The story comes from Rabbi Peretz Scheinerman, educational director of Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy. A rabbi, it seems, tells his son, "It's time to learn about sexuality." The boy replies, "What would you like to know?"
It's an old joke, but one that touches on the problem of introducing the delicate subject of sex to adolescents. Experts agree that Jewish schools -- and schools in general -- need to do more to teach kids about their bodies and about the whole complex subject of human reproduction. The question is: how can this best be done without offending the values of the students, their parents and their communities?
Scheinerman's school, considered Modern Orthodox, runs from kindergarten through eighth grade. The subject of puberty is first broached in the fifth grade, through a school nurse, who speaks separately to boys and girls. A full discussion of human reproductive systems is delayed until grade eight, when it is included in a biology course. Also at this time, rabbis and rebbetzins present lessons on sexuality from a religious standpoint, using the examples of biblical figures like David and Bathsheba or Yehuda and Tamar.
Though the school's students come from observant Jewish homes, Scheinerman acknowledges that "our kids are very much exposed to movies, TV and everything else. They ask questions and they get answers." He believes sensitivity is a key to approaching awkward topics: "It's not a dirty thing. It's something that needs to be discussed, and we do it from the Torah perspective."
Susan Kesner is a graduate of Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy; she also attended an Orthodox girls' high school. Today she's a licensed vocational nurse with a certificate in women's health education, and she's convinced that Jewish schools do not go far enough toward acquainting young people with their own bodies. As an experiment, she spent the year 2000-2001 teaching sixth- and seventh-graders at Bais Rebbe, a Chabad middle school for girls. Kesner's course -- called "Nutrition" -- covered the female body, but had to sidestep the whole area of reproduction. Her students knew that women give birth, but she was not allowed to explain how pregnancies occur.
Kesner, who also makes presentations to Girl Scout troops, strongly condemns the logic that teaching adolescents about sex will encourage them to grow up too soon. She asks the rhetorical question, "If you teach somebody about their lungs, does it mean they're going to go out and smoke?"
From her own teen years, Kesner knows that observant Jewish youngsters "do a lot more than their parents think they do. And they feel a lot more than their parents want to think they feel."
Still, Bais Rebbe was apparently not ready for her forthright approach. The administrator who took a chance by hiring Kesner has left the school, and the course Kesner created has been phased out.
Most Orthodox Jewish high schools separate students by gender. At Yeshiva University Los Angeles (YULA) Girls School, 10th-graders cover human reproduction in biology class, but also hear guest speakers who add a religious dimension.
As seniors, all YULA girls participate in a half-year seminar that approaches male-female relationships through the traditional Jewish laws of family purity, explains educational director Rabbi Sholom Strajcher. The discussion of intimate topics "has to be age-appropriate and in terms of the concept of modesty," Strajcher said. The seminar is meant to prepare YULA graduates for eventual marriage.
But YULA Boys School offers nothing similar. The school's head, Rabbi Sholom Tendler, reveals that boys study reproduction in their ninth-grade science class -- "just in case they didn't know it beforehand" -- but otherwise are considered not yet ready to talk about physical intimacy.
They will, however, learn about marital relationships during their post-graduate yeshiva years. Studying in small groups, or one-on-one with a rabbi, they will discover such things as "how to make the relationship a beautiful one" and not to throw their socks on floor.
At liberal Jewish schools, sex education begins far earlier, and is far more likely to include information about birth control, safe-sex practices and deviations from sexual norms. Whereas Orthodox educators teach halacha (Jewish law), those at schools serving other wings of the Jewish community tend to gear their lessons toward the making of responsible choices.
Joan Marks, elementary school principal of Abraham Heschel Day School in Northridge, feels that "what you never want to do is tell children more than they're ready to hear." Still, she gently introduces the idea of reproduction to kindergartners by encouraging pets in the classroom. In fifth grade, her oldest students study the human body in some clinical detail. The sanctity of marriage is part of the discussion, but teachers take care to explain relationships that differ from the norm (like same-sex partners) by emphasizing that "there are different kinds of families." Such an approach has proved helpful to those students who themselves come from untraditional family backgrounds.
At Valley Beth Shalom (VBS), which has classes from kindergarten through sixth grade, registered nurse Sue Freed outlines a comprehensive program of sex education. During a fourth-grade lesson on heredity, she brings up the realities of sperm and egg: "That just gets the first giggles out, to be honest with you."
In fifth grade, boys and girls separately watch and discuss a film about puberty; girls are also shown samples of sanitary products. In keeping with VBS policy that parents should be part of the conversation, they see the film with their kids, then are briefed on what to expect during the teen years.
Sixth-graders at VBS take part in a multiweek program devised by the American Red Cross, which creatively covers such topics as values, gender issues, peer pressure and healthy relationships. Parents are included in many of the take-home exercises, as a way of improving household communications.
By the end of the program, the kids can separate sexual myths from facts, and know how to find help if they should ever need it. Though this program is thoroughly secular, VBS does not neglect the Jewish aspects of sexuality. Rabbi Ed Feinstein meets with older students weekly, reinforcing spiritual and ethical concepts.
Though Freed preaches abstinence, she admits that "if I were teaching this in upper junior high or high school, I'd have to have a different bent." This is the challenge facing the folks at Milken Community High School of Stephen Wise Temple. In response to requests from a parent-staff task force, Milken has introduced a ninth-grade health and human development curriculum.
The new half-year course, taught by professional health educators in conjunction with a rabbinic intern, covers subjects relating to social, emotional, mental and physical health. Students learn -- with the help of readings, discussions, and guest speakers -- about eating disorders and substance abuse. The complexities of sexual behavior are an important part of the mix.
For Jason Ablin, Milken general studies director, the goal is to give students information that will allow them to act responsibly, both as Jews and as human beings.
Beyond the Classroom
The following books and resources are recommended by Jewish educators for teaching youngsters about their bodies:
"Where Did I Come From?" and "What's Happening to Me?" by Peter Mayle. (Lyle Stuart, $9.95)
"The Care and Keeping of You: The Body Book for Girls" by Valorie Lee Schaefer (Pleasant Company Publications, $9.95)
"What's Happening to My Body? Book for Boys" and "What's Happening to My Body? Book for Girls" by Lynda and Area Madaras. (Newmarket Press, $12.95)
"Growing Up: It's a Girl Thing" by Mavis Jukes. (Knopf, $10)
For Observant Adolescents:
"The Magic Touch" by Gila Manolson. (Philipp Feldheim, $12.95). Jewish perspectives on physical relations between males and females.
"Outside/ Inside" by Gila Manolson. (Philipp Feldheim, $12.95). The Jewish concept of modesty.
"The Wonder of Becoming You" by Dr. Miriam Grossman. (Philipp Feldheim, $13.95). Sensitive explanation of how a Jewish girl grows up.
Women's health educator Susan Kesner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . -- Beverly Gray, Education Editor