice but to redistrict if that was the option that the board selected.

Additionally, the district needs to select a school for closure that does not leave their potential elementary school capacity vulnerable to growing enrollment. Grossane’s report said that even if the board chose Option 5, which would close Branch Brook and Dogwood Elementary schools, the district would be able to handle roughly 800 additional elementary students on top of the approximately 3,700 elementary school students enrolled for 2015-16 across the eight schools.

Closing one or two elementary schools would obviously increase average class size, though Grossane called instances where any classes would reach a district implemented maximum of 28 students “outliers.”

“Every school has a grade level that runs almost to maximum,” Grossane said at the work session. “If we close a building and we operate with seven, those outliers would smooth out. They’d shift. There would still be an outlier occasionally in every building. I’m not going to tell you there isn’t going to be a class in fifth grade that doesn’t have a 28 at some point within the next six years after we close a building, because there definitely will be. But it’s usually one grade per building. Most times, the class averages even out across the district.”

Members of the school board responded to Grossane’s findings as well as the overwhelming public comments from the previous meetings.

“I have been doing a lot of housing committee work over my time on the board,” Theresa Knox, a trustee on the board of education said on the 19th. “I’ve been through this within my own neighborhood, as many of you know. My children were not affected by the closing of Nesconset, but all of the children on the end of my little dead-end block were. And I have to look at them everyday. And they’re doing great.”

Knox responded to parents concerned about which elementary school their kids would be sent to if closures were carried out. “It had better be, that all of our elementary buildings are fine, educational, welcoming, nurturing, caring places.”

Discussions about the sale and/or repurposing of the district’s administration headquarters on New York Avenue in Smithtown are ongoing as well.

Public comments are not permitted during public work sessions. More debate and eventually a decision are inevitable in the coming weeks.

A date has not yet been selected for a vote on the matter.

Some question why district’s proposed plan covers less

Northport High School. File photo

After a lengthy battle, Northport-East Northport school district’s security greeters have been offered health care benefits. But the fight may not be over.

Although the district has presented health insurance plans to the nine full-time greeters, some say the plans are expensive and don’t treat them the same as other district employees.

The duties of a greeter, also known as a security monitor, include monitoring who is coming and going from a school building, assisting in late arrivals and early releases and helping parents get forgotten items to the students, among other day-to-day tasks that may arise. The position was established about 10 years ago, according to the district supervisor of security, and the district employs one full-time greeter for each of their six elementary schools, two middle schools and one high school.

Under the plans, the district would pay 60 percent of the greeters’ health coverage, according to Diane Smith, the greeter who has led the charge for benefits.

Contracts on the district’s website indicate that it pays 75 percent of superintendent Robert Banzer’s coverage, 82 percent for administrators, 79 percent for teachers and 86 percent for security guards.

Diane Smith has been asking for health care benefits for her and her fellow employees for months. Photo from Smith
Diane Smith has been asking for health care benefits for her and her fellow employees for months. Photo from Smith

Smith said she is grateful the district granted greeters health care coverage —“I’m happy to get that, it’s fabulous to have any kind of a break,” Smith said in an email — but she wants treatment equal to fellow employees, specifically security guards.

When asked about the difference between greeters and security guards, the district said in a statement, “Security guards and security monitors are civil service appointments. Both positions require security certifications and the ongoing completion of security training.”

As is, the employee contribution for the greeters’ proposed insurance on a family plan “will cost us exactly every other entire paycheck,” she said. “How did they come up with that [number]?”

Smith’s salary is $20,000.

According to Smith, the greeters were offered more affordable plans, one of which would have covered 75 percent of health care costs, but they wouldn’t have provided coverage for families. She said in addition to working as a greeter full time, she has been working a second job part time to pay for private health insurance for herself and her two kids.

“Each year the district examines its policies in an effort to further benefit our valued employees,” Banzer said in a statement through the district’s public relations firm, Syntax. “Through prudent budgeting and research with our providers, we are pleased to offer multiple health care coverage options to our greeters. Although the district has not provided this coverage in the past, as it is not required, we felt it was an important step to make this available to them.”

Despite her criticism, Smith expressed gratitude.

“It’s still really good,” she said in a phone interview Monday. “I would not turn it down. It would help my income for sure.”

Smith had a meeting with a district insurance specialist on Wednesday to get some more questions answered and ultimately decide on a plan.

According to her, the greeters must sign up by Feb. 1 to begin getting coverage.


Jim Polansky file photo by Rohma Abbas

New federal and state education rules are trickling down to the local level, and Huntington school district is figuring out how to adapt.

