Young Orthodox men and women today come into marriage confused. Sexual images pervade their magazines, billboards, and phones informing them of things we never imagined and elevating their curiosity. They are taught to avoid sexual peering, discussion and exploration. They are taught over and over about being shomrei negiah (not touching non-family members of the opposite sex) and avoiding “sinful acts” but they rarely hear about the healthy and pleasurable aspects of their bodies and sexuality. They know they are supposed to be “tzanua” (modest) — whatever that means — yet also be confident, outspoken and proud to succeed professionally. They are often pressured or tempted as teens to be sexual but are not prepared for what that might entail once it happens. The complexity of living a life of Torah in the modern world is starkly obvious to newlyweds, but where are we when it comes to providing them with real guidance?
I have been a kallah (bride) teacher for over a decade. In one month I taught one bride basic anatomy because she didn’t know her urine came from a different opening than that of her period, and another bride who had needed the morning after pill. And, I’ve been privy to hear many “kallah teacher stories” from my colleagues; they reinforce the pivotal role a kallah teacher can play, the range of sexual experiences of young Orthodox couples and the resulting confusion, and the need to make sure premarital education is progressing.
We need to rethink the role of the hatan (groom) and kallah teacher, expanding beyond mere dispensers of halakha (Jewish law). When sexual education is lacking, they need to know how to fill in the gaps, and to model positive discussion. Teachers must incorporate, from the very first session, open discussions about all aspects of sexuality to help the couple understand the positive value it plays in creating intimacy. They can also serve as a first line of defense in catching problems; “first responders” in helping couples. They need to keep up with the issues that are most relevant for millennials and their experiences. And they need to know their own limits and when and how to refer couples to professional help.
When a bride who suffered from an eating disorder as a teen has fears of undressing in front of her hatan, her kallah teacher should be able to hear her worries and know what next steps that bride needs. When a kallah reveals that her hatan watches pornography regularly and she is nervous about his sexual expectations, her teacher cannot be shocked and tell the kallah “to break off the engagement immediately”. Rather, she needs to listen to these valid concerns and stand by her as she and her hatan work their way through their issue — together and perhaps with professional help.
A well-trained teacher can make a huge difference — I see it daily in my work with The Eden Center’s premarital education programs (the one for advanced kallah teachers which I direct, and a parallel one for hatan teachers spearheaded by Dr. Dan Jacobson). These programs train hatan and kallah teachers to understand the world in which the couple lives, allowing the teachers to connect more meaningfully with the hatan and kallah and to personalize their education to meet the couples’ needs.
The Eden Center’s teachers are trained by top professionals in the fields of sexuality, communications, gynecology, and psychology. They help create a solid knowledge base for the young couple, responding to the realities of this generation. The course stresses the importance of speaking about sexuality throughout all the lessons; we teach about the “first night”, how different expectations may affect intimacy, ways couples can express their desires and find pleasure. The teachers are available to help couples considering different methods of contraception, and are there for couples after marriage as knowledgeable support for a range of issues like unconsummated marriage, vaginismus, miscarriage and postpartum depression. Most importantly, the teachers are trained to know when an issue needs professional attention, and how to sensitively refer a couple to the appropriate resource.
Just one example of hundreds—one graduate of our program shared, that in teaching a certain bride, she felt a sense of distance and fear when she raised the topic of sexuality. After carefully creating a safe space for discussion, the bride confided in this teacher that she had been raped as a teen. When she was dating she thought she would be okay and didn’t discuss it with her hatan, but the thought of intercourse was scary and somewhat abhorrent. Over time, the kallah teacher was able to recommend an appropriate therapist for the kallah to see, and was sensitive to how certain aspects of niddah observance might trigger negative associations. (This is particularly important in an age when a staggeringly high rate of 1 in 6 Jewish women are reporting having experienced sexual abuse.)
Premarital education is not just about learning halakhot (the Jewish law) – it is about empowering couples with the knowledge they need to build a solid marriage of partnership, including in the sexual realm. It’s about instilling the values which our community holds dear, and passing on the framework of our tradition. But it’s also about letting couples know that intimacy is something to be shared and enjoyed; and that when they face challenges there are those who can guide them and that they are not alone.
Millennials are different. And that’s why their premarital education has to be different too.
Judith Fogel is a certified Yoetzet Halacha, a veteran kallah teacher, the director of The Eden Center’s Advanced Kallah Teacher Program. She teaches Gemara, Mishnah, Halakha and women’s mitzvot at Midreshet HaRova. She is also an alumna of the Midreshet Lindenbaum Bruria Scholars Program and is currently pursuing a doctorate at the Institute for Advanced Studies of Human Sexuality.
The Eden Center will be running its first ENGLISH one-week intensive Advanced Kallah Teacher Training course in Jerusalem this July. For more information on any of the courses see Eden’s website (www.TheEdenCenter.com) or contact madrichot@TheEdenCenter.com