Diversity as a Key to Teaching About Peoplehood

A version of this article appeared in The Peoplehood Papers 30, a special issue that explores Peoplehood education and its goals, pedagogy, and outcomes. Through a lens of applied education, the articles explore questions of Jewish collective belonging, global community, and mutual responsibility.

The Peoplehood Papers is available in English and Hebrew at jpeoplehood.org.


Dr. Keren E. Fraiman is Spertus Dean & Chief Academic Officer. Dr. Dean P. Bell is Spertus President and CEO. He co-edited this volume of The Peoplehood Papers with fellow Spertus faculty member Dr. Shlomi Ravid, Founding Director of The Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.


Peoplehood and collective identity are often assumed to require a developed commonality and shared ideas, but our teaching experiences highlight a different reality.

Within open dialogues that expose and explore diverse Jewish narratives and experiences, learners in fact deepen and enrich their connections to the Jewish People. We have found several benefits to an adult education style that emphasizes diversity as a path towards collective identification.

First, through engagement with diverse narratives, students can not only become familiar with the richness of the collective, but they come to learn that their own perspectives and identities can also have a place in that narrative. The act of displacing the overarching “metanarrative,” which has often characterized Modernity, enables students to learn that a simple story is not representative of the authentic complexity of a people’s collective experience. Though useful in some ways, simple, monolithic stories can be fragile. They can become a foil for and a sanitized version of reality. This can have its dangers. Few collectivities (from families and schools to nations) are monolithic or uniform. Revealing complexity enables learners to sit with the discomfort of authentic imperfection and allows them to actively grapple with the diversity of history, life, and identity, and to find their place within it.

We both teach in Spertus Institute’s MA in Jewish Professional Studies (MAJPS) program, a program designed for working professionals in the Jewish community. In the MAJPS program, Jewish communal professionals engage with a communal professional network while exploring the diversity of Jewish life. They combine theory and practice by developing a base of knowledge and a set of applicable professional skills through a range of Jewish Studies and Nonprofit Management/Leadership courses. The program also includes a specific course on Jewish Peoplehood that is focused on a serious discussion of Peoplehood, as well as on how to apply Peoplehood concepts within the students’ organizations and communities. That is, the program actively cultivates a sense of collective identity even as it complexifies the nature of that collectivity and an individual’s role within it.

Keren teaches a course titled The Role of Israel in Jewish Life and Dean a course titled Jewish Studies for the Communal Professional. In both, the concepts of Peoplehood and collective identity appear with regularity and in a wide range of ways. The sought learning outcomes in The Role of Israel in Jewish Life, for example, are on one hand to interpret the relevance of Israel for Jewish communal life today, and on the other hand, to identify, engage, and interpret multiple narratives within Israeli society. These concepts impact the way that we think about and teach our subjects; our educational approaches and foci offer new and exciting ways to think about Peoplehood as well as collective identity.

The Role of Israel is not a history course, however, so the typical approaches in teaching history are different from the approach in this course. For example, Keith Barton and Linda Levstik articulate four “stances” in their work Teaching History for the Common Good (London: Routledge, 2004). The first stance in learning history, they argue, is to identify — “to embrace the connections between themselves and the people and events of the past.” The approach in the “Role of Israel” is different. “The Role of Israel,” in this case is not temporally bound. Collective identity is not only connected to past “tradition;” it is constantly reformulated and it engages with a wider range of constituents and narratives than are typically considered. The course also explores future collective identities, and so forces students to think about Peoplehood in ever shifting ways, a stance that is particularly helpful given the acceleration of globalization and the constant reformulations between Jews and non-Jews and Israel and the Diaspora.

The second stance presented by Barton and Levstik is analysis, which they describe as the process to “establish causal linkages in history.” “The Role of Israel,” however, problematizes the linkages of history, recognizing and asking students to encounter a diversity of narratives and perspectives — in ways that some of the New Historians in Israel have done, but also within a larger global context as well. That is, the course seeks for students to understand the concept and role of Israel in broader Jewish collectivity even as they are asked to dissect and interrogate that role and see multiple voices, perspectives, and considerations. In part, the goal is for students to be able to apply the skill of identifying and interpreting multiple narratives in other professional and academic contexts and develop critical reading and thinking skills. Students leave the course knowing that there are multiple narratives about Israel, about Jewish history, and about Jewish collective identity. They develop the skills to understand how those narratives were formed, how they are maintained, and importantly how they must be taken together with other competing narratives.

