A Modern Orthodox high school wants to end taboos around sex education


This article was produced as part of JTA’s Teen Journalism Fellowship, a program that works with Jewish teens around the world to report on issues that affect their lives.

(JTA) — For many Modern Orthodox teens, there is a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy when it comes to sex.

Premarital sex, which is expressly forbidden according to halacha, or Jewish law, is assumed to be a nonentity that requires no formal discussion in many Modern Orthodox high schools. Sexual education, and discussion of safe sexual practice, have often been omitted from many Orthodox day school curricula in deference to Jewish law. 

Yet one high school has decided to confront the taboo by teaching a Jewish Sexual Ethics course. At SAR High School in Riverdale, New York, the first part of the curriculum made publicly available last November emphasizes transparency and honesty relating to health while still prioritizing Jewish values.

“What people are afraid of is that if we address this in a really open way, we are giving tacit approval to behaviors that are non-halachic — that is, don’t adhere to Jewish law,” Shuli Taubes, chair of SAR’s Jewish thought department, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency

But, as she writes in a paper about the course, “Any curriculum must find a way to be completely clear about the halachic norms and expectations without apology. But we cannot shy away from the issues simply because they are messy and uncomfortable.”

The full curriculum is slated to go public later this year. 

SAR High School, considered among the more liberal Modern Orthodox day schools in the country, started addressing this tension starting over a decade ago. In 2014, it created a yearlong sexual education course for 10th grade students that combines Jewish textual study with comprehensive education around safe sexual practice. 

“When the guide is published [in full] we hope that educators and parents alike will find it useful in helping emerging adults develop an approach to sexuality and relationships that is committed to both interpersonal ethics, Torah values, and halachic principles,” said Taubes. 

While the first three chapters of the curriculum cover textual sources to support the development of a Jewish sexual ethic, additional chapters will cover Jewish perspectives on masturbation, pornography, sexuality and other topics, which are often unaddressed in Modern Orthodox high schools and other settings. Prompts to encourage discussion are grounded in supporting Biblical, Talmudic and other Jewish texts. 

“We also know that any curriculum on the cutting edge of Jewish education must be dynamic; we expect that through feedback from those adopting and adapting it for various educational settings that we can edit, add and improve,” said Taubes.

It is not clear to what degree other Modern Orthodox schools will adopt or adapt the new curriculum for their programs. 

Nearly 15 years ago, Bnei Akiva Yeshivot, the largest umbrella organization for Modern Orthodox high schools in Israel, suggested that sexual education should be added to the curriculum of Orthodox day schools, but institutions have been slow to respond. Many still focus on conversations centered around the importance of shomer negiah (literally “guarding the touch”), which prohibits any kind of premarital physical contact between members of the opposite sex, and omitting open discussions on sexuality, safety or protection (including contraception and STDs). Jewish writers have called out the lack of sexual education in Jewish day schools as a source of shame and avoidance for many Orthodox young adults.  

Bella Schwartz, a senior at Ida Crown Jewish Academy in Chicago, said that her school covers halachic issues around sex within the confines of marriage without addressing larger issues around safe sex outside of marriage. “This [sexual education] is kind of talked about but in the halachic aspect. It’s more of just ‘a don’t do it’ kind of situation,” she said. Niddah and taharat hamishpacha laws surrounding menstruation — are covered in gender-segregated classes but other types of sexual education are not included in the conversation. 

A view of SAR High School in Riverdale, New York. (Wikipedia)

Some students feel that they are missing out on critical knowledge due to the lack of open discussion of these issues. “I think not teaching sex ed at Ida Crown is depriving the students about actually learning about their bodies. Everyone should know how their bodies work and human bodies work,” said Schwartz, 18. 

Jacob Friedman, a junior at Ida Crown, has also noted a general lack of discussion around sexual ethics or identity among students. “Sexual education is rarely discussed in health and science classes. From my time as a freshman and sophomore, and what I know about junior and senior year, we have yet to have a sex ed or a health course,” said Friedman, 16. Sexual ideas are discussed occasionally in the context of core coursework within the high curriculum. “Other times when procreation is talked about is in books we read in our English classes. Other than that, sexual intercourse is seldom mentioned,” he said.

Ida Crown administrators did not respond to a request for comment. 

Multiple students, at schools across the country, were contacted for this article and were reluctant to discuss sexual education, premarital sex among teens and/or their personal thoughts on these issues, on or off the record. This unwillingness perhaps explains the lack of statistics on the prevalence of sexual activity in Modern Orthodox teens and young adults before marriage.  

The lack of transparency around these issues — and the lack of uniform educational efforts — poses unique difficulties to lay leaders in the Jewish community. Rahel Bayar, a former sex crimes and child abuse prosecutor and consultant on abuse and harassment prevention, said, “The term sex education can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people in a lot of different schools, especially within the Jewish community. But we just lack data — we lack data from students themselves, we lack data from schools and I think that it would be hugely impactful to have very nuanced, very pointed data that really tells the story of what we’re lacking in our Jewish day schools.” 

Dr. Shy Krug, a sex educator and therapist, recently introduced a new Sexual Health course at the Ramaz Middle School in New York City. Like Taubes, he notes that “a universal challenge around this topic in the Jewish community is how do we facilitate the healthy internalized messaging around sexuality while also recognizing that from a Jewish or halachic perspective, premarital sexual activity is not something that is condoned, like pornography or masturbation.” 

Krug emphasized the importance of addressing these issues in a transparent way that prioritizes adolescent mental health. “How can we talk about things in a way where adolescents don’t feel shame or like they are bad people or that God is angry at them?” he said. “Where they can feel like these are okay feelings to have without encouraging or endorsing certain behaviors? How do we integrate these two things that may seem to conflict?” 

Students at SAR who have participated in the school’s new curriculum appreciate the opportunity to learn about these issues in school. For Maya Jacobs, a junior at SAR, the health course gave her a unique opportunity to “learn about sex this transparently” for the first time. The format of the SAR curriculum allowed for “insightful and meaningful conversations” on topics that would otherwise feel taboo. 

“Their [SAR’s] candor towards the topic has created a safe environment where I feel comfortable asking any questions I may have,” she said. “I have and continue to learn so many new things about the topic that I would have been too shy to ask someone on my own.”

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