Myth of Jewish teen may get debunked

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In a mythical game of Password, if the first two clues were "sex" and "drugs," few would guess "Jewish teenagers" as the answer. That assumption will be tested Sunday when Jewish Family and Children's Services of the East Bay holds a discussion on "Sex, Drugs and Judaism."

The event is part of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay's "Hand-in-Hand Jewish Community Day." The one-day educational festival takes place at Pleasanton Middle School. The free event, designed for teens and parents of teens, will also feature topics such as "Raising a Mensch" and "Superman Was Jewish?"

Rebecca Weiner, the coordinator of JFCS' parenting and youth services division, said the myth of the over-achieving Jewish teenager, immune to youthful temptations, is in need of some serious debunking.

The prevailing belief is that if a Jewish teen achieves all the developmental bullet points — a bar or bat mitzvah, straight A's in school, or making the football team — then he or she must not be experimenting with drugs or sex.

"I think that there are certain issues facing teenagers that the Jewish community is in denial about," Weiner said.

She will lead Sunday's discussion on sex, drugs and teenagers. It is scheduled at 9:30 to 10:45 a.m., and will be repeated from 11 a.m. to 12:15 p.m.

Even when Jewish teenagers appear to be on the right track, Weiner said, problems may surface.

"Even with high standards of perfection, there are going to be mistakes. It's part of the natural process of being a teenager." And, though she noted that she rarely encounters "teenage Jewish junkies" or sees many teen pregnancies, Weiner knows kids "that have tripped on acid over 150 times" and knows many who are sexually active.

As part of her effort to increase dialogue between teenagers and their parents, Weiner has hosted several open-discussion groups.

Some were quite revealing. One evening, for example, during a discussion on "Parenting the Pierced," women who were concerned by their daughters' navel piercings told the group they protested in the '60s by refusing to shave their legs.

"All these teenage girls, some of whom had multiple piercings, just shrieked with horror," Weiner laughed. "But discussions like that one, and the one taking place on Sunday, provide the kind of forum where kids and their parents can really relate to each other."

Another key to understanding the problems facing Jewish teens is recognizing that the community is not monolithic and contains many different cultures and viewpoints.

"When you talk about Jewish kids, you're not necessarily talking about upper-middle-class white kids," said Erik Ludwig, director of Club 18, the teen program of the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. "There are Jewish kids of many different economic backgrounds and races. So if you approach the problem only through the prism of one lifestyle or experience, you're going to be leaving a lot of kids at risk."

Ludwig said that "once the blinders come off" and parents realize that some of the problems facing Jewish teenagers are universal, the community should create a forum for addressing those situations.

Weiner agrees, saying that while no net is wide enough to catch all the Jewish teenagers grappling with problems, the underlying theme of Sunday's event is pekuach nefesh, saving a life.

"The highest value in Jewish tradition is saving a life," Weiner said. "And that's the tradition we're honoring with Sunday's event."