From Salt-N-Pepa to Jewish educators: Let’s talk about sex, baby
While Salt-N-Pepa brought up the subject of sex in 1990, the Jewish people have been talking about it since moments after the creation of the world. What is our role in co-creating the environments that teens deserve as they take their next steps along their lifelong Jewish journeys?
First crushes. First kisses. First late-night, giggle-filled conversations with friends about who likes who, who smiled at who, and who might have done more than just smile at one another – that is, who hooked up?
In Jewish teen spaces, sex is central, both explicitly and implicitly. Whether or not parents want it to be, or if staff acknowledge it, questions of sex come up in schools, camps, synagogues and youth movements. In youth movements, the “points system” sets teens in youth group spaces up to rank each other’s sexual desirability based on their perceived social capital. At camp, during Israel trips, and in other immersive experiences, sex and gender roles are often held under a microscope, with hierarchical standards put in place that determine if someone is “worthy.” And in schools, learning environments are often coupled with the knowing glances, the social media gossip about who’s doing what and the pressure to go further and do more than one might be comfortable with.
“Let’s talk about sex, baby…”
While hip-hop group Salt-N-Pepa brought up the subject of sex in their 1990 hit, the Jewish people have been talking about it since moments after the creation of the world. The commandment of procreation is the first one in the Torah, in the very first chapter: “God blessed them and God said to them, ‘Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on the earth’ (Genesis 1:28).” And since that first pronouncement of procreation, the topic has never gone away. The Jewish Education Project, together with our partners, seeks to kickstart new, critical conversations about sex and hookup culture, with the vision of empowering educators, clergy and communal leaders with the tools to shift this culture in our respective spaces.
“Let’s talk about you and me…”
As Jewish educators and communal professionals, we wear countless hats. Mentors, rule enforcers, role models, counselors, spiritual guides, teachers. We know and embody the words of Rabbi Chanina: “I have learned much from my teachers, more from my colleagues, and most from my students” (Tractate Taanit 7a). We want our learners to come away from their Jewish experiences thriving. We work to inspire them, to challenge them, to motivate them, and to partner with them in creating successful and meaningful experiences in so many areas. So, their experiences with sexuality cannot and should not be any different. Sometimes it’s awkward. Sometimes it’s hard to know what our role is, particularly in the ever-evolving gray areas.
How do we support the teen who was shamed by their peers – while also creating a community that doesn’t immediately cut out those who did the shaming? How do we encourage teens to be body positive and to feel empowered in their own skin, while not wanting them to feel pressured to show more, or less, than they’re comfortable with? How do we share the wisdom of our own experiences, while honoring theirs?
What is our role in co-creating the environments that they deserve as they take their next steps along their lifelong Jewish journeys?
“Let’s talk about all the good things…”
We do so many things correctly in the Jewish teen space. We offer opportunities for leadership; for challenging the status quo; for meaning-making; and for the exploration of self that allows for healthy adolescent development, sexually and otherwise. We are the role models who teens can confide in, knowing that they will be safe and supported. We are taking the steps, as lifelong learners, to be allies, to meet our learners where they are and to embrace their evolving selves. We are proud of our teens, and want to be the best partners that we can be for them.
Having pride in our teens means building up their voices. It’s excitement about feminist initiatives and inclusive spaces, and the steps that have been taken to break down heteronormativity in the Jewish teen space. It means knowing and championing teens as they use their voices and platforms to tell us what they need: support, opportunities, and safe spaces.
“…and the bad things that may be…”
Changing the realities of hookup culture in Jewish teen spaces is not as simple as drafting new policies (though intentional policies are great!). It’s not as straightforward as reminding teens about the dignity of their peers, or sending a memo home to parents about behavioral standards, or having a dress code and a curfew. Our mission needs to be an overall change of culture – something that’s harder to measure, harder to implement, harder to create. But that’s what our field calls for and what our teens deserve. We can’t have a policy about not harassing peers, and then have teens rating each other’s appeal. We can’t feel proud of our empowering content, and then simply accept that older teens give younger adolescents “lessons” on hooking up, and tips on who they should do it with. From the front of the room to what happens behind closed doors and on social media, our role as educators must be to lead the much-needed culture change to make our spaces safe and healthy in every regard.
“Let’s talk about sex…”
The Jewish Education Project, together with our partners, is hosting an inaugural summit – Sexual Citizenship: Shifting Teen Hookup Culture. We’re gathering educators, clergy, leaders, and stakeholders who work with Jewish teens nationwide in camps, day schools and youth organizations to kickstart these critical conversations. Headlined by Professor Jennifer S. Hirsch, the author of Sexual Citizens: A Landmark Study of Sex, Power, and Assault on Campus, we will offer conversations, breakout sessions, resources, and materials for educators to bring home to impact each of our respective institutions, and the field as a whole. With the national adolescent mental health crisis as a key priority in our work with teens, we recognize that toxic hookup culture is part of a cultural phenomenon that has permeated Jewish communal spaces, and must be addressed in order for us to be the welcoming spaces that our teens need and deserve.
Presented in partnership with the Jewish Teen Funder Collaborative (powered by Jewish Federations of North America), Foundation for Jewish Camp, Prizmah and RootOne, with breakout sessions presented by BBYO, Moving Traditions, Keshet and Sacred Spaces, we are proud to kickstart this critical conversation, and to invite all those who are in this space to add their voices. Join us today, Wednesday, November 2 @ 11 a.m. ET. Registration is still open for the online conference and the chance to be part of this landmark conversation. For more information, reach out to Dr. Samantha Vinokor-Meinrath, Senior Director of Knowledge, Ideas and Learning at The Jewish Education Project at firstname.lastname@example.org.