1 class period

Defining Community: The Universe of Obligation


This outline invites students to explore the concept of a "universe of obligation," and provides several contemporary examples of how this concept can influence individual and collective behavior. Readings from Holocaust and Human Behavior and Choosing to Participate are used.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Develop a deeper understanding of the concept of "universe of obligation" that exist among individuals and within communities.
  • Explore the implications of a "universe of obligation" for their own lives and communities.
  • Utilize reflective journal writing as a means of deepening their appreciation for the themes and content explored within a Facing History class.



In order to fully appreciate the concept of a "universe of obligation," it is necessary to read the Universe of Obligation reading in Holocaust and Human Behavior.



The following readings from Holocaust and Human Behavior can be used in the Follow-Up section of this outline:


The Choosing to Participate study guide and online exhibit also contains two stories which can be used to illustrate the concept of a universe of obligation.



The following video can be used to support the activities within this lesson outline





  1. Introduce the theme of community by asking student to consider following quote on community and obligation. Display the following quote without attribution:

    I love my daughters more than my nieces,
    my nieces more than my cousins,
    my cousins more than my neighbors.
    But that doesn't mean that we detest our neighbors.

    Use the think-pair-share process to debrief this quote.

  2. With a larger group, focus a discussion on the following questions or themes:

    • What is this person's vision of community?
    • In what ways does this vision of community make sense?
    • Does this vision make you at all uncomfortable? Why or why not?
  3. Discuss the idea of a hierarchy of caring. What happens if we expand this hierarchy out to include people like us in the form of race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, political beliefs, profession, clubs, schools, etc.? Who would you save from a burning building first? Who are we obligated to and in what ways?

    Introduce the idea of a universe of obligation. In the Universe of Obligation reading in Holocaust and Human Behavior, Helen Fein defines this important concept as the circle of individuals and groups "toward whom obligations are owed. to whom rules apply, and whose injuries call for [amends].

  4. Now read entire quote (from The New Yorker, April 28, 1997):

    I love my daughters more than my nieces, my nieces more than my cousins, my cousins more than my neighbors. But that doesn't mean we detest our neighbors. The fact of being Francophile doesn't require being xenophobic. The fact that I prefer the French does not mean that I detest the English. I like them less than the French - over all. Because it could happen that I like an Englishman better than a Frenchman, individually, or a Senegalese more than an inhabitant of Saint-Cloud. It depends on his quality, on his affinities with me, on his opinions, and all that. But I think that it's very difficult to make people understand.

  5. Before discussing the quote further, identify the author of the quote, Jean-Marie Le Pen, Founder and President of The National Front, a French far-right political party. For more information about Le Pen, view the Anti-Defamation League's website.

  6. Using think-pair-share, re-examine the entire quote now, and with the context of Le Pen's political viewpoint. Return to a larger group discussion, and revisit the concept of the universe of obligation.

  7. Have students use their journals to further develop the concept of a universe of obligation.


The concept of a universe of obligation extends throughout many of the readings within Holocaust and Human Behavior. One way to extend and deepen an understanding of this concept is to examine specific historical moments when an individuals and groups either recognized, or failed to recognize their obligation to others.

Below, are several readings from HHB in which stories of rescue and resistance reveal how people acted. There are also accounts of how individuals and nations sometimes failed to act at critical moments:



As an assessment of the above exercise, explain to the class that it is now necessary to expand their existing understanding of community to their own lives.

  1. Break into no more than 5 groups. Make sure each group has newsprint and markers.

  2. Provide one basic instruction for each group: "As a group, draw a picture of community."
  3. Allow at least 30 minutes for groups to draw their communities. Make sure as you go around to make sure they have someone to present their work to the larger group.
  4. Each group should have 3 minutes to present with 1 or 2 minutes for questions. Establish the questions each group should expect:

    • Is this a picture of a definition of community, community as an ideal, or an actual community?
    • How did your own group function as a community in coming to consensus?
  5. Debrief: As a group, talk about the difficulty in defining concepts like community and the universe of obligation which emerge within each community. Address the questions of what causes communities to collapses, or to be created anew? What communities do they belong to outside of the one they are presently sitting in? Can a community be coercive, or is it necessary to members to want to be part of it?


New Edition of Holocaust and Human Behavior

We've released a new digital edition of Holocaust and Human Behavior. We're working on updating all of our content to reflect the new resources and scholarship. For now, some content on this page may reference the previous edition.

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