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Teaching sex ed at a Jewish day school

This teacher wants her students to feel safe in their sexuality, even if it doesn't line up with Jewish law

A funny thing happened on my journey to becoming a more honest Jew. I taught sex ed. Well, specifically, I taught sex education to middle schoolers at an Orthodox Jewish Day school.

Growing up as a Southern Jew, I was used to being outside my comfort zone. I thrived on being outside my comfort zone. In fact, the Reform Temple I grew up in taught us to go outside of our comfort zone by creating an entire 8th grade Sunday School curriculum that took us to every church, mosque and temple Atlanta had to offer. Some scoffed at this idea. They thought bringing young and impressionable children to a different type of religious setting might result in our ‘defecting’ from the faith; the community. But we knew better. Living as Jews in the ’80s and ’90s in suburban Atlanta, we were born outside our comfort zones so our Sunday School acknowledging that and having faith in our ability to be cool with what’s different, well, it just made us stronger. But, Lord have mercy, I have never been more outside my comfort zone than teaching sex education through the Orthodox Jewish lens.

As a social worker, a school counselor and a parent, I knew my time would come when I had to teach some version of sex education. The challenge wasn’t in looking into the eyes of my 7th grade students and answering the question, “What exactly IS anal sex, Mrs. Fisch?” No. The challenge for me, as a left-of-center, progressive Jew, was how would I be able to answer the inevitable question of right vs. wrong. Middle schoolers think in the black and white. There is no gray. There would be no room for wavering. Teaching sex education is one thing. Teaching sex education with halacha looking over your shoulder is quite another.

To be fair, it wasn’t my job to teach what the Torah says about sex. It was purely my job to teach the factual side of things, i.e. what is an STI or what is a uterus. But it’s school and they ask questions and I wanted to make sure I continue working on being the person they can come to when they have questions about anything. Most importantly, I wanted to continue to be the authentic ‘me’ they get every single day. But how would I do this with a predetermined set of rules?

I wanted to back out. We were advised to not necessarily address things like masturbation or acknowledge that they may, one day, actually have pre-marital sex. But these things happen and I believe with all my heart and soul that as a social worker and school counselor it’s my job to make sure that everyone feels safe, whether that’s within their own skin, within their community or within their faith. If I was going to define ‘homosexuality’ for them and then possibly get asked if being homosexual was wrong, I couldn’t answer with anything other than what I feel so deeply: “To me personally? No.” Because statistically speaking, someone in that classroom is gay and someone in that classroom is probably experimenting with their sexuality and I have to be someone they can speak to if and when they need to talk about their own journey.

I don’t make apologies to my students for who I am. When they ask me about the tattoo on my wrist and inevitably follow up that question with something along the lines of, “Isn’t that forbidden?” I tell them, yes, according to halacha, it is forbidden. But my journey is mine and mine alone and it led me to where I am today. Six years ago, when I got my tattoo, I knew nothing of the laws of kashrut and Shabbat and now, as a woman who observes both, I sometimes school my day-school-educated husband on the occasional halachic question. I let them know that when I decided to get a tattoo, I consulted two rabbis and several texts on all those laws and drew my own conclusion. And in remembering that part of my journey – that someone was there for me when I was a young and impressionable Jew – I recommitted myself to these students, took a deep breath and taught sex ed.

About the Author
Whitney Fisch received her Master's in Social Work from the University of Michigan and works as a middle school counselor. She previously held positions as the Director of Education for the Anti-Defamation League's Florida region and the Director of Outreach and Education at the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs. When not dealing with the trials and tribulations of roughly 200 middle schoolers at varying stages of puberty, she is cooking...a lot. She blogs about all things food and life at her blog, JewHungry. She's currently shvitzin', er, living in Miami with her husband and their daughter.
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