Book provides a guide for teens on building better relationships

Teens Max Marmer, left, David Wallach, Judah Kerbel and Ron Shapiro act out lessons on technology and relationships with a skit at the USY Convention in Chicago in December 2009. (USY)

Teens Max Marmer, left, David Wallach, Judah Kerbel and Ron Shapiro act out lessons on technology and relationships with a skit at the USY Convention in Chicago in December 2009. (USY)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Carl Levy remembers the day he met Randy, his wife of 39 years. It was Oct. 15, 1965 and they were teenagers attending a United Synagogue Youth convention in New Jersey.

“I remember sitting at the table for dinner. Randy was a little late that night," Levy says, adding that "I remember her sitting down at the table. I remember being interested.”

Says his wife: “I remember what I wore.”

Five years later they married, and Levy says with a chuckle, “It’s all because of USY.”

The Levys and 50 other couples lovingly shared their romantic journey on a recent video for USY titled “Summer Lovin’.” The couples had one thing in common: Each relationship blossomed due to some involvement with the Conservative youth movement.

As the video concludes, a smiling newlywed and expectant father advises, “So look to your left, look to your right; that might be your future wife or husband.”

While the Jewish community places an emphasis on the importance of Jews meeting and marrying other Jews, it rarely looks at the nature of these relationships, says Deborah Rosenbloom, director of programs at Jewish Women International.

“We talk about the end goal of marrying a Jew, but we don’t talk about what [makes] a good relationship,” Rosenbloom says.

Recognizing the need to have this discussion, JWI teamed with USY nearly two years ago to develop a comprehensive guide to help educate Jewish teenagers on the importance of developing healthy relationships.

The result of the collaboration is a nearly 200-page source book titled “Love Your Neighbor, Love Yourself,” which debuted with the “Summer Lovin’” video before 1,000 teens last December at USY’s four-day annual convention in Chicago.

“This was my fourth [USY] convention,” says Josh Block, 17, of Massachusetts. “And I was the most impressed with the topics in this book.”

Divided into four major sections in 13 chapters, the book addresses some weighty issues affecting healthy intrapersonal and interpersonal relationships, and provides useful tactics for good relational decision making. Problems such as abuse and aggression in relationships are discussed at length, and modern dilemmas of self-image, sexuality and the power of language also are explored.

Woven throughout the book are quotations, parables and insights from contemporary Jewish writings such as Rabbi Elliot Dorff’s “This Is My Beloved, This Is My Friend: A Rabbinic Letter on Intimate Relations,” and ancient sources like the Talmud and Torah with real-time scenarios, pop-culture references and thought-provoking exercises.

One exercise, on the meaning and responsibilities of a good friend, resonated strongly with 17-year-old Charlene Thorpe.

Thorpe says that at the convention, she found herself reflecting on a quotation in the source book from Pirke Avot that spoke of the importance of friends keeping each others’ secrets. The insight, she says, helped her confront a friend who told other friends about Thorpe’s crush on a particular boy.

“It made me look at how I define my friendships,” the Massachusetts high school senior says. “I talked to [the girl] and said, ”We can’t have this. Friends are trustworthy. How can you tell my secrets?’ ”

The book also delves into some timely issues such as appropriate language and behavior when communicating via the Internet and social networking sites.

“We’ve had kids exchange e-mails and Facebook [postings] before they’ve even gone on a summer trip together,” says Karen Stein, USY assistant director and the book’s editor. “They might have had an entire relationship with someone before they’ve ever met in person.”

It becomes a problem of "cyber-bullying," says Stein, when teens post inappropriate, sometimes hurtful statements, comments and photographs of themselves and others online.

She says the book was designed with the hope of teaching teens “how to behave online [and] how to portray themselves [appropriately].”

The pervasiveness of teens and technology abuse in relationships was highlighted by a 2007 survey conducted by Liz Claiborne Inc., which showed that 71 percent of teens said boyfriends or girlfriends spreading rumors about them on cell phones and social networking sites was a serious problem.

Sixty-eight percent of the teen respondents said a boyfriend or girlfriend sharing private or embarrassing pictures or videos on cell phones and computers is another serious problem.

Making matters worse, Rosenbloom says, is that “parents are clueless.”

The Claiborne survey also found that 82 percent of parents whose teens were e-mailed or texted 30 times per hour were unaware this was even happening.

With their source book, JWI and USY are hoping to not only educate teens but their parents, too.

Louis Sacks, 17, a high school junior from Pennsylvania, says he hopes his friends who could not attend the USY convention will be able to use material from the source book.

“My dad is borrowing it!” he adds.

“Our goal is for Jewish teens to have opportunities to talk about relationships in a guided, facilitated conversation with adults,” Rosenbloom says. “If we can help instill core values, it will impact their relationships.”

Among those core values is respect, she says, "whether that relationship is with parents, friends, partners, the community or yourself.”

As for the book, Rosenbloom says she welcomes the opportunity to develop similar material for teens from other denominations.

“We see this as prevention work," she says. "The material takes time to sink in, but it will come back to [the teens]. They get it.”

For Melissa Sperber, 18, it already is sinking in.

“I hadn’t put much thought into [relationships] before convention,” the New Jersey high school senior says. “I guess I subconsciously knew in order to have a healthy relationship you need to be your own best friend. But I walked away from convention thinking about it more: Don’t give your heart away until you really love yourself.” 

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