Talking to teens about sexuality can be tricky, Reform rabbis say

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Rabbi Janine Schloss draws a hanger with a line through it on the chalkboard. Her students, Reform Jewish 10th-graders in St. Louis, all have a strong reaction.

She asks whether they are pro-choice or pro-life, and usually the majority say they are pro-choice. She begins her class by talking about reproductive rights, which "shows I'm not going to duck any hard issues," she said. After explaining what both the American courts and Jewish texts have to say on abortion, she listens as the students again express their opinions.

"I'm not trying to change their minds," said Schloss. "But I want them to be able to articulate why they think they way they do."

She has developed a curriculum for teaching 10th-graders what she calls "Jewish ethical decision-making" or "hot topics for today's teenagers." Schloss was one of several Reform rabbis to share their thoughts with colleagues on how to convey a positive Jewish message about sexuality and other sensitive subjects to today's teens. The discussion took place at the annual convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, held in Monterey last month.

Teaching 10th- graders can be tough, explained Schloss, because "you have some kids who have never kissed someone before, and you have others who are having sex."

To further complicate things, she often encounters resistance from well-meaning parents who have no clue about the forces their kids encounter on a daily basis.

"Lots of parents say to me, 'My child would never have sex or do drugs, so I don't know why you're doing this.'"

While most parents don't object, per se, to these topics being raised, some have gotten upset when she discusses the topic of suicide without giving advance notice.

Teens, though, respond well. "They seem to really like this unit," she said, "because we're treating them like adults, and these topics are totally relevant to their lives."

Rabbi Debra Landsberg of Atlanta, who helped develop a curriculum for eighth-graders, said one of her greatest challenges is making teenagers understand that within a committed relationship sex can be a holy act, but at the same time, it would behoove them to wait until they are older. "What do you do with the teenager who thinks a three-week relationship is holy and committed?" she asked.

She has several goals with the curriculum — mainly to talk about why having sex too early is not a good idea, but also to instill positive messages about sex. She also tries to foster an atmosphere that allows families to discuss the issue together, admittedly not an easy task, she said.

Talking about premarital sex from a Jewish perspective is especially tricky, she said, because the Torah is obviously against it, but among today's teens, waiting until marriage is practically unheard of. The Reform movement hasn't really weighed in on the topic, she said. "It's not clear what the moral parameters are."

Landsberg said although it can be touchy, she talks about ways teens can be intimate, stopping short of having sex. "I put that on the table so they can see it's not all or nothing," she said.

She tends to use an anonymous "question box" format so teens can ask whatever they want without being embarrassed.

She also covers gender issues and how they influence one's sexuality.

Rabbi Jonathan Stein of San Diego sits on an ad hoc committee of the CCAR dealing with human sexuality. Because the issue of a commitment ceremony between same-sex couples was handed to the committee and consumed so much time, he said, many other issues were not resolved. The committee has not yet taken a position on such issues as masturbation, bisexuality, voluntarily childless couples and teenage sex.

Stein said he has encountered some resistance when he speaks of homosexual relationships on equal terms with heterosexual relationships.

"We treat them exactly the same, and some find this troubling," he said.

Rabbi Bonnie Margulis of Springfield, Va., said a secular sex education program, "Our Whole Lives," could be easily adapted for use by the Reform movement.

Its approach is helpful, she said, because it suggests abstinence not for moral reasons but for avoiding pregnancy and disease.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."