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Group Tries to Dispel Discomfort over Orthodox Talk About Sexuality

July 11, 2005
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A new initiative at Yeshiva University here aims to tackle an issue that organizers say has received insufficient attention in the Orthodox Jewish community: Judaism and sexuality. Tzelem, which is Hebrew for “image,” is a nascent organization founded by two Y.U. alumni, Koby Frances and Jennie Rosenfeld, who say they hope to encourage a greater willingness to discuss questions surrounding intimacy, relationships, dating and sexual identity among the Orthodox.

To accomplish that goal, they are planning a series of educational programs and seminars concentrated on Orthodox high schools, the Y.U. campuses and singles.

“People just don’t know what Judaism says about sex because they haven’t been taught,” says Rosenfeld, a doctoral candidate in English literature at the City University of New York. “The idea is that education is really key.”

Frances, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at CUNY, agrees. People “are willing to discuss these issues, but just don’t know how,” he says.

Some 2,800 undergraduates attend Y.U.’s three Manhattan single-sex liberal arts and business schools — Yeshiva College, Sy Syms School of Business and Stern College for Women. The institution, which also has graduate programs in Jewish studies, law, medicine, social work and psychology, derives most of its undergraduate population from modern Orthodox day schools, where active contacts between men and women, let alone sexual relationships, are generally not encouraged.

The program, which will launch this fall, will operate under the auspices of Y.U.’s new Center for the Jewish Future, which is being headed by Rabbi Kenneth Brander, a former leader of the Boca Raton Synagogue in Florida. The center constitutes a think tank that seeks to develop educational and leadership initiatives within the Y.U. and Orthodox communities on a broad range of issues.

“I think that kids and adults in the Y.U. and Orthodox communities are raised with a large degree of discomfort and awkwardness with the opposite sex,” says Alan Goldsmith, a Yeshiva College senior.

Because sex is supposed to only take place within the context of marriage, he says, people often view any day-to-day interaction with the opposite sex as inappropriate.

“Rabbis and parents must encourage a healthy outlook on sexuality within the framework of halachah,” or Jewish law, he says. “We have to avoid demonizing sexuality.”

Although hard data on the subject is difficult to come by, anecdotal evidence suggests that students at Y.U. are far less likely to engage in premarital sex than their Jewish counterparts at other universities in North America.

At the same time, many Y.U. students do come from coed day schools, so they have had interaction with members of the opposite sex.

Teens will receive particular attention from Tzelem, which aims to work with Orthodox high schools to develop curricula and seminars that address sexuality.

According to Brander, Tzelem’s message will essentially be threefold: First, healthy self-esteem lies at the root of numerous problems related to interactions with the opposite sex.

“Teenagers are looking for acceptance and approval,” he says, noting that schools need to be teaching teenagers to appreciate their lives and identities and that a lack of self-esteem can sometimes lead teens to rebel by engaging in promiscuous sex and drugs.

Second, Brander says, schools are not effectively communicating to students the holiness of sexuality.

“The rabbis recognized its power and greatness,” Brander says. “The problem is we focus on only one dimension: that teenagers should not be involved in sexuality before marriage.”

Of course, the underlying assumption among both Tzelem educators and students will be that premarital sex is not condoned.

Third, says Brander, schools must address the forces of peer pressure, providing opportunities for teenagers to socialize in a wholesome framework.

“There have to be places to hang out, to interact in a healthy fashion,” he says, pointing out that peer pressure can often lead otherwise good students to participate in unsupervised parties or social gatherings where promiscuity and drugs are rampant.

Shayndi Raice, a student at Y.U.’s Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies and a 2004 graduate of Stern College, says the Orthodox community needs to focus more on psychological issues surrounding sex and dating.

“I think there’s definitely a lot of guilt associated with sexuality for men,” she says. “And it affects their relationships.”

According to Dr. Michelle Friedman, a psychiatrist who chairs the department of pastoral counseling at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a modern Orthodox rabbinical school in Manhattan, the primary challenge facing the Orthodox community on sexual issues lies in the discrepancy between the explicit sexuality of modern secular culture and the ideals of modesty and restraint in the Jewish religious tradition.

Ignorance of Jewish views on sexuality often lead to misperceptions that cause undue hardships, Friedman notes.

“When you educate, you normalize,” she says. “People tend to be more restrictive when they don’t know. They assume a negative stance — and that’s not often what Judaism is about.”

Friedman is currently working on a survey that asks Orthodox married women about their sex lives and views on sexuality.

Tzelem has different aims for college-aged and young adult Jews. One initiative is to develop updated curricula for teachers who train kallot, or women engaged to be married. Brander says such classes must expand beyond the traditional instruction in the laws of niddah, or family purity, to include such topics as abuse, infertility and gynecological procedures.

Likewise, Tzelem hopes to organize optional seminars on dating and relationships for Y.U. students, which will be led by rabbis, therapists, sexual health educators and communication specialists.

“Students are never educated about how one communicates in a relationship,” says Rosenfeld.

This is a problem she hopes the seminars will address.

According to Ari Fridman, an undergraduate senior who serves as editor in chief of The Commentator, the student newspaper of Yeshiva College and Sy Syms, the issue of premarital sex is particularly troubling for modern Orthodox couples.

“While large portions of the Orthodox world now accept dating as a precursor to marriage, new issues related to that process continue to emerge, not least of which is the premarital sexual relationship, commonplace in general society, but unacceptable according to Jewish law,” he says.

“For American Orthodox Jews, foregoing a premarital physical relationship proves quite difficult, particularly because the partners have imbibed from the youngest age a cultural view that permits, even encourages, such relationships.”

“The issue plagues many dating couples in the modern Orthodox world,” Fridman adds. “Whether there is a halachic solution to this dilemma, I am not sure.”

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