It’s time to make sure homework gets finished, pack lunches and wonder what your children are learning about sex in school.
Just because Judaism permits sex only within the confines of marriage doesn’t mean area Jewish day schools aren’t teaching the facts of life. While the programs emphasize abstinence, that doesn’t mean students refrain from asking what’s on their minds.
At Melvin J. Berman Academy, “It’s a pretty open conversation. The students get to ask any questions, that’s the bigger part” of the sex education classes, said Joshua Levisohn, the headmaster.
The questions “are pretty uninhibited,” Levisohn said, adding sometimes they are based in fact and sometimes they are about what the student has heard. He believes it is important to let students know that even if they are doing something that the school and Jewish law frowns upon, “We are not going to shun you for it.”
The Rockville school begins its sex education program in fifth grade with a basic health class taught by a nurse and a teacher. “It about their changing bodies,” Levisohn said.
Then, starting in sixth grade with programs every other year, students are separated by gender to learn about their bodies.
Berman Academy students take a healthy living class, which was developed by Yocheved Debow, author of Talking about Intimacy and Sexuality: A Guide for Orthodox Jewish Parents. Sexuality, how boys and girls relate to each other, concerns about their bodies and Jewish law are discussed in this two-hour class that meets four times, for a total of eight hours.
While Levisohn described the class as “nonjudgmental,” he said that the students are definitely told that sex before marriage is unacceptable. “We certainly don’t suggest” anything but abstinence, he said, adding, “We try not to be preachy.”
Levisohn said, “The explicit message from us is abstinence,” but that is not the main thrust of the classes.
At the Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation’s Capital, “We let students know that things are going on in their bodies,” and that could cause their emotions to be erratic during this time in their lives, said Elana Cohen, senior science specialist.
JPDS teaches that puberty “is a special time. Your body is changing. Your mind is changing, and it’s all normal,” Cohen said. “We are trying to demystify it.”
Because JPDS currently ends after sixth grade, its sex education curriculum “doesn’t get into abstinence. That’s for an older class,” Cohen said.
But JPDS does run classes for fourth through sixth graders under a program called b’sod siach, meaning “private conversations” in English.
It takes place over the course of three weeks and includes eight sessions. It is taught by a combination of staff, parents and volunteers. Overall, the program deals with physical, emotion and social changes. A person’s anatomy is discussed, but so are topics that include sleep, exercise and nutrition.
Skills including decision making, coping with peer pressure and learning how to calm down are also touched upon. The Internet and social communications have recently been added to the curriculum, Cohen said.
“The Jewish perspective on modesty” is a part of the discussions, she said.
In the biology part of the curriculum, boys and girls are separated before hearing about their body parts and functions, Cohen said.
A ninth session is strictly for parents. Parents are told what their children are learning and are advised to continue the conversation at home, Cohen said.
Gesher Jewish Day School in Fairfax, which runs until the eighth grade, conducts a fourth grade health class. It’s basically about adolescents’ changing bodies and has “much more of a health focus” than sex education alone, said Lisa Stern, marketing and admissions director.
A middle-school family life curriculum is taught in counselor-led sessions, as well as in various classes including science, physical education, Judaica and literature.
“This team approach addresses the whole child’s health, welfare, changing self-concept and emerging relations,” Stern said.
Gesher currently is evaluating its health and sex education curriculum to see how best to add a Jewish component, she said.
Administrators at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville were busy preparing for opening day and were not available to discuss what was offered there. Administrators at the Torah School of Greater Washington and the Yeshiva of Greater Washington did not respond to requests for information on their curriculum.
Like its Jewish day school counterparts, the Montgomery County public schools teach a family life and human development program that covers the human reproductive system. But the program also covers contraception and premarital intercourse among its subjects, according to the curriculum which is listed on the county schools’ website.
In Maryland and the District of Columbia, schools mandate sex education classes for public school students. Virginia does not, but individual school systems and schools may choose to include sex education, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
Parents in all three jurisdictions can decide not to allow their children to receive sex education in the schools.
Nationwide, 22 states and the District of Columbia require sex and HIV education.