"Love thy neighbour as thyself": Helping students bridge distance in their own communities and beyond

Posted by Emily Weisberg on December 13, 2015

Dictionaries define the word “neighbour” solely based on close physical proximity; we feel close to someone because we live next door, or down the hall, or across the street. But what happens when a connection is needed from someone farther away?

In January of 1963, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel spoke at the National Conference of Christians and Jews on Religion and Race. He called for deeper and more meaningful action surrounding the struggle for Civil Rights in the United States. In one striking passage from the speech he said, “The Torah tells us, ‘love thy neighbor as thyself,’ so we make it impossible for them to be our neighbor.” This quote speaks to our ability to use distance as a divide; allowing us the space we need to feel disconnected and uninvolved in a struggle that someone living across town, across the country or across the globe is fighting.

Photo Cred: Emily Weisberg. Heschel and Martin Luther King Junior.  How, then, can we help our students build connections that we struggle to make ourselves? How can we help them see themselves not only as members of their own communities, but as part of a larger national and global community? It’s easy, and human, to circle the wagons and not look beyond the streets and neighborhoods in which we reside. The choices we make in these moments define us and, in many ways, define history.

Identity marks the first stop on the Facing History Scope and Sequence, followed by “We and They.” Students learn that the way individuals, and nations, define themselves affects the choices they make, including the choice to exclude some and include others. They examine the constructive, and destructive, power of membership.

Facing History helps provide students the opportunity to explore concepts of ostracism and separation at a group level, and segregation and marginalization at a societal level. Grounding this exploration in multiple case studies gives students a framework from which they can begin to understand the historical and contemporary ramifications of “othering,” while safely making connections to their own choices and to themselves. As Facing History and Ourselves Associate Director of Urban Education, Steve Becton, recently wrote, reflecting on the death of 19-year-old Darrius Stewart and how to safely, and meaningfully, discuss complex and emotionally charged issues with our students,

“ This is precisely why a Facing History and Ourselves classroom uses historical case studies to examine human behavior and decision making at the most pivotal moments in history. Our students develop critical-thinking skills and the ability to walk in someone else's shoes and, perhaps, see an event from another perspective. Paramount to being able to do so is resisting stereotypes and familiar narratives that leave us divided and reaching for simple solutions to complex problems…”

This exploration allows students to see how their own choices help expand and contract the communities to which they belong, closing the gaps between “us” and “them.” In so doing, students explore and develop their own moral compass and consider their own universe of obligation.

In his same 1963 speech, Rabbi Heschel proclaimed “…an honest estimation of the moral state of our society will disclose: Some are guilty, but all are responsible.” Chicago, Paris, Syria, El Salvador, Israel, Missouri, Colorado Springs, San Bernardino, no matter the distance between these neighbourhoods ravaged by violence, and our own homes, we are part of these communities.

The events of the past few months have left an indelible mark on us all. As we grapple with the most recent waves of violence, we also struggle with how to discuss them with our students in a way that acknowledges the severity of the acts committed, but also allows room for discussion about how to combat such violence and the power of the many positive voices that have joined together in response to the hateful acts committed.

Below are a few resources that will hopefully prove helpful as you engage in these complex discussions in your classrooms:


A blog with strategy and resource suggestions around events in Paris by Facing History and Ourselves staff member Karen Murphy.


The "Facing Canada" Blog is a fantastic place for educators to learn about what Facing History looks like in a Canadian context, and provides in-the-moment ideas and thoughts from Facing History staff and educators.


The "Facing Today" Blog is a rich resource providing insight, information and strategies to help spark safe and reflective conversation in the classroom. From the Syrian Refugee crisis to issues of race in the United States and beyond, this is a fantastic place to visit for in-the-moment ideas and thoughts from Facing History staff and educators.


Short Films about Race and Racism from the New York Times


Link on the Facing Today blog that links to the blog posts most directly connected to current events


An op-ed “Teaching Children to Right Wrongs,” by Avi Baran Munro, the head of one of Facing History and Ourselves’ Innovative Schools Network, Community Day School in Pittsburgh.

Topics: Antisemitism, Choosing to Participate, Events, Facing History Resources, News, Identity, Facing History Together, Facing History and Ourselves, current events, We and They, Culturally Responsive and Relevant Pedagogy, Lesson Ideas, In the news


This is where Canadian Facing History and Ourselves teachers and community members meet to share reflections, scholarship and teaching practices that will inspire, challenge and improve teaching and student learning. Our stories provide a window into diverse Facing History classrooms in Canada, and invite you into the discussion.

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