It began as a Sukkot recipe – a pumpkin and chickpea soup that Batsheva watched her mother
make in Morocco and, later, in Israel. When she brought it with her to America, that same recipe
took on a new holiday tradition, melding Moroccan spices with the tastes of New England to
become a Thanksgiving favorite in her Massachusetts home.
It’s a simple story that contains within it significant lessons about immigration, holiday rituals, and
cultural adaptation. And it’s an evocative way to communicate the global diversity of the Jewish
Diversity is fast becoming a watchword in the Jewish community, in no small part due to the
demographic changes in American Jewry brought about by intermarriage and transnational
adoption, as well as the increasing value placed on pluralism and multiculturalism in American
life. But Jewish diversity education is not simply a response to contemporary cultural trends; it is
also a recognition of the rich and varied histories of Jewish communities that span the globe and
reflect a range of colors, languages, ethnicities, and traditions.
In today’s world, when so much competes for our students’ attention and interest, we must draw
on the breadth of Jewish history, tradition, and culture to increase our opportunities to engage
people in what our heritage has to offer. The Jewish Women’s Archive (JWA), a national,
educational non-profit based in Brookline, MA, was founded to broaden our conception of history
to include the lives and accomplishments of American Jewish women. Without their stories, our
understanding of Jewish life is incomplete. Only when we embrace the fullness of our heritage –
the contributions of men and women – can we take full pride in the richness of our community. To
that end, JWA has created educational resources that bring Jewish women’s voices out of the
archives and into dialogue with learners of all ages.
Attention to gender is obviously a key aspect of diversity education; without it, we miss the
experiences of half of the population. But diversity should also include attention to ethnicity
(Ashkenazi, Sephardi, and Mizrahi traditions), race (6.5-10% of American Jews are Asian, Latino,
or African-American), sexuality, geography (e.g. rural Jews), and, given the high rate of
intermarriage, other family religious traditions.
What does teaching about Jewish diversity look like? How can we explore these issues effectively
in our classrooms? JWA’s lesson plans on “Jewish Diversity and Innovation: A View from the
Kitchen” (part of our online series “Go & Learn: Primary Documents and Lesson Plans” and
available for free download at: http://www.jwa.org/teach/golearn/nov06/) offers one model. This
resource explores Jewish diversity through the Sukkot/Thanksgiving recipe mentioned above,
presenting lesson plans for use in educational programming with youth, adults, and families.
Teaching about diversity requires balancing notions of difference and of connection. Each of
JWA’s lesson plans moves from the global to the local, beginning with the “big picture” of Jewish
diversity (e.g., introducing terms such as Ashkenazi, Sephardi, and Mizrahi and explaining the
historical conditions that led to different Jewish ethnic groups) and then focusing more specifically
on the students’ own families and experiences. Recipes are an excellent framework for
discussing both global and local aspects of Jewish diversity, because they reflect large trends of
migration and cultural adaptation, as well as personal stories of family practice and traditions.
Visuals, too – such as photographs and maps – are very helpful in making these concepts
concrete, giving students images of different kinds of Jews and a physical representation of the
widespread geography of Jewish life.
One challenge in teaching diversity is to point out the unspoken assumptions at work in our
communities without unwittingly reinforcing them. For example, it is helpful to explain that
American Jewish life often operates under a certain degree of Ashkenazi-centrism. Food culture,
again, provides a useful illustration: bagels and lox and corned beef on rye may be considered
fundamentally Jewish in American culture, but are hardly universal Jewish foods. We might
explain that these assumptions grow out of the majority experience of American Jews, but we
must be careful not to assume that our students’ backgrounds reflect this majority. Discussing
non-Ashkenazi culture as “unusual” or “exotic” only reifies these divisions. Instead, invite students
to share their experiences, starting from an assumption that the classroom will contain a broad
range of backgrounds and family traditions.
A key aspect of diversity education is exploding the idea of the “normal” and replacing it with the
realization – often a relieving one, especially to young people – that there is no “normal,” but
rather a wide range of distinctive experiences. Ask students to describe what they imagine as the
“normal” Jewish family, and then to discuss how their own families compare to this mythic ideal.
Traditional Jewish texts can also be integrated into this type of exploration. In the family
education lesson plan, for example, the investigation of Jewish journeys through food begins with
a text study of a passage from the book of Numbers that recounts the Israelites’ complaints
during their wanderings in the desert and their nostalgia for the food they ate in Egypt. This
passage frames the discussion of Jewish migration and the role of food in creating a sense of
home and comfort.
The Goal is Inclusion
Ultimately, diversity education is a project not only of abstract knowledge, but also of inclusion.
Our goal is not just accuracy in portraying the variety and richness of Jewish heritage, but what
this accuracy makes possible: a community that reflects the backgrounds and experiences of all
of its members and thereby fosters a sense of belonging. We cannot afford to do otherwise.
Judith Rosenbaum, PhD, is Director of education-2/">Education at the Jewish Women’s Archive (JWA) and cocurator of JWA’s online exhibit, “Jewish Women and the Feminist Revolution.” She has taught Jewish studies and women’s studies at Brown, Boston University, the Center for Adult Jewish Learning at Hebrew College, and Gann Academy: The New Jewish High School of Greater Boston.