When Rabbi Jessica Rabbi Minnen was a college student at Washington University, she found herself having a recurring conversation with her peers — about sex.
“It was my first experience with informal pastoral counseling,” said Rabbi Minnen, 32, who today holds rabbinic ordination from Jewish Theological Seminary. “I just kept hearing the same damn story — from men and women, gay and straight — about a sexual encounter they had in their 20s that left them feeling unsettled and unresolved. Even then, I asked myself, ‘Why isn’t there a space to discuss this?’”
Years later, Rabbi Minnen set out to create a space for conversations about sex and intimacy within a Jewish framework. While at JTS she founded Seven Wells, a sex-education program for adults in their 20s and 30s, which was funded by the JTS Seeds of Innovation Project, an annual grant intended to cultivate Jewish engagement. Though Seven Wells has been running workshops, primarily at conferences and retreats, since the fall of 2013, next week the program launches its first synagogue-based program. Fourteen members of Romemu, a Jewish Renewal congregation on the Upper West Side, will meet monthly to discuss relationships, boundaries and sex.
In the wake of the controversy surrounding Barry Freundel, the Washington D.C., rabbi accused of placing hidden cameras in the community mikveh, these conversations couldn’t be more pertinent. In her workshops, Rabbi Minnen spends significant time discussing how Judaism delineates between public and private space, with the mikveh representing a quintessential private space.
“While the mikveh is not sexual in nature,” it is also “a sexualized experience,” Rabbi Minnen said, adding that compromising such a sacred space is “tragic.”
“When someone is naked and exposed, at their most vulnerable physical point, it becomes a charged space,” she said.
Given the Freundel situation, Rabbi Minnen hopes her workshops can remedy some of what has been tainted. “Who can go to the mikveh now and not think about this? It’s terrible,” she said. “I hope creating an open forum for positive discussions about sexuality can alleviate some of the damage caused.”
The workshops will use Jewish texts as a springboard for discussion. Rabbi Minnen hopes the halachic topic of the eruv, a symbolic line that surrounds a Jewish community, will catalyze conversation about both temporal and physical boundaries.
Rabbi Minnen stressed that Seven Wells is “sex-positive,” meaning that it starts with the perspective that consensual sexual expression is positive, regardless of whether or not it takes place in a traditional (heterosexual and monogamous) relationship model.
“We believe that sexuality and spirituality are linked, and consensual sex is a God-given part of life,” said Rabbi Minnen. “There’s a lot of room for laughter, but there’s no room for shame.”
Though Rabbi Minnen was herself Orthodox for a period of time after studying in Israel, she doesn’t intend her seminars to target the Orthodox community.
“The needs of the Orthodox community are very nuanced,” she said, noting that Seven Wells sees very few “bottom lines” when it comes to sexuality, as opposed to many of the stringent guidelines, such as prohibitions against premarital sex, upheld by the Orthodox community.
However, Rabbi Minnen noted that blaming scandals like the Freundel case on “sexual repression” within the Orthodox world is “unfair and unfounded.”
“In many online comments I’ve been seeing people say that what happened with Freundel is just the product of a flawed system that overly restricts sexual expression. I don’t buy it. There are opportunities in the Orthodox world to discuss sexuality, and Rabbi Freundel was undoubtedly aware of them.”
Though the Jewish world has been rocked by the scandal in D.C., Rabbi Minnen maintained that there is a silver lining.
“This tragedy has reinforced that we need to shine a light on who we are as sexual beings,” she said. “If we don’t, we will only end up endangering ourselves and others.”