November 16, 2018

The Birds

Rabbi Baruch Finkelstein has an unhappy revelation for his fellow Modern Orthodox Jews: Your teen-agers are dating, fooling around, perhaps having sex. They are no different from non-Orthodox Jewish teens.

“The Orthodox community has been ignoring this,” says Finkelstein, 38, who teaches Torah and Talmud at Shalhevet High School. “They dismiss the topic as ‘forbidden.’ But we have to talk about it, and openly. We have to deal with the reality of what kids are doing today.”

Finkelstein and his wife, Michal, a registered nurse and midwife, have a solution that some may consider controversial. They are applying for a $20,000 grant to develop a unique, six-month sex-education curriculum — one that combines explicit clinical information with Jewish thought — for Jewish day schools, from Reform through Modern Orthodox.

In the meantime, Michal has been teaching a sex-education class over the past two years at Shalhevet. The focus, so far, has been on the 12th-grade girls (the Finkelsteins will write the boys’ curriculum later). The experience has been eye-opening for the couple, who have also co-authored a book on pregnancy and childbirth for observant Jews.

While teaching her course, Michal learned that the girls were confused. On the one hand, parents and teachers were stressing to them “abstinence before marriage.” On the other, they had been hanging around in coed groups since they were 12 or 13. Maybe a boy had come by a girl’s locker, precipitating a case of nerves. Maybe he had called on the telephone or invited her to his bar mitzvah.

All the while, the girls were seeing the sexualized images of young women in movies, in glamour magazines, on billboards and on “Beverly Hills 90210.”

“They are told, ‘Don’t touch.’ But they want to touch,” Michal Finkelstein says, acknowledging these are delicate issues, but crucial. “They feel uncomfortable in their bodies. They feel they don’t yet ‘fit’ the new womanly shape.”

Michal, 37, attempted to address the confusion during her program last year. She began by emphasizing that the class was strictly confidential and that she was not going to force her Orthodox point of view on the young women. Rather, she wanted to hear what they were feeling.

Most of the girls, she discovered, had only “peripheral” relationships with boys, though some weren’t sure they wanted to wait until their wedding night to lose their virginity. Michal told them that she wanted to give them the knowledge they needed to make good decisions in the world.

First, she explained the nitty-gritty of how a woman works. Amid the diagrams and the talk of PMS, yeast infections, breast self-exams, AIDS and menstruation, the girls’ questions were frank. Where is my uterus? Where is my clitoris? What is the physiology of orgasm? And why do I feel this way about boys?

“We discuss masturbation as normal, nothing to feel guilty about, and the girls wanted to hear they’re not the only ones thinking about it, lying awake at night,” Michal says. “I legitimize awakening sexual feelings; that it’s important to feel attracted to certain boys more than others; that it’s crucial you have sexual chemistry with any potential partner in life.”

When the girls asked, as they often did, “How will I know if he’s the one?” Michal reiterated the importance of physical attraction.

She also stressed how the sexual union between husband and wife is holy in Judaism. And how having sex can make the emotional havoc of breaking up with a boyfriend even more difficult.

The class went on to discuss date rape, childbirth and birth control; Michal brought in various contraceptives and displayed them on the classroom table.

The students queried the midwife about how pregnancy feels; how one makes a Jewish home; and how the sheitl -wearing Michal balances her career with six children. They also wanted to learn how to tell the mensches from the jerks.

To this end, there was a workshop and role-playing about how to judge character and develop trust in a relationship: What happens when boy meets girl and how to deal with guys in coed college dormitories were among topics discussed. After one student recounted how she was stood up on a date, the class role-played that too.

Through it all, and in a nonjudgmental manner, Michal Finkelstein presented the Jewish point of view about love, sex and commitment. She brought in psalms and segments of the Gemara, and took the girls to the mikvah. She presented biblical heroines such as Devorah as alternative role-models to the “Friends” or “Baywatch” babes.

So far, the Shalhevet parents have been thrilled with the program. And Dr. Jerry Friedman, Shalhevet’s president and educational adviser, believes that the curriculum is a must for Jewish schools.

“Our mandate is not only to prepare students with good Jewish and general studies, but to prepare them for the outside world,” he says. “We have to be pragmatic and give young people what they’re going to need out there. We can’t stick our heads in the sand.”