July 14, 2005
Beyond the Birds and the Bees
It was lights out in the guys bunk at Camp Alonim, and the beginning of the nightly brag session. Some of the 15 and 16 year olds started egging each other on to share details of who snuck where with whom and how far they got.
But tonight Seth Ort, the 21-year-old counselor, had some new ammunition to put a stop to it.
As the big talkers started in, Ort reminded them about Steven, a fictional character who showed up in a scenario during their seminar on sexual ethics. Ort reminded the 20 boys what they'd said about Steven, who had boasted about his experiences and tried to push a pal into also going "all the way" with a girl.
Ort recounted their own words about Steven:
"He's a jerk," they had said.
"He's making it tough for the rest of the guys."
"He doesn't know what he's talking about and he's probably making it up."
The guys remembered and the room got quieter. Ort said he's noticed a lot less bragging since then. And he's heard some of the entering 11th graders -- boys and girls -- use terms and skills they gleaned in the intensive sex-ed program, which is aimed at helping teens make ethically and psychologically sound sexual decisions.
"I don't think they went back after the program and said I'm going to change everything about the way I relate to the opposite sex, but I think it did have a subtle effect," Ort said.
The 60 Camp Alonim campers who are entering 11th grade are the first participants in "Bridging the Gap: Jewish Sexual Ethics for Teens and Their Parents," developed by the Brandeis Bardin Institute in consultation with experts in the fields of Jewish studies, education and psychology.
The program combines text study, group therapy and parent participation over a single weekend to bring a Jewish educational component to the summer fling, with the hopes of extending that new sensibility to year-round decision-making. The first campers to participate were a particularly key group because they are "counselors-in-training," who spend a small portion of their time working with younger kids. These older campers help set the tone for all of Camp Alonim, and they also are old enough to exploit the potential sexual opportunities that go along with virtually any camp setting. Brandeis will run the program twice more for ninth and 10th graders.
"The idea is we touch the kids' lives and teach them that Judaism and Jewish values are something they will have throughout their lives in a real way that they can apply, not just as something hypothetical and abstract," said Alonim director Ed Gelb, who conceived the program.
Camp Alonim, located at Brandeis in Simi Valley, deals with sex pretty much like most Jewish and non-Jewish camps: It forbids sexual activity. While "sexual activity" is never defined in lurid detail, teens in years past have been sent home for having intercourse or oral sex. Camp staff acknowledges that, despite nightly patrols and keeping close watch, some "messing around" goes on. Which is why, they say, having this program at camp makes so much sense.
"Bridging the Gap" doesn't go over the plumbing, which kids get in biology and health class at school. Nor do they get a by-the-book run-down of halacha (Jewish law), since Alonim is nondenominational and most of the kids are not halachically observant. It also doesn't mandate what 16 year olds should or shouldn't be doing.
Rather, the point is for teens to learn ways that Judaism defines a healthy and sacred relationship, to understand their own parents' values on the topic and to use that information -- along what they already know about the realities of sex in the 21st century -- to set their own moral compass.
"Faith-based summer camp is a great place for this kind of program to take place because it allows teens to get a sense of their community's values," said Martha Kempner, director of public information for the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, a 40-year-old nonprofit based in New York. "Too often we focus on disaster prevention, on preventing teen pregnancy or STDs, and we forget that really our ultimate goal is to create sexually healthy adults."
A complete education happens over years in many venues, but a weekend program at camp is a great start, Kempner said.
About 45 percent of American high schoolers surveyed in 2001 had sex in the three months prior to the survey, and a greater number are sexually active, though not necessarily having intercourse, according to a biannual study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control. (That number is down 10 percentage points since 1991.)
While many schools and synagogue youth programs have Jewish sexual-ethics courses, sex ed seems a natural fit for the microcosmic world of camp, where informal Jewish education often becomes a more formative experience than Hebrew school or even day school. At camp, kids are the comfortable keepers of their own turf, a day feels like a week and relationships happen quickly and deeply. Camp has long been a venue for sexual discovery, from that first kiss in the starlight behind a bunk to sneaking into the sports shed while counselors are at a late-night staff meeting.
Not as natural was the idea of bringing parents into this strictly parent-free zone, a risk Brandeis felt was justified by the benefit of having teens and parents hear each other on this often-taboo topic.
It was precisely that risk that made "Bridging the Gap" stand out for the Foundation for Jewish Camping, a national organization based in New York that awarded Brandeis a $20,000 grant to develop the seminar.
"This program is extremely modern and extremely relevant to the environment that these young teens live in," said Jerry Silverman, president of the foundation. "We felt that this could have a significant impact not just for the teens within the camp setting, but as something that can evolve into year-round discussions in the home."
This month, the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles awarded Brandeis an additional $20,000 to evaluate its program and then to teach other camp directors how to run it -- a welcome prospect, other directors say.
While sexuality comes up in informal camper-counselor conversations -- and in laying out the camp rules -- no formal venue exists for talking about sexual ethics with campers at Wilshire Boulevard Temple's two camps, Hess Kramer and Gindling Hilltop, in Malibu, said director Douglas Lynn.
