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Orthodox Slam Safe Sex Campaign

Looks like Agudath Israel has taken a cue from Israel’s Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger. As the JTA reports, the “leading U.S. umbrella group of fervently Orthodox Jews” (the fervent equivalent to the more moderate Orthodox Union), “accused New York City of promoting casual sex”:

In a letter to the New York City Department of Health’s assistant commissioner for AIDS prevention, Monica Sweeney, Agudath Israel of America objected to a new ad campaign designed to promote condom use. Aguda argues that the ad campaign “affirmatively encourages young people to engage in casual sex.”
In our community — and, I am sure, in many others as well — the message our clergy, educators and parents try to impart to our children is that a lifestyle of promiscuity is not only dangerous but also inappropriate,” wrote David Zwiebel, Aguda’s vice president for government and public affairs. “By what right does the New York City Health Department deign to undermine that message?”

Whoa there, Nelly.

Is New York City responsible for not offending the moral sensibilities of conservative groups, or is the city responsible for the health of its residents?

A reader of Jewess sent in this article with the note, “Does this really affect the agudah community???” Clearly, the Aguda community is not the target audience of NYC’s safe sex campaign. But the city can’t choose who sees the advertisements for the NYC condom, which use the tagline “Get some,” hanging in the subway. Members of the Aguda community certainly ride public transportation (often with their heads in a book of prayer or Torah, I’ve noticed — perhaps an attempt not to look at such offensive ads or offensively dressed people). In that sense, the campaign does affect their community.

Most interesting is the Aguda’s acknowledgment that it does — that their youth are not immune to the messages of the culture outside the ultra-Orthodox community. Yet, also interesting — though not surprising — is their not acknowledging that this particular message of safe sex might actually be beneficial to certain members of their community. As the JTA mentions, “Aguda noted that it objected to the distribution of free condoms even without the sexy ads…” So it’s not just the message, it’s the actual distribution of condoms.

The impact free condom distribution has on their community is more puzzling. Is Aguda trying to exert control over the morality of the city, trying to make it into a place they can feel spiritually comfortable living in (and if that’s it, what about the myriad of other morally questionable goings-on in the city)? Or are they objecting to the possibility that their members can also access those free condoms?

It seems to me there must be some concern about the latter. In which case, the Aguda should take its tacit acknowledgment that its community is not immune to ideas and influences from secular culture — nor are they immune to hormones, for that matter, which are not religiously observant by nature — to its inevitable conclusion: People will stray, and do. For whatever reasons, the ultra-Orthodox community is unable, or unwilling, to provide certain resources and protections to its members. The Aguda should be thankful that the city picks up its slack.

–Rebecca Honig Friedman