South Charlotte

Jewish congregation creates sexuality course for kids

Almost 10 years ago, Barbara Green, a Temple Beth El congregant, approached Rabbi Judith Schindler about wanting a human sexuality course taught through the temple for its members.

There were church-sponsored classes but nothing was available at temple for Green's then-adolescent son.

Green, 53, wanted her son to learn about intimacy, trust, sexuality and responsibility discussed within the context of Jewish values.

Schindler, 45, was receptive to the idea of temple-sponsored human sexuality education.

"The purpose of teaching religion is to give our children the tools they will need to live ethical, holy, successful and productive lives," Schindler said. "We need to educate them with knowledge surrounding all aspects of life - human sexuality included."

Green, a licensed physical therapist specializing in pelvic dysfunction, began to help organize a program.

"I am comfortable with the subject," Green said. "It's part of what I do for a living."

"We have assembled a group of experts who have spent years developing our curriculum," said Schindler, 45. Among the group are Cantor Andrew Bernard, Tammy Seigel, Ginny Rosenberg and Green.

Seigel, 51, has a background in social work and 25 years in religious and Hebrew school education.

"We had a responsibility as a Jewish community to educate our children about sexuality," Seigel said. "We wanted to create a supportive network and ... a place they could come to talk about anything."

Rosenberg, 57, has a master's in social work and was a Jewish Family Life educator.

"We were trained to be instructors in the OWL (Our Whole Lives) program," Seigel said.

OWL is a comprehensive sexual education curricula created by the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Association.

The group streamlined the information, wrote curricula and launched "Just Say Know" for sixth-graders about seven years ago. They were two years ahead of the Union for Reform Judaism's publication of "Sacred Choices: Adolescent Relationships and Sexual Ethics." The URJ is the national association for Reform congregations.

In fact, the author of "Sacred Choices," Rabbi Laura Novak-Winer, who is also the director of the URJ's Teen Engagement Initiative, was interested in Temple Beth El's curricula. She asked for a copy when she met with Rosenberg, Bernard and Andy Harkavy, youth director and assistant director of education in Washington, D.C., this last December.

"The overall principle of our human sexuality program is that the parents are the primary sex educators for their children," Bernard said. "The purpose of the program is 1) to enable and nurture the dialog between parents and children, and 2) to give the kids a safe place to have honest and factually accurate discussions about issues that affect their particular age group."

Bernard created a "Relationships and Sex in Judaism" handout using the six points of a Jewish Star of David and biblical text. Each point reflects important Jewish principles: holiness, respect, acceptance, commitment, resisting peer pressure and self-respect. The center of the star reflects that we are made in the image of God.

The classes are co-ed, and they talk about many teen issues, such as sexual identity, suicide, abuse, health and safety, puberty and bullying. There are opportunities to ask anonymous questions.

"Kids hate going," Green said. "They feel like they have had the information already, and it's embarrassing. You can't just have the talk one time, one place, and that's it. "

Seigel agreed: "Kids can only process things where they are... the way they are going to hear (human sexuality education) is going to change as they develop."

Because of this, Temple Beth El expanded the curricula to offer age-appropriate classes at the eighth-and ninth-grade levels.

Meanwhile, the facilitators are reviewing the programs to make them "more perfect and relevant each time," Rosenberg said.

Jonathan Vogel, a Temple Beth El congregant, sent his oldest son to "Just Say Know" last year.

"It doesn't hurt to hear good, positive messages from many sources ... from people they respect: health teachers, parents, clergy," Vogel said.

The best part of the program, Seigel said, is children learn more about themselves.

"They know who their resources are," Seigel said. "They know they are not alone and that adults understand."