Just Say ‘No’: O.U. Pushes Abstinence, Pans Condoms

By Amy Odell

Published May 25, 2007, issue of May 25, 2007.
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Borrowing a page from Christian conservatives, the country’s largest Orthodox Jewish organization has launched an “abstinence” Web site warning teenagers of the physical and psychological dangers of premarital sexual activity, and challenging the effectiveness of various forms of contraception.

The National Conference of Synagogue Youth, the youth department of the Orthodox Union, recently unveiled what it is dubbing “The First Abstinence Web Site for Jewish Teens.”

“Christian groups have such Web sites that emphasize abstinence, and we wanted to make it a word in the vocabulary of our kids, as well,” said Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president of the O.U. It was Weinreb who gave the final nod to go ahead with the project. “I’m convinced that the problem is out there, and it’s enough to justify addressing very directly, and there’s no better way to do it than with the Web site.”

The new Web site — which carries the tag line “NCSY Says kNOw” and is peppered with colloquial asides seemingly aimed at winning over teenage readers — arrives as government-funded abstinence-education programs backed by Christian conservatives are coming under increased scrutiny. According to a recent study commissioned by Congress and conducted by Mathematica Policy Research, Inc., students are just as likely to engage in sexual activity whether they participate in abstinence-education programs or not. In 2004, the office of Rep. Henry Waxman, a California Democrat, detailed false or misleading information on contraceptives, sexually transmitted diseases and abortion in 11 of the 13 most widely used curricula in abstinence programs.

The NCSY’s abstinence Web site offers “spiritual” reasons for refraining from sexual activity and cites rabbinic restrictions on premarital physical intimacy, while following the lead of similar conservative Christian efforts in attempting to offer nonreligious health-related reasons for refraining from sex.

The O.U.’s decision to address the issue of abstinence was praised by psychiatrist Michelle Friedman, who serves as director as chair of the department of pastoral counseling at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a liberal Orthodox rabbinical school in Manhattan. “Putting something out there like this is such a big start,” she said. “I really want that to be commended.”

At the same time, Friedman raised doubts over whether the health-related warnings would prove effective. She suggested that more emphasis should have been placed on the religious side of the equation. “I think you can promote the Orthodox attitude without a health measure,” Friedman said. “That to me is not healthy, and that’s not what this is about.”

Under the heading “Condoms are not the answer!” the NCSY’s abstinence Web site states: “Condoms might protect people from pregnancy and most forms of [sexually transmitted diseases], but there’s a lot they don’t protect people from.” Lengthy explanations follow about how condoms don’t protect against the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus, or HPV, a leading cause of cervical cancer, and how one type of spermicide can increase a woman’s risk of contracting HIV. The section of the Web site states that even the pill, one of the safest forms of birth control, may cause “blood clots, heart attacks, and strokes.”

In another section, the site asserts that sexually active teens suffer a disproportionate rate of depression and are more likely than their abstinent counterparts to attempt suicide.

Sammie Moshenberg, director of Washington operations at the National Council of Jewish Women, which is an organization that opposes many of the abstinence programs used in public schools, declined to comment directly on the NCSY’s new Web site.

“I can tell you we will be launching our own campaign early this summer — Plan A: NCJW’s Campaign for Contraceptive Access — which is really stressing the importance of securing and protecting women’s access to contraceptive options, the need for medically accurate and complete information, and education for adults and young people,” Moshenberg said.

“We do believe that a good comprehensive sexuality education program does talk about abstinence,” Moshenberg continued. “We also believe just as strongly that young people do have sex despite what we would hope and teach them.… We believe that schools should be teaching medically and scientifically accurate sexuality education.”

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, program director of NCSY and author of the Web site, said that his organization is being straight with teenagers.

“Obviously we have an agenda,” he said. But, he added, “we would not like to mislead anyone on anything.”

Rabbi Steven Burg, NCSY’s national director, said that the site represents an attempt to provide information that people would not be able to get from mainstream sources on the Web. He acknowledged that contradictory information existed on many of the topics addressed on the NCSY’s site.

“My hope is that this works as a springboard to do more research,” he said.

Acknowledging the debate over the effectiveness of abstinence-only education in school, Abramowitz said that the new site is only meant to supplement sexual education in the classroom. “Here they’ll get the Jewish aspects,” he said.

Abramowitz and Burg said the program exists exclusively online and no plans will be made to expand beyond cyberspace until they’ve had time to compile feedback.

“I’ve gotten many e-mails from parents, teachers. They love it,” Abramowitz said. “Some people say they didn’t have anywhere to send their kids for this information. Or ‘I wish I had this when I was in school in the ’80s.’ We’re not going to pretend it doesn’t exist in the Jewish community.”

The site offers a criticism of what it describes as American pop culture’s increasing focus on sex.

“In our society, sex is literally everywhere, from magazine covers to billboards and from car ads to beer commercials,” the site states. “‘Back in the day,’ only soap operas might feature sexually active characters. Lucy and Ricky slept in separate beds. All Greg Brady might get after a date was a peck on the cheek. When Natalie lost her virginity to Snake on ‘The Facts of Life,’ that was huge — and it was only 1988! Now, shows like ‘Friends’ and ‘Seinfeld,’ whose characters routinely jump from bed to bed, are considered ‘quaint.’ The personalities of characters on shows like ‘Will & Grace,’ ‘The O.C.’ and ‘Sex and the City’ are virtually defined by their sex lives! All this makes it seem as if promiscuity is the societal norm. It isn’t, nor should it be.”

Abramowitz said he got the idea for the site a year ago when he learned of a government grant for abstinence-only education. Though the O.U. opted not to apply for the grant, it raised the question of whether sexual abstinence was something the organization should address.

According to Abramowitz, he spent months researching and writing, looking at Christian abstinence Web sites and medical studies.

“There’s huge amounts of material out there,” he said. “I just saw what people were saying and tried to spin it more Jewish.”

With reporting by Ami Eden.

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