On one hand, education of this sort seems to challenge the conventional notion of buttressing collective identity with shared narratives and values. And yet on the other, we maintain that no one narrative is sufficient and pretending that it is often works to alienate individuals rather than to engage and build collective identity. Like the proverbial rope with many strands, complex and diverse narratives help build stronger connections than single-stranded narratives that come apart and break under pressure. We contend that grappling with and understanding conflict (including differences of experiences, assumptions, and perspectives) is far more powerful and helps to build collective identities that can survive over time. The Role of Israel therefore asks students to encounter other perspectives, narratives, and identities — through cultural artifacts such as poems, music, TV shows, and other media — and to ask critical questions of all traditions and assumptions. We have found that students leave the course with a stronger collective identity precisely because they have been taught how to question metanarratives and simple stories and that they are able to value the complexities in the identities that emerge from them. Through the investigation of multiple narratives offered in the course, learners can anchor their own narratives and experiences within a much more complex story of Israel, and its relationship to diaspora Jews and Jewish collectivity. This connection is often layered, contradictory, and challenging — but this exploration demands that students ask challenging questions and find themselves in the collective story. Being part of any long-lasting collective requires an opt-in that is based on the realities and complexities as they are and a commitment that extends beyond the challenges that may persist.

With Paulo Freire, who in his famous book Pedagogy of the Oppressed (30th anniversary edition, New York: Continuum, 2000), we decry the “banking” (mythologizing) method of education, in which teachers deposit knowledge into students (depositories), who they believe know nothing. Such an approach to knowledge (and education) — aside from being stultifying — creates manageable people who are less inclined to develop critical consciousness. (72-3) For Freire, this is an education of “oppression.” A “liberating” education (demythologizing), by contrast, is related to acts of cognition, intentionality, and problem-posing. (79) A liberating education understands that there is a two-way engagement between teacher and student. It seeks to unveil reality and emerge, not submerge consciousness. (81) Jewish scholars who in the past rejected the idea that (Jewish) education could create (Jewish) identity, did so out of the belief that traditional education was about mastery of content and texts, but as such did not help with identity formation. (See Ari Y. Kelman, “Identity and Crisis: The Origins of Identity as an Educational Outcome,” in Beyond Jewish Identity; Rethinking Concepts and Imagining Alternatives, ed. Jon A. Levisohn and Ari Y. Kelman (Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2019), 65-83, here at 66) We agree. That is precisely why we believe that the approach we have outlined above holds so much promise.

Shlomo Sand, in the Invention of the Jewish People (London: Verso, 2009), has noted that:

Over and above all these components is the fact that the historian, like other members of society, accumulates layers of collective memory well before becoming a researcher. Each of us has assimilated multiple narratives shaped by past ideological struggles. History lessons, civics classes, the educational system, national holidays, memorial days and anniversaries, state ceremonies — various spheres of memory coalesce into an imagined universe representing the past, and it coalesces well before a person has acquired the tools for thinking critically. (14)

As Sand provocatively unpacks it, national myths are constructed and selective, providing a narrative that serves certain purposes, regardless of the elements included or left behind. In the context of the people of Israel, he asserts that, “When occasional findings threatened the picture of an unbroken, linear Jewish history, they were rarely cited; when they did surface, they were quickly forgotten, buried in oblivion.” (18)

Behavioral psychology teaches that individual identity is formed through various phases of life. But identity is also a collective endeavor, forged through larger communal and societal experiences, needs, and strategies. Peoplehood and collective identity are part of this story. The challenge of national myths, which are always in some ways fragile, is that upon discovery of their one-sidedness there can at times be a sense of betrayal, a skepticism towards the broader enterprise, and a difficulty in seeing oneself as a part of the broader collective. While not universal, these conditions threaten and create challenges in the collective.

Like the proverbial rope with many strands, complex and diverse narratives help build stronger connections than single-stranded narratives that come apart and break under pressure.

Shorn of nationality and national myths, however, Peoplehood can have a range of other connection points, notably in religion, culture, and politics. The other course we teach in the MA in Jewish Professional Studies program, which engages with these issues, is “Jewish Studies for the Communal Professional.” This course is intended to provide a broad overview of Jewish history and give students a common language and academic foundation. But the course is hardly a straight-forward tour of the Jewish past. Each historical period is punctuated with case studies of contemporary issues that allow, indeed require, students to draw lessons from historical discussions and apply them to contemporary issues in order to contextualize the problems, analyze the concerns, and explore a range of possible approaches and solutions. Much as in “The Role of Israel” course, in the “Jewish Studies” course, students often begin with strong preconceived notions of Jewish connection and homogeneity (especially in the pre-modern period). Each session, however, opens them to a range of diversity they hardly expected: a complex and nuanced set of Jewries and Judaisms that simultaneously challenge their inherited wisdom and knowledge and allow them to connect much more deeply to the ever-shifting notion of Jewishness.

