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Jewish Sex-Ed

“Vagina, vagina, vagina.” It could have been a performance of The Vagina Monologues, or a women’s consciousness-raising group. But a synagogue youth event?

Each winter, the ninth-grade Sunday school class at Washington Hebrew Congregation (WHC) in Washington, D.C. piles onto busses for a weekend retreat entitled “A Jewish View of Love, Sex, and Marriage.” WHC was “among the first congregations to take seriously the notion of sexual identity and education, with a religious view that was not about abstinence but about education and Jewish values,” notes Rabbi Joui Hessel, who helps arrange the weekend. Senior Rabbi M. Bruce Lustig, who originated the sex-ed retreat 19 years ago, originally used a Unitarian sexuality education curriculum as a base for the retreat program, adding Jewish texts, viewpoints, and values. Working with Lustig are sex educators Amy and Charles Miron, who have just authored How to Talk With Teens About Love, Relationships, and S-E-X (Free Spirit, 2002). Several of the weekend’s workshops deal with factual information, such as sexual terminology and sexually transmitted infections, as well as pregnancy prevention. The workshop leaders pass out and demonstrate various types of contraception and safe sex aids, including foam, sponges, pills, male and female condoms, and dental dams. “You should see my shopping list!” laughs Hessel. Participants practice rolling condoms onto their fists and discuss the effectiveness and affordability of each item. Other sessions discuss what Jewish tradition and values have to say about sex, respect for the body, and defining human sexual needs within a Jewish context.

In the workshops on intimacy and making sexual choices, participants are divided by gender, and each group is asked to rank physical behaviors, ranging from holding hands to intercourse and oral sex, according to degree of intimacy. The guys and girls then meet and compare their results, often to mutual surprise. In addition, the teens talk about date rape and sexual harassment, dealing with sexual peer pressure, homosexuality and the rights of males and females in sexual relationships.

The Mirons say Judaism comes alive as teens begin to understand its positive attitude toward responsible sexual expression. The nine sessions over the three days are followed by family debriefing, where the participants perform verbally explicit skits about what they’ve learned. One scenario has a girl rejecting her date’s suggestion of intercourse because they don’t have a condom. The retreat “explores vital information that all teens need,” the Mirons explain. But, they add, the “second true beauty of the retreat” is that “Jewish kids get a chance to see adults as available and approachable. They learn that their rabbis are there for them…no matter the subject.”

Hessel says parents are grateful to the synagogue for taking “a lot of the heat off of them as disseminators of sex information. We’ve never had a complaint,” she adds. Dr. Nancy Miller, whose daughter attended last year’s retreat, had a very positive reaction to the program. “Oh, my,” she said, “the thing I remember the most about that weekend is seeing my first dental dam!”

For sex educator Amy Miron, one experience stands out as both significant and symbolic of the goals the retreat leaders try to achieve. One year, she was approached by a girl who simply couldn’t bring herself to say “vagina.” To help her overcome this fear, Miron made a deal with the young woman: she herself would say “the v-word” whenever possible. “I would say things like ‘Hi, how was your group? Vagina, vagina, vagina,'” she remembers. “At dinner that evening, a roar of applause erupted… [she] had finally said vagina.” At the end of the retreat, the teen hugged Miron and thanked her. “What’s the significance?” Miron sums up. “How could this young woman ever respectfully claim a part of her body that she couldn’t even say out loud? Throughout the retreat the message all teens hear is that their bodies should be respected and taken good care of”