In a presentation to the school board Monday night, Superintendent Jim Polansky led a discussion about the state’s changes to the Common Core curriculum and the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act and what they mean for the district going forward.

President Barack Obama (D) signed the act in December 2015, to succeed Republican President George W. Bush’s controversial No Child Left Behind Act of 2002. The new act emphasizes college- and career-readiness and shifts more responsibility on testing from the federal level to the states.

“Board members asked me what implications this holds for New York,” Polansky said. “I’m not sure. New York is right now in a position where things have to be addressed in a manner that this act dictates, and we’ll be watching very carefully as to exactly what happens here.”

Although No Child Left Behind and more recently Common Core have been controversial with educators and parents, board trustee Emily Rogan said she doesn’t want the original spirit of the 2002 act to be forgotten.

“One of the things that was really positive about No Child Left Behind was that it drew the spotlight onto where there were true achievement gaps, in terms of parity in education,” Rogan said during the presentation. “I think it’s important that we recognize that. I think there were kids that were being completely ignored. I’m not saying here at Huntington — I’m saying across the nation. There were kids that were just falling through the cracks, literally.”

On the lower level, as some of the kinks in the curriculum get worked out, Common Core will be an option for states to use as a “challenging academic standard,” but not a requirement, Polansky said.

A task force assembled by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) back in December recently released a report that called for, among other things, a moratorium on using standardized test scores as a means to evaluate students, teachers and administrators.

Polansky expressed concerns, however, about the state simply casting Common Core aside.

“I will tell you that whether you agree or disagree with the Common Core standards in their basic form, the district has spent quite a bit of time, effort, money and professional development in making this transition,” Polansky said. “I think there will be a lot of argument in terms of just throwing them in the garbage, because of all of the work that has been done.”

School board vice president Jennifer Hebert voiced a similar sentiment.

“It’s such a stark contrast to what’s been going on over the last seven years,” Hebert said. “After all of the money that’s been spent on Common Core [and] they’re going to just up and abandon it?”

A major criticism of Common Core was an apparent lack of involvement from educators in establishing testing standards, Polansky said. That does not appear to be a problem with Obama’s federal act.

No Child Left Behind policies will remain in place at least until July 1. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s website, the department will work with states and school districts to begin implementing the new law over the next few weeks.

North Shore Jewish Center presented a debate about Jewish Heroes with Heather Welkes as moderator. Photo by Alex Petroski

Modern Jewish heroes were recognized at an event at the North Shore Jewish Center in Port Jefferson Station last Wednesday.

A group of eight sixth- and seventh-graders held a debate to decide who is the most influential modern Jewish hero, in front of their families and other Hebrew school classes.

The event was called “Hagiborim Shelanu” which is Hebrew for “Our Heroes.”

Heather Welkes, who is in her first year working as the coordinator for experiential learning for the NSJC, coordinated the event, though it was student-run. Welkes has been teaching at the Synagogue for three years.

“I really wanted it to be student-led because I feel like if the students choose how to guide the curriculum they’re going to take ownership of that and it’s going to be that much more meaningful for them,” Welkes said in an interview after the event.

Each student had an opportunity to introduce their hero and provide an opening statement to make their case.

Then they had to answer questions from the moderator — Welkes — to strengthen their arguments.

The students were given some suggestions as to what format they wanted for their presentation. In an election year, the decision was easy.

“Since the students are aware of the presidential debates going on, they are the ones who decided that they would like to present their findings in a debate format,” Welkes said.

The heroes that were chosen came from a wide variety of fields and walks of life. Director Steven Spielberg, Major League Baseball players Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg, Adam Sandler, Holocaust survivor Jack Gruener, Anne Frank, Albert Einstein, Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon and the Boston-based band Safam were the debated heroes. A similarity among their cases for the most influential modern Jewish hero was their pride in being Jewish.

“See, like Ilan Ramon, my generation, no one knows about him,” a student who participated in the debate said. “People like Adam Sandler, some people don’t know that he’s Jewish. They just know he’s ‘that guy, he’s funny.’ Now that people know he’s Jewish, it’s better. It’s important to recognize Jewish people,”

Sandler was his hero.

Two of the participants said they had fun speaking in front of the crowd about something they were proud of. One student fought through some nerves and delivered an informative case for her hero, Anne Frank.

“I don’t like a lot of people listening,” she said after the event.

The debate was too close to call. Welkes declared it an eight-way tie, though a parent could be heard upon the conclusion saying there were more suitable presidential candidates on this stage than in the real debates.

“The kids were really engaged and we wanted to do something innovative and exciting and I think we accomplished that,” Welkes said.