Women sparking a Jewish sex-ed revolution


NEW YORK (JTA) — When Sarah Epstein returned home to Dallas after her first semester at Brandeis University, the Modern Orthodox yeshiva graduate had some surprising news to share: She was undergoing 200 hours of training to become a peer sex educator.

“When I told my family at the dinner table, my older brother was like, ‘Why couldn’t you just join the tennis team?’” Epstein, now 23, recalls.

Epstein’s family adapted as she went on to organize standing-room-only workshops at Brandeis for observant Jewish girls interested in learning more about their bodies and sexuality. Last week, together with Amy Beth Oppenheimer, a Jewish educator and founder of the website Jewrotica, Epstein launched Halachically Yours, a website with educational resources about sex and intimacy for observant Jews.

In the Modern Orthodox world, where discussions of sex often have been taboo or confined to the logistics of marital intimacy laws, women like Epstein and Oppenheimer (as well as some men) are encouraging open discussion and education in a manner respectful of modesty and other religious considerations.

Meanwhile, in the more liberal community, another emerging group of female sex educators is trying to enrich discussions about sex and relationships by putting them in the framework of Jewish texts and values.

Halachically Yours, which includes lessons such as “Halachah is important but so is pleasure” and “Fantasies are normal and can be shared,” comes amid a wealth of new sexual resources targeting Orthodox Jews. An Orthodox sex guide, “The Newlywed’s Guide to Intimacy,” came out two years ago and was recently translated into Hebrew. Growing numbers of Orthodox day schools are using “Life Values and Intimacy,” a new sex-education curriculum. And in 2011, a website touting “kosher” sex toys — sold discreetly, without any explicit images — hung out its cyber-shingle.

What’s spurring the Orthodox sex-ed revolution? In part, there seems to be a growing recognition that traditional pre-marriage classes don’t offer enough information. There’s also a perceived need for religiously sensitive alternatives to more explicit messages coming from the wider culture — and especially online.

“Instead of surfing the Internet and coming across all sorts of things observant people don’t want to see or hear, we’re making learning materials and resources framed in a halachically sensitive way accessible,” Epstein said.

Rabbi Jessica Minnen started a series of workshops on sex and relationships as a fourth-year rabbinical student.

Rabbi Jessica Minnen started a series of workshops on sex and relationships as a fourth-year rabbinical student.

The growth of Jewishly inspired sex education is not limited to the Orthodox world. Rabbi Jessica Minnen started a series of workshops on sex and relationships for Jews in their 20s and 30s as a fourth year rabbinical student at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary. The workshops, called Seven Wells, use text study and role playing to help participants see the connection between their sexual and spiritual selves.

“Judaism gives us a framework for exploring who we are in ways that don’t seem related to sex at all,” Minnen said. “We use Jewish concepts to frame all our workshops. For example, in a workshop about sexual boundaries, we’re studying eruvim, the boundaries between public and private space.”

While Seven Wells is still in its infancy, Minnen hopes it will eventually grow into a national program training facilitators to run workshops in synagogues, JCC’s, schools and living rooms. So far, says Minnen, who also holds down a full-time job as assistant director of the Jewish Journey Project, Seven Wells has generated more interest than she has been able to accommodate — including from Orthodox Jews.

“To be in a position where you have too many people wanting to do your program than you can serve is a wonderful problem,” she said.

Another relatively new Jewish sex-ed program, JLove and Values, focuses on a younger audience and takes a less text-heavy approach. Founded by Mara Yacobi, the program has workshops for teens about sexuality and relationships at the American Hebrew Academy boarding school in North Carolina and at various overnight camps.

Mara Yacobi leading a sex-ed workshop for teens.

Mara Yacobi, center, leading a sex-ed workshop for teens.

“There’s some Jewish content sprinkled in, but I want to make sure my audience’s attention is captured,” Yacobi said. “I don’t want this to be about a study session, but a foundation of the information they need to keep themselves healthy.”

A sex educator who has worked in public schools and for Planned Parenthood, Yacobi started JLove and Values because she wanted to be able to discuss the role of religion and Jewish values in sexual decision-making — and because her own day school experience growing up had been almost devoid of sex education.

Yacobi believes that easy access to pornography makes values-based sex education particularly important.

“A lot of times teens associate sex with every slang term in the book — all these degrading words,” Yacobi said. “I try to impart that it’s about intimacy, love, pleasure and holiness.”

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