The Birds and the Bees

What are day school students learning about sex?

As popular culture evolves to permit increasingly sexually explicit material in the public domain, traditional Jewish ethics remains the same.  Tabloids publicize the latest teen celebrity pregnancy and magazine covers sport scantily-clad movie stars while the Talmud forbids overexposure of the body and pre-marital sex.

The responsibility of sorting out this widening chasm is largely left to Jewish day schools. Educators are given the difficult task of coming to terms with the impact that modern American society has had on Jewish teens while at the same time imbuing their students with a sense of modesty, prudence and respect for their bodies. Jewish schools must find a balance between teaching sexual education courses that inform students of halachic laws while teaching the necessary substance in case a student deviates from those laws.

The points of contention between modern secular and halachic standards are not limited to sex before marriage. They include the use of condoms, masturbation for males and homosexual relations. How can Jewish day schools teach their students to refrain from these activities when society tells them daily that they are normal and even healthy?

Unlike popular culture “Judaism demands certain restraints in relationships; its lifestyle often facilitates the most gratifying and successful relationships,” said Rabbi Kenneth Schiowitz, a Talmud teacher at the Ramaz Upper School in Manhattan. Sexual educators in Jewish schools try to convey this point to their students.

The leading non-governmental organization supporting comprehensive sexual education (CSE) in schools is the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS). This organization uses a liberal approach that is not judgmental and does not discriminate among sexual orientations. How do Jewish schools reconcile the complexities of modern life while adhering to Jewish values?

Within Judaism there are different opinions as well. For example, masturbation is forbidden to avoid the destruction of seed and the act is considered indecent in Jewish law. However, attitudes towards masturbation within Judaism have become more lenient in recent years.  Since modern medical advances have proven that males continually produce sperm throughout their lives, the worry of wasting or running out of the means to procreate the human species is no longer the issue. Nevertheless, halacha forbids the act and Jewish schools cover the topic in their health curriculum.

Although pre-marital sex is not technically forbidden by the Torah, the Talmud’s principles of modesty forbid women from being promiscuous. Since men were meant to concentrate on their daily studies, and not be distracted by women, the rabbis of the Talmud prohibited premarital sex. Sex is to be enjoyed within the context of a married relationship where it can enhance one’s relationship with a spouse, ensure the longevity of the Jewish people and even increase one’s standard of living.

“Sexuality is central to an intimate relationship and is meant to deepen and elevate a marriage relationship that also contains trust, commitment and common ideals; sex outside of that context can be base and self-serving,” said Rabbi Schiowitz.  He added that “premature over-exposure to sex threatens to limit the power that it may have to enrich a future marriage relationship.” However, popular culture tells teenagers that sex can be enjoyed now and is not limited to married, or even necessarily to committed and loving relationships.

Although teen magazines tend not to encourage sex, they are often written on the assumption that many readers are sexually active which allows readers to think that having sex is the norm. For example, the website of Seventeen magazine showcases such articles as “How can I let my mom know I’m smart about sex?”

Do the sex-ed curriculums of Jewish day schools incorporate a discussion and analysis of these modern conflicts? At Ramaz Upper School the answer is yes. In 10th grade students learn about the traditional and stringent halachic views on sex and sex-related issues. In 11th grade they learn health with Hailey London, a former teacher of the secular Ross School in East Hampton. She is a proponent of comprehensive sex education which uses factual information to teach about sexuality while respecting individuality and cultural beliefs. CSE is less naïve than abstinence-oriented sex education, but takes a firmer stance on issues such as premarital sex, she said.

Her goal is to “deter kids from early activity, pregnancy, disease and emotional issues that are rampant among 16 to 20 year olds.” Rather than using religious standards to convince her students, London points out that 60 percent of males and 75 percent of females regret having sex before they turn 18, according to a National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy poll.

She acknowledges the challenge and importance of reaching young people while working within the mission of the school.  Although London’s curriculum at Ramaz and her curriculum at the Ross school are virtually identical, she addresses the special issue of the school’s mission by communicating that waiting to have sex according to Jewish law means until marriage.

“The students are already coming to the table with strong moral values and a clear understanding of themselves as Jews which provides a great framework for responsible decision making and the personal understanding that is required to discuss such intimate ideas,” she said of Ramaz students. 
Administrators agree that although it is difficult for some to support such an open curriculum, it is necessary for Ramaz students to be educated in order for them to make informed decisions. London hopes that “regardless of whether or not the students choose to wait, they use the information given in class to make self-respecting and intelligent choices that they can live with.”

“Society pushes towards premarital sex and halacha pushes away from it, so they’re conflicting,” said an anonymous senior at SAR in the Bronx. The SAR sex-ed curriculum is taught to male and female students separately. The course is not taught according to halacha and includes controversial issues such as condoms which are seen as causes of “wasted seed.” However, the teacher, Russi Bohm, is careful to mention that protected sex is not halachic and recommends that students ask their rabbis if they have questions about controversial issues.

Despite the precarious balance of the sex-ed curriculum at SAR, the students are “Totally open in asking questions, although there are not enough class periods to answer all of them,” said a senior. Like Ramaz, SAR is flexible about some of their traditional beliefs in order to inform their students about the facts.

Students are aware of the challenge that faces teachers and school administrators designing sexual education programs not only in relation to halacha, but also in relation to the questions they want answered.

“Many people may be surprised to realize how little teenagers really do know about the long-term ramifications of sex,” said a Ramaz senior. Sex-ed should focus on the “undeniable facts of STDs, pregnancy and the emotional repercussions of sexual activity and what teens should do to protect themselves from all of these. A teacher speaking against sex will not be persuasive.”

Solomon Schechter High School of Westchester incorporates a secular program with several classes taught by the school’s Rabbi Harry Pell on the Jewish approach to sex and sexuality. The Abraham Joshua Heschel High School “invites specialists that represent both Jewish and non-Jewish organizations and physicians to engage high school students in dialogue about sexual issues in the context of Jewish tradition, commitment, trust, loyalty and fidelity,” said Principal Ahuva Halberstam. 

The subject is a challenge to Jewish day schools, but the school system provides a unique environment and opportunity for students to get information and talk about issues with which they are grappling in their own lives. Though teenagers are inundated with input about sexuality and suggestions about how they should act, many are still interested in hearing the advice of educators and the statistics and facts that comprehensive sexual education can provide. Hearing from knowledgeable, realistic teachers who have religious and moral convictions may just be the persuasive dimension that students need. 

Michelle Bayefsky is a senior at Ramaz Upper School in Manhattan.

This article was reprinted from October 30, 2009