Day schools struggle for lessons in national sex scandal

It's not the first time a child has learned about sex at Jewish day school, but in the wake of the White House intern scandal, social studies just hasn't been the same.

The classroom, teachers have found, is no safe haven from the national buzz about the fate of the president, who is alleged to have romanced a White House intern and then asked her to lie about it under oath.

At Tehiyah Day School in El Cerrito, faculty consulted with the school psychologist to prepare for brazen questions such as, "Teacher, what's oral sex?"

"Our response was that any question would be answered but we wouldn't get involved with the social mores" of such topics, said Revira Singer, head of the school.

The kids let the teachers off easy, this time — they didn't ask about sex.

Singer said classroom discussion of the scandal is important because of its implication for the future government. The affair also revisits age-old questions about societal expectations of a president.

"We are trying to separate all the issues so they can see the legal, ethical, constitutional [aspects of the case]…and what is acceptable in other cultures."

At Eitz Chaim Academy, an Orthodox K-8 school in San Jose, Director Chanie Lapin broached the scandal instead from the perspective of the intern, Monica Lewinsky.

Lapin speculated that Lewinsky, like many other women, was enchanted by the image of presidential power.

"The temptation is right out in front of her. Seventy-five percent of women dream of having an affair with the president. If the president looks at you more than two minutes, you've gotten what few others have gotten."

The alleged affair became a springboard for Lapin to talk to students about resisting temptation.

"Most things lead to a religious question," even sex, she said, though she acknowledged that discussing sexual practices was a little premature for her young charges.

Traditionally, Orthodox females don't receive formal sex education until high school. However, Lapin said Orthodox boys learn about such issues when they are somewhat younger. During their Talmud studies, boys first learn about niddah, the period surrounding menstruation when a woman is considered ritually unclean, and the role of the mikvah, the ritual bath.

Lapin stressed that classroom discussion of even the most sordid subjects is important — "if you don't encourage asking, then they will answer their own questions and may be incorrect."

Not everyone agrees.

Administrators at Oakland Hebrew Day School said teachers aren't discussing the White House scandal in any of the K-6 classes, but declined further comment.

History and English teacher Janet Sasson of South Peninsula Hebrew Day School in Sunnyvale felt the subject was not as important to discuss as the recent State of the Union address and the future of social security and welfare.

"We just don't discuss those kinds of issues," she said of the scandal. "It's just not necessary. The country is in great shape right now."

Mervyn Danker, director of the Jewish Day School of the North Peninsula in San Mateo, said the scandal was inappropriate for the classroom, but encouraged his fifth-graders to write about their expectations of the president during a journal exercise.

At the Jewish Day School of Sonoma County in Santa Rosa, Director Eric Keitel explained that his K-3 students were too young to understand all the nuances of the intern affair.

Still, when a student inquired about the ruckus, Keitel replied, "The president is in a bit of trouble right now because he may have told a lie" — and left it at that.

Rabbi Henry Shreibman, head of Brandeis Hillel Day Schools in San Francisco and Marin, led a student tefillah service dedicated to national healing.

The Marin middle-schoolers decided to focus on the 11th blessing of the Amidah, which addresses the need for good leadership. They concluded the service with a rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner."

"They felt it was an important time to express unity for the country," Shreibman said. "They take it at face value that this is all allegation at this point. It gave us the opportunity to talk about [talmudic directives on] lashon hara," or gossip.

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.