During staff training at Hess Kramer, a social worker and rabbi helped counselors learn how to handle sensitive topics of sexuality. This type of staff training is a growing trend among all camps, Jewish and non-Jewish, according to Silverman.
At Camp Ramah in Ojai, counselors spent a full day with rabbis and mental health professionals in a seminar they call "B'tzelem Elohim: In God's Image." The goal is to foster a healthy camp atmosphere for dealing with topics such as body image, sexuality and social pressure.
In developing "Bridging the Gap," Brandeis consulted child mental-health specialists Ian Russ and Wendy Mogel, both highly acclaimed in the Jewish and non-Jewish communities. Family therapist Miriam Wolf came into the project later, taking on the job of presenting the material to campers. Dr. Aryeh Cohen, a professor of rabbinic literature at the University of Judaism, worked on the Jewish-values piece, along with his wife, Andrea Hodos, a former Jewish studies teacher at Milken Community High School.
Hodos had developed a similar program at Milken, where she incorporated the study of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden with a critical analysis of the 1998 coming-of-age film "Pleasantville." In that movie, two teenagers foment a sexual revolution in a 1950s town, opening the town's eyes much as Adam and Eve's eyes were opened in Genesis, after they ate the forbidden fruit.
Through studying that chapter of Genesis and rabbinic commentaries on it, the teens explored issues such as temptation, peer pressure, decision-making, and how to view other human beings.
Hodos and Wolf, along with Alonim staff educators, talked with the teens about how intimacy holds a prominent and holy place in strong relationships, about the value of privacy, about how each human is created in the image of God and must respect himself and others. They focused on seeing others as people who deserved to be comprehended and responded to, not treated as tools to be used.
Hodos and Wolf didn't expect to hit every note right on the first try, and they were disappointed that the terminology from the text-study sessions didn't come up later in the day, when kids were dissecting a scenario of a camp romance gone bad. But the teens did express some of the concepts in their own words.
Most of the teens said they enjoyed the group discussions but found the Jewish text portion boring and irrelevant. Organizers reworked the program for the next run, which took place last weekend. They made the material more interactive and spread out some of the text study to Saturday, rather than cramming everything into Sunday.
Despite scattered complaints, camp staff is pretty certain a lot sunk in, including the part about respecting someone as a complete person.
"It's had an effect on the way the guys treat the girls and the way the girls feel they ought to be treated," said adviser Lindsay Salk.
Hodos and Wolf hope the teens' analysis of the Genesis texts, along with the moral parsing they engaged in later on, will help these youths find Jewish ways to answer questions about casual fooling around, "friends with benefits" and how far is too far, even in a committed relationship.
One important piece of this program -- even at camp -- is parents.
About 30 parents answered the invitation for an evening program with the kids -- out of a pool of 120. Some parents attended reluctantly, saying they felt uncomfortable about interrupting the sacred parent-child separation of camp, or felt that the topic invaded their child's privacy or their own.
But research and polling indicates a sex-communication gap between the generations that needs to be bridged. In an NBC/People Magazine poll from 2004, 85 percent of parents said they often talk to their kids about sex, but only 41 percent of teens reported frequent conversations with their parents on this subject.
At dusk on Sunday at Brandeis, those conversations were happening in earnest.
Parents were not placed with their own kids in break-out groups led by camp educators, in order to respect familial privacy and keep things more theoretical. In remarkably open discussions, both generations talked about what their side wanted and needed most from the other.
"I never hear my parents say they made mistakes. They act like they're perfect and I know they're not," one boy said.
"Hypocrisy and lecturing just annoy all teenagers," a girl opined.
"Don't wait to have the 'Big Talk' with us. Nobody wants it and everybody dreads it,' one girl told the parents. "Just have lots of little conversations, so it's a natural thing for us to talk about."
The teens also talked about double standards.
"My dad is turning my brother into someone he would never let me go out with," one girl said.
"Sometimes," one girl said, "we really, really need to talk to you about something that happened, but we're afraid you'll get mad or we'll get grounded, so we just don't tell you."
The advice and questions went the other way, too. Dads asked whether their girls wanted to talk to their fathers about sex. One girl said talking to her dad about guys made her cringe, another said she was more comfortable talking to her dad than her mom, and he could tell her more about what guys were thinking.
"Our one main concern is that you don't get hurt, physically or emotionally," one dad said.
"We're really afraid for you," a mother said.
"So tell us that you're afraid," said a boy.
"I always like getting information from my daughter before I find out another way," one mother offered.
Another mother tried to explain to the kids why parenting is so hard.
"The parents here are really an in-between generation," she said. "We never spoke to our parents about anything having to do with sex, so we don't have any experience in talking about these things. We need to be shown how to be there. We want to talk to you, but we don't really know how."
Organizers hope this interchange helped parents and teens develop a common language in which to talk about sex. At the very least, they may have opened the door for a long overdue conversation.
"I have never talked to my parents about sex before, except for them saying, 'Make sure you're safe,'" said one girl. "Then, on the car ride to camp, we were so much more open because they were coming for this. We had this open, honest conversation, and it was an ideal conversation. I was so happy about it."