As a “history” course, Jewish Studies examines both directly and obliquely how we remember and how we construct and analyze memories of the past, broadly defined. Memory has often been seen as central to Judaism and to creating a sense of Jewish connection and Jewish collective identity. Modern studies of memory and history have profitably explored the connections between the past (however understood) and contemporary identity. In what has become a classic study, first published in English in 1950, the French philosopher and sociologist Maurice Halbwachs (who died in Buchenwald in 1945), for example, argued that there is an important distinction between memory and history — and so, we might add between individual and collective memories and connections. “General history,” Halbwachs argued, “starts only when tradition ends and the social memory is fading or breaking up. So long as a remembrance continues to exist, it is useless to set it down in writing or otherwise fix it in memory. Likewise, the need to write the history of a period, a society, or even a person is only aroused when the subject is already too distant in the past to allow for the testimony of those who preserve some remembrance of it.” (Maurice Halbwachs, The Collective Memory, trans. Francis J. Ditter, Jr. and Vida Yazdi Ditter (New York, 1980 (English orig., 1950, pp. 78-9). History, in this interpretation, is written at points of social disintegration, whereas memory is continuous and ongoing. According to Halbwachs, our memory of the past is comprised of two kinds of elements: those from a common domain (a social or external memory) and those remembrances that are ours alone (personal and internal memory).

This dichotomy is not so simple, however, for while individuals remember within a broader social context, their memories may also vary based on their own experiences and orientations. In this assessment, there is a common memory base that is processed and experienced differently by individuals within varying contexts. Individual and communal memory, therefore, exist in a complex and multidirectional relationship, in which individual memory simultaneously is affected by and contributes to collective memory. The French scholar Pierre Nora says, “Memory wells up from groups that it welds together, which is to say, as Maurice Halbwachs observed, that there are as many memories as there are groups, that memory is by nature multiple yet specific, collective and plural yet individual. By contrast, history belongs to everyone and to no one and therefore has a universal vocation” (See Realms of Memory: Rethinking the French Past, under the direction of Pierre Nora, 3 vols, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (New York, 1996-98 (orig., 1984-92)), 3).

Of course, recent historiography has noted that history is no more objective or innocent than memory, especially within the context of national and collective identity formation. Students in the “Jewish Studies” course, therefore, are confronted with the collective narratives of historical (sometimes revisionist historical) accounts but asked to place them into conversation with their own experiences and considerations. As such, we intentionally decrease the distance between memory and history, simultaneously challenging and enhancing the possibility of learners developing a collective identity, which is at once (and regardless) more nuanced and diverse and yet relevant and connected. Students learn that many of the key questions that they have and challenges that they face — such as the structure of community, the nature of authority, the relationship to other Jews and other non-Jews — have been present throughout Jewish history, even if the specific contexts have differed. How our communities are structured and bounded, for example, have been questions that Jews have confronted throughout history. They have responded based on internal Jewish discussions as well external influences and conditions. While we once believed that Modernity opened a previously sealed Jewish society, Jewish history reveals complex, nuanced, and often quite substantial interactions between Jews and non-Jews. At the same time, the notion that pre-modern Jews were uniform in what they believed and how they behaved has given way to an emphasis on significant diversity within and across Jewish societies.

These courses on The Role of Israel and Jewish Studies are naturally part of a larger curriculum and should be situated in that context. At the same time, they engage with theories of adult learning in a deep way. Adults bring experiences and perspectives to bear on new learning and experiences. It can be difficult to get them to reconsider what they already believe or believe they know—which is precisely why education that is integrated, experiential, relevant, and applicable can be the most transformative. In the context of adult Jewish learning, it has been argued that identity is formed in several ways. These include ongoing experiences and reflection; conversation and engagement with others; construction of personal narratives; and engaging in a diversity of learning opportunities and experiences. (See Diane Tickton Schuster, Jewish Lives, Jewish Learning: Adult Jewish Learning in Theory and Practice (New York: UAHC Press, 2003), 79.)

The kind of education that we champion challenges our adult students to rethink what they know and to examine other perspectives and data sources.

On the surface, it may seem that such an approach runs the risk of challenging learners’ notion of belonging, or their connection to the Jewish people. However, our experiences reveal the opposite. While it was once assumed that the best way to inculcate a sense of Peoplehood and collective identity was through consistent and monolithic metanarratives — the Modern approach — we have come to learn that destabilizing assumptions, presenting multiple and diverse narratives, revealing complexity and hybridity, and introducing Others and Otherness — perhaps the Postmodern approach — lead to richer learning and, at the same time, hold the key for developing notions of Peoplehood that transcend the kind of changeable realities of identity reflected in things such as nationhood, religion, and even gastronomy. When we find, understand, and engage with diversity and diverse narratives and experiences across space and time, as we do in our courses, learners see their own debates (internal and communal) and questions and in the end, they also see themselves as part of a long and connected history and collectivity. Education and Peoplehood, therefore, go together, and they are both most effective and enduring when they are allowed full reign to help people grow, question, explore, and through it all, connect. 

Spertus Institute Area of Focus: Scalable Solutions