The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - Jen­nifer Lip­man

LAST WEEK’S JC re­ported that the Ortho­dox schools es­tab­lish­ment had re­sponded pos­i­tively to the call to place re­la­tion­ships teach­ing on the cur­ricu­lum. Ju­dith Nemeth, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Orthox Jewish Schools was quoted as say­ing that com­pul­sory re­la­tion­ships ed­u­ca­tion was “good news for all”.

But how far will this go within Strictly Ortho­dox cir­cles? En­trenched at­ti­tudes and be­liefs — among par­ents as well as teach­ers — can­not be merely swept aside. And there is no area in which at­ti­tudes are more en­trenched than that of sex ed­u­ca­tion.

In Deb­o­rah Feld­man’s mem­oir of her life as a Sat­mar Chasid, Unortho­dox, one scene is not for the squea­mish. A friend tells Deb­o­rah how her new hus­band man­aged to rup­ture her colon in a painful at­tempt to con­sum­mate the mar­riage. As an ex­am­ple of what hap­pens with­out ad­e­quate sex ed­u­ca­tion, it couldn’t be bleaker.

Even if that’s an ex­treme case, it’s not an ex­ag­ger­a­tion to sug­gest that some Strictly Ortho­dox Jews are be­ing brought up with­out full un­der­stand­ing of the com­plex­i­ties of sex­u­al­ity and mod­ern re­la­tion­ships or, at best, an un­der­stand­ing only within nar­row re­li­gious pa­ram­e­ters.

Of­sted, whose find­ings the JC has also re­ported over a long pe­riod, has marked down Strictly Ortho­dox schools for fail­ing to teach about same-sex re­la­tion­ships (and that may only be the tip of the ice­berg: British Hu­man­ist As­so­ci­a­tion anal­y­sis shows that SRE — sex and re­la­tion­ships ed­u­ca­tion — is men­tioned in less than one per cent of re­ports).

At present, state schools must ed­u­cate on the bi­o­log­i­cal as­pects of sex, but not the so­cial and emo­tional side, while there is no re­quire­ment on non-main­tained schools. “Jewish Ortho­dox schools do not suf­fer from th­ese is­sues,” wrote David Hersh of Tiferes High School last month in a sub­mis­sion to Par­lia­ment. And, while wel­com­ing gen­eral re­la­tion­ships teach­ing, more specif­i­cally, Ju­dith Nemeth has also said that “99 per cent of pupils in our Ortho­dox Jewish schools will not have sex­ual re­la­tion­ships with the op­po­site sex be­fore mar­riage… Our youth gen­er­ally do not have ac­cess to smart­phones or un­fil­tered in­ter­net. There­fore there is no need for them to be ‘pre­pared’ for what they may con­front”.

Prob­a­bly, yes, fewer frum teens are sex­ting. But are none ques­tion­ing their sex­u­al­ity, won­der­ing what cer­tain feel­ings mean, or pass­ing around an il­licit phone to view pornog­ra­phy? Or, in say­ing “we do not suf­fer from th­ese is­sues,” do they mean: We do not talk about them? We do not talk about the pos­si­bil­ity pupils are hav­ing con­sen­sual sex or — worse — non-con­sen­sual sex. We aren’t in­ter­ested in dis­cussing same-sex re­la­tion­ships be­cause we don’t ac­cept them. We want to brush un­der the car­pet the abil­ity for im­pres­sion­able teenagers to learn the dif­fer­ence be­tween con­sent and rape.

The sub­mis­sions stress that faith schools are high-per­form­ing. But that hardly makes it ac­cept­able that pupils are grow­ing up ill-equipped for a cen­tral as­pect of adult life. Quite sim­ply, if schools are not teach­ing more than the bi­o­log­i­cal facts, they are de­liv­er­ing an ed­u­ca­tion un­wor­thy of 21st-cen­tury Bri­tain.

Yes, parental choice is im­por­tant but, in a com­mu­nity with such op­po­si­tion to sex ed­u­ca­tion in the class­room, do we re­ally think it will be taught ob­jec­tively and with­out judg­ment be­hind closed doors?

Some of th­ese youths will never have to an­swer th­ese ques­tions, but no com­mu­nity is im­mune to hor­monal teenagers, nor darker prob­lems such as abuse. If noth­ing else, those who want an adult life out­side the Strictly Ortho­dox com­mu­nity de­serve to be pre­pared for that world.

There is a way to teach SRE that still pro­motes the view un­doubt­edly held in this com­mu­nity that sex is about chil­dren and mar­riage, while still equip­ping chil­dren for the in­tri­ca­cies of adult re­la­tion­ships.

Com­pul­sory SRE is sup­ported by scores of ed­u­ca­tion and chil­dren’s af­fairs ex­perts. Of course, even the best cur­ricu­lum in the world won’t stamp out things like re­venge porn or groom­ing. Know­ing what con­sent means doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily give a girl the power to ex­tri­cate her­self, but it might af­ford the power to know she’s in the right or who to talk to. Hear­ing from teach­ers that gay re­la­tion­ships are nor­mal won’t make it eas­ier for a Strictly Ortho­dox youth to come out to his fam­ily, but it might make him feel less alone.

In ev­ery as­pect of Jewish life, we pri­ori­tise knowl­edge as our best tool for un­der­stand­ing the world. Why not this? What is so taboo about pre­sent­ing the facts?

There is a ten­dency in the wider com­mu­nity to treat this as some­thing “the frum do dif­fer­ently”. We shouldn’t. Strictly Ortho­dox young peo­ple de­serve to be pro­tected and in­formed no less than any­one else’s chil­dren.

Are no frum teens ques­tion­ing their sex­u­al­ity?

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