Jewish perspectives on sex education
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Jewish perspectives on sex education

Responding to a secular world and its values


Pregnant teenagers Bristol Palin and Jamie Lynn Spears and the popular movie “Juno” have brought the issue of teen sexuality and pregnancy to the forefront. But it’s not just celebrity children who are sexually active and get pregnant. According to a recent report by the federal Centers for Disease Control, teen pregnancy rates in the United States are the second highest in the developed world, behind only Russia. (The CDC reports the teen pregnancy rate in Israel as less than one-third the U.S. rate.) These statistics support the conclusion that many American teenagers are sexually active, and many engage in unprotected sex.

Jewish schools have responded to these trends by developing and implementing formal and informal programs directed at educating children, from elementary through high school, on issues of body image, relationships, responsibility, choices, and sexual activity.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie acknowledged the problem of sexual activity among Reform Jewish youth in his 2005 speech to the General Assembly of the Union for Reform Judaism. “A growing number of middle school students are sexually active and oral sex is both prevalent and widely accepted,” he said. “Most striking of all is a social ethic known as ‘hooking up’ that severs sex from any pretense of a relationship… [I]t always means a casual, no-strings-attached sexual encounter.”

“The problem for our synagogues may be that we are not very good at saying ‘no’ in Reform Judaism. We are the most creative and forward-looking movement in Jewish life, but in the realm of personal behavior, we are reluctant to ever use the word ‘forbidden,'” Yoffie said.

Religious school curricula

In response to his message, the Reform movement developed a new curriculum, called “Sacred Choices: Adolescent Relationships and Sexual Ethics” for use by congregational schools and youth groups as well as camps “to teach sexual ethics to teens.” (www.urj.org/youth/sacredchoices). The curriculum has been adopted in modified form for use by the religious school of Temple Sinai of Bergen County, in Tenafly, a school of more than 380 children, about 90 of whom attend the upper school.

Sara Kaplan, director of education for Temple Sinai reported, “We do a whole myriad of family-education programs from fifth grade to high school. The program I have developed started out way before Sacred Choices.” Kaplan described a seventh grade program she set up, called “Are My Parents Always Right?” The program deals with Judaism, teens, sex, and alcohol and Kaplan – together with psychologist Dr. Richard Gallagher, a Tenafly resident, and Temple Sinai’s Rabbi Jordan Millstein – runs sessions for children as well as parents. “The psychologist talks to the parents about child development. I work with the kids on what’s going on with them and how tough this stage is. We have questionnaires and some games we do together.”

The sixth-grade program at Temple Sinai is modeled on Sacred Choices and addresses Judaism, preteens, peer pressure, and sexuality. There are three sessions: one for just the preteens, one for the parents together with their children, and one for the parents alone. The lessons are “not explicit, not about sex education,” said Kaplan. The focus is on “the ethical and the moral: What does Judaism say?” For example, one theme, said Kaplan, is about not betraying a friend. Kaplan said there is major emphasis on communication, “that parents be open so they can have conversations with their children” about these issues. “We’re not shy about talking about God, and that the body is sacred, based on Jewish precepts,” she said.

“In sixth grade we talk a lot about peer pressure,” said Kaplan. “The sessions are about what is the current trend in our culture. Sometimes parents are very surprised – not knowing what kids already hear. We talk about peer pressure and how we should respect one another.”

“There are a lot of Jewish aspects in all of this,” continued Kaplan. “What does the Talmud say about relationships between parents and children? What does the Talmud say about sex?”

Dora Geld Friedman, director of the religious school at Temple Emeth in Teaneck, was trained in the new Sacred Choices curriculum. “I’m very proud that the Reform movement has this curriculum,” she said. Although Temple Emeth has not formally adopted the curriculum in its school, she feels that there are many lessons to be learned from it. She explained that the Sacred Choices curriculum makes connections between behaviors and Jewish tradition. “There’s a tension between ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ Lo ta’aseh – don’t do it,” said Friedman, referring to Jewish admonitions regarding certain behaviors. “The name of the curriculum, the title ‘Sacred Choices,’ really gives half of the message already. The choices you make are informed by the sacred.”

At Temple Emeth’s school, which runs through seventh grade, there is no formal course on issues of sexuality, but it does address some of the issues in the seventh grade under “Hot Topics,” which can include “body, health, and foundations of sexual ethics,” said Friedman.

The Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies (BCHSJS) offers a class called “Love, Sexuality, the Body, and Jewish Tradition,” for 10th-, 11th-, and 12th-graders. Fred Nagler, the school’s principal, said that “the good news is that the kids are mature enough the very first day” to discuss sensitive issues. The topics are explored from the academic perspective, and provide youngsters with opportunities to have discussions. Nagler reported that in another course, “BCHSJS Goes to the Movies,” the movie “Juno” was shown. “This provided an opportunity to discuss the situation and ask, what does Judaism have to say about it?” said Nagler. Other courses where such issues are tackled include “Basic Jewish Thought,” “Couples in the Bible” (which addresses the frameworks of relationships), and “Judaism and Medicine: Ethics and Perspectives.”

Fair Lawn resident Margot Heda, who teaches “Love, Sexuality, the Body, and Jewish Tradition” at BCHSJS, explained that she “made a point of establishing what the tone of the class would be. We’re dealing with serious and sacred topics. We treat the subject matter with respect.”

The course starts with the primary text – the Torah – where “the first mitzvah is built on sexuality and the creation of humankind,” said Heda. “We learn how seriously tradition treats sexuality.” The course also addresses other body issues such as tattooing and body piercing, modesty, healthy choices, homosexuality, abortion, and birth control. “Our body – what we do with it and how we treat it – are all related,” Heda said. “The secular influences versus Jewish ideals regarding love and sex are discussed.”

“If our ancient rabbis considered this to be a subject worthy of attention, then certainly we should also,” Heda said. “It’s an opportunity to expose the students to the beauty and depth of Judaism because there’s nothing that’s off limits in tradition. It’s unfortunate that a lot of Jews become Jews above the waist. Judaism is a holistic, whole-heart, whole-body system.”

Orthodox responses

The alarming statistics regarding teen sexual activity in the United States have encouraged Orthodox Jewish organizations and institutions, such as the Orthodox Union and Yeshiva University, to develop approaches to sex education for children in elementary school and up.

YU’s Center for the Jewish Future has developed a program called Tzelem, which, according to its brochure, includes “religiously sensitive resources and educational programming in the broad areas of intimacy and relationships.” The program takes its name from the phrase “tzelem elokim” – the image of God, as the Bible states that Adam was created “in the image of God.” The Tzelem program offers materials for “kallah teachers,” who prepare brides for marriage, for rabbis in their roles as counselors of young couples, for yeshiva day schools, in the form of curricula, and for mental health professionals who work with the Orthodox community.

Yeshivat Noam in Paramus has adopted the Tzelem curriculum “Life Values and Intimacy Education,” which is designed for elementary and middle school. The younger grades have sessions about Jewish values, communication, assertiveness, family, marriage, friendship, body image, and health. As they progress through the curriculum, topics such as tzniut (modesty), gender roles, sexuality, sexual abuse, decision-making, love, puberty, anatomy and physiology, human reproduction, eating disorders, boyfriends and girlfriends, and Jewish views on homosexuality are addressed.

“The curriculum gives a lot of clarity to teachers. Every lesson has goals and how to achieve the goals,” said Rabbi Chaim Hagler, Noam’s principal. “In the younger grades it’s less about reproduction and more about knowing our body and becoming comfortable with our body.”

The administrators and school psychologist who lead Noams’ Life Values lessons have been trained by the Center for the Jewish Future. Parents also participate in the learning process. Hagler noted that the parents are brought in to be introduced to the program, as a group. “We also communicate to parents in writing about more sensitive topics,” Hagler said, adding that the program “gives kids ways to have conversations…. Jewish sources are embedded into the curriculum.”

Hagler said that the most important aspect of the curriculum is that children learn that they can talk to the adults in their lives about highly sensitive topics, including sexual issues. “They learn the language to talk about it, and [attain the] comfort level to talk about it.”

“Although the issues of drugs and drinking are problems that have crossed into the yeshiva world,” said Rabbi Yosef Adler, rosh yeshiva at Teaneck’s Torah Academy of Bergen County, “teen pregnancy is not an issue that many yeshiva high schools have faced.”

Nevertheless, the issue of teen sexuality has been deemed critical in many yeshivas, including TABC. “There are classes where dating, marriage, and premarital sex are all handled in a variety of different forms,” Adler reported. “All [TABC] Seniors take a Lifecycle Class where many of the issues are discussed. Students have a chance to ask lots of questions. There’s a lot of dialogue. It addresses the entire gamut of social relations between young men and young women.”

Rabbi Eliezer Rubin, principal of the Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston, reported that its students are introduced to sex education in ninth grade, as part of their health curriculum. They also have a class in 12th grade on taharat hamishpacha (Jewish family law), and the Torah’s outlook on married life. “It’s a proactive approach, recognizing that our students will be engaging Western culture and Western life,” said Rubin. The courses are designed to provide students the information they need to keep them safe and healthy. “We want to create an appropriate level of awareness alongside sensitivity to the standards of the Torah.”

Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck requires 10th-grade students to take a yearlong health class, which includes “all issues related to women’s physical and emotional health,” wrote Principal Rookie Billet in an e-mail. “The class is conducted in an open manner and entertains all student questions in addition to the specific curriculum, which includes sexuality, relationships, drinking, drugs, fitness, identity formation, and more. It also includes guest speakers who have a particular expertise in these areas.” Billet noted that throughout the grades “whenever textual learning in Tanakh [Scripture] or Talmud classes encounters these subjects, they are discussed openly.”

Ma’ayanot seniors take a full-year course on women and Jewish law that includes issues of intimacy in the context of taharat hamishpacha. “We strongly believe that our school should be a safe place to discuss tough questions with teachers and guidance personnel,” Billet wrote.

The Orthodox Union and Negiah.org

The National Council of Synagogue Youth of the Orthodox Union has a Website that addresses teen sexual behavior. Located at www.negiah.org, it is entitled “NCSY says kNOw: The First Abstinence Website for Jewish Teens.” Negiah, a Hebrew term for touching, refers to the prohibition against men touching women who are not ritually pure. Any touching, even casual contact such as a handshake, would be forbidden between unrelated men and women. The OU Website explains, “[H]alacha (Jewish law) does not permit any intimate or affectionate contact between men and women who are not married to one another (or close relatives).” A person who is “shomer negiah” will strictly observe the prohibition.

The Website includes such “Frequently Asked Questions” as “What is abstinence?” “Why abstain?” and “Everybody is NOT doing it.” In addition, topics presented include “Condoms are not the answer,” which minimizes benefits and sensationalizes risks associated with condom use. “For starters, condoms do not protect against human papillomavirus (HPV), which can be passed by body parts left uncovered by a condom,” warns the Website’s authors. “Additionally, a particular spermicide used in some condoms can actually make people more likely to contract HIV!”

The Website is misleading. While the point about HPV is true (it can be spread from uncovered areas), it is also true that the transmission of HPV is reduced about 70 percent when condoms are used.

Regarding the spermicide, that is also true, but it is old news. It is such old news that most condom companies have removed nonoxynol-9 from their products.

A section entitled “No Small Thing” provides the authors’ interpretation of the Torah’s punishment for premarital sex: “There is a spiritual punishment in the Torah called kareis…. Some say that it means dying prematurely or childless. Whatever it means, having one’s soul cut off sounds pretty serious.” The Website warns that violation of the laws of family purity (as might occur during premarital sex) is punishable by kareis.

The abstinence-only advice and fire-and-brimstone content of the Website have provoked controversy within the Jewish community.

Rabbi Joshua Waxman, on his Virtual Talmud blog (blog.beliefnet.com/virtualtalmud), argues against the approach of the OU Website, comparing it to the Christian abstinence movement. He writes, “Many abstinence-only programs and curricula provide misleading information, don’t lead to lower rates [of sexual activity] in participants, and can increase pregnancy and the spread of disease by discouraging use of contraceptives.”

Waxman, a Reconstructionist rabbi from Fort Washington, Pa., also argues that teen pregnancy and AIDS do occur in the Jewish community and need to be taken seriously. “I would applaud the Orthodox Union if it were actually promoting education, awareness, and prevention. But it’s not. Instead it’s using these issues – as well as the specter of cervical cancer, suicide, and date rape – as scare tactics to push a moralistic agenda,” writes Waxman.

A study published last week in the journal Pediatrics found that pregnancy rates are twice as high among teenagers who watch television programs with high sexual content, compared with teens who don’t, suggesting that the cultural norms portrayed on such shows influence teen behavior. Given that most American Jewish teenagers have access to sexually explicit television programs and movies, serious programs on sexuality and Judaism will continue to be vitally important.

Workshop set for parents

New Jersey Yachad of the National Jewish Council for Disabilities, in collaboration with the Sinai Schools, has scheduled a special parent workshop, “Talking to our kids about their sexuality and preventing sexual abuse,” for Monday, Nov. 17, at 7:30 p.m. at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck. The presenter, Mary Greenfield, is the sexuality training specialist for ACLD (Adults and Children with Learning and Developmental Disabilities), a non-profit agency in Bethpage, N.Y. To register, or for more information, call Chani Herrmann at (201) 833-1349 or e-mail hermann@ou.org.

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