I received a troubling phone call recently. A young adult had helped chaperone a congregational youth group event. She was schmoozing with some of the girls when the conversation turned to relationships and sex. One teen shared, in a hip and cool sort of way, that she was “so relieved” when she got her period. She had been worried that she was pregnant—as if it was cool to experience these worries. The chaperone’s reaction—What are these young girls doing?! They are far too young to be having sex! What should I have said to them?
Our son became a bar mitzvah a little over a year ago. As we were beginning to think about celebrating our joyous simcha, parents and members of his b’nei mitzvah class met with professional party planners to hear how to plan a party. While they offered several helpful suggestions, one was quite disturbing: “Plan two parties, one for the adults and one for the kids, in separate rooms. That way the kids can do their thing and the adults aren’t bothered by the loud music, dancing and games.” My concern—do we really want to leave our children unsupervised at b’nei mitzvah parties?!
Today our teens receive conflicting messages about sexual activity. On the one hand, the sex education they receive at school is more frequently based on an abstinence-only model of education. They learn about the physiology of their changing bodies and are instructed to abstain from any sort of sexual activity. They do not learn about birth control, safe sex or how to protect themselves against sexually transmitted infections. On the other hand, the teen pop culture of music, reality TV, movies, fashion and video games is quite permissive about sexual activity, representing sex as cool, fun and the thing to do. Moreover, the messages they receive from their parents fall anywhere on the spectrum between these two extremes.
These values can be quite different from those taught by Jewish tradition. Maimonides writes in the Mishneh Torah that we do not have complete ownership of our bodies, for God has loaned our bodies to us for safekeeping (Hilkhot Chovel U’Mazik 5:1). Thus any misuse, abuse or mutilation of the body is viewed as a breach of God’s trust. Maimonides understands that our bodies and souls—including sexuality—are gifts from God. We need to treat our bodies with the respect that God demands.
With regard to sexual activity, prior generations have interpreted these lessons quite differently than today’s youth. Our teens live in a culture in which boundaries governing what is sacred and what is not have changed. Today’s teens are pressured to participate in activities and behaviors for which they may not be physically or emotionally ready. In few places do our teens have the opportunity to talk openly and honestly about these issues or to develop a sense of personal sexual ethics. And yet they want to talk! Our teens are searching for help in sorting out the conflicting messages they receive from their schools, peers, the prevailing culture, Jewish tradition and yes, even their parents.
The synagogue is a natural setting for these conversations. Within the context of the synagogue, our teens find a safe place for sharing and dialogue. They find adult role models whom they trust for guidance. They find peers who hold similar values. They find a tradition that can teach and lead them in safe, healthy and realistic directions.
In response, the Union for Reform Judaism has developed two curricula titled Sacred Choices: Adolescent Relationships & Sexual Ethics. Created to support teens and their parents as they navigate through the stages of adolescence, Sacred Choices provides congregations with a greatly needed program to teach sexual ethics to teens in a developmentally appropriate yet forthright manner, as well as to prepare parents for the changes their children will face. In this curriculum, the questions of relationships and Jewish values are central. Divided into two curricula, a Middle School module and a High School module, Sacred Choices helps teens
• by providing a foundation needed to make informed and responsible decisions about their sexual health and behavior
• by equipping them with age-appropriate tools to help steer their way through their friendships and relationships
• by offering Jewish answers to questions about sexual behavior.
The Sacred Choices Middle School Module will be available from the URJ Press in January 2007. It contains five lessons for students, three lessons for parents and material to support congregations. An advance copy of the Middle School module can be viewed on the URJ Web site. The Sacred Choices High School Module, available in fall 2007, will also include lessons for students and parents plus a family education session.
We need to provide safe places for adolescents to understand their inherent worth, to see their bodies as gifts and to find acceptance, whatever their sexual orientation. Jewish tradition guides our teens to make sacred choices. By educating our young people, our community will protect the health and well being of our adolescents and even save lives.
Rabbi Laura Novak Winer, RJE, is the coordinator of the Sacred Choices project and director of the Youth Initiative for the URJ Youth Division.