Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is ready to talk frankly with Jewish youth about sex — and he thinks you should be, too. Yanklowitz, a central figure in the Open Orthodoxy movement, has called publicly in workshops, speeches and Op-Eds for comprehensive sex education in Orthodox Jewish schools, including accurate, extensive information about STD/STI prevention, sexual and emotional health, and sexuality/gender identity.
As most people who attended Orthodox schools — including this author — will tell you, any sort of sex ed is rare, if not completely absent. My own experience, or lack thereof, at a Modern Orthodox Jewish day school in Boston included a “growing up” talk at the end of sixth grade. Boys were taken to a room to discuss pubic hair growth, girls were taken to a separate room to discuss menstruation, and then we all went out to the courtyard for (gender-segregated) simcha dancing lessons. That was the entirety of our “education”: There was never any discussion of sex at all, let alone STDs, safer sex, consent and, God forbid, gender and sexuality.
This attitude was bolstered by the assumption that everyone in the school adhered to the laws of shomer negiah — literally “guarding touch,” a prohibition against unmarried men and women past bar/bat mitzvah age touching in any way. This, of course, was not so. As anyone walking through the hallways could tell you, shomer negiah was not the observed norm.
As Yanklowitz has acknowledged, some teenagers have sex. This includes Jewish teenagers in Modern Orthodox schools, whether or not it is assumed they adhere to shomer negiah.
Yanklowitz argues that there is actually a halachic basis for teaching comprehensive sex ed to Jewish students. “We’ve seen that abstinence-only education, which is favored by many religious communities, is a near total failure,” he said. “If we do not include sex education in Jewish education, we risk putting students in a harmful place.”
This is true not only in terms of physical safety around disease and pregnancy, but also when it comes to emotional safety and the violation of consent — the latter of which is glaringly under-addressed in contexts where a community does not discuss sex. According to Yanklowitz, this constitutes a violation of lifnei iver, the prohibition against putting a stumbling block before the blind. “It is our responsibility to be frank and mature about teaching our young people all the dimensions of sex, even if the details appear unsavory,” Yanklowitz said.
In his view, teaching sex ed is in line with Jewish values. He holds that the primary Jewish perspective on sex is that it is necessary, good, pleasurable and even spiritual, and that if we want Jewish youth to grow into healthy, self-realized Jewish adults, we have to introduce them to those values. Yanklowitz pointedly does not believe in “advocating” sexual activity in Jewish teenagers — but he believes that, beyond the risk of harm that abstinence-only education poses to Jewish youth, educating about sexuality no more encourages them to have sex than teaching about other religions encourages them to convert.
The lack of sex education in Orthodox schools has real and lasting consequences, and a growing number of adults who attended those schools are becoming vocal about the ways in which the absence of education around sex affected their lives.
Shira Cohen, a 29-year-old artist currently living in Haifa, attended an Orthodox day school, and believes that the complete absence of education or discussion about sex and romantic relationships led to significant amounts of confusion and self-stigmatization when she was a young adult. Cohen’s experiences include self-described avoidable “risky sexual behavior” (which resulted in the contraction of STDs and an unplanned pregnancy), as well as struggles with shame and the prescription of a very narrow, largely negative view of sexuality that she attributes to the school’s approach (or lack thereof) toward sex and love. “My peers and I would have benefited greatly from a non-abstinence-focused sex ed class that broached the issue of our own sexuality,” she said, “not only in terms of technical information…but a real exploration of this vital aspect of our lives. I don’t see how ignoring, suppressing or shaming such a big part of being a human is anything but extremely detrimental to the spiritual life of Jewish adolescents.”
Cohen stated that she knows many people whose sex lives, whether inside or outside the traditionally accepted bounds of matrimony, have been “seriously negatively impacted by the prevailing attitude toward sex in Orthodox Jewish education systems and communities.”
Though Orthodox institutions and schools have generally been hesitant to adopt anything resembling non-abstinence-only sex education, there is support for it among a good deal of self-identified Modern Orthodox people.
Elana Arroyo is a Boston-based nursing student and mother of two who attended a Modern Orthodox day school, and she plans to raise her two children within Modern Orthodoxy as well. She takes issue, however, with the status quo regarding Orthodox Jewish schools’ approach to sex ed. She comes from a family that was very open and candid about discussing sex, so she wasn’t too affected by her school’s lack of sex ed, but as an adult she believes that its absence is highly problematic. She feels that even in the relatively liberal Modern Orthodox world, sexuality is made to be taboo, which does not prevent sexual experiences. Rather, the taboo makes the sexual experiences that inevitably occur less likely to be safe or healthy. “I think there is a way for an institution to say that they don’t condone premarital sex, but that all sex (married or not) must be safe and consensual,” Arroyo said.
Though Arroyo believes that Modern Orthodoxy is moving in the right direction, she realizes that the process is slow, and anticipates that the majority if not the entirety of her children’s sex education will have to happen at home. “Talking about sex with kids is tough for many people who can’t even claim religion as an excuse,” she said. “Our society loves to hate teenage sexuality.” Her biggest hope, however, is that one day students at Modern Orthodox schools will be able to get comprehensive sex education, and will receive the message that sex can be so much more than either illicit or solely for procreation: “I hate the idea of generation after generation of people frightened of such a huge part of what makes us human.”
Yanklowitz and Orthodox advocates have their opponents, and their campaign to introduce non-abstinence-based sex ed in Orthodox schools is a challenge, to say the least. But they join a larger movement of interdenominational Jewish educators and organizers who’ve been advocating for comprehensive sex and consent education from a Jewish lens.
Lana Adler is the Forward’s summer fellow.