Using Jewish Values to Teach about Physicality
Margaret Jelinek Lewis is an alumna of the Wexner Heritage Program from Houston and a professor of psychology and human sexuality at Lonestar College – Tomball in Tomball, Texas. She can be reached at email@example.com
Last night at Open House in my child’s Jewish day school, parents listened intently as the teachers talked about math and social studies, but when they mentioned that this was the year the kids would learn about “human development,” the room was suddenly buzzing with nervous giggles and conversations. I stood in the back of the room, working hard to keep my mouth shut. Why is this so difficult? I thought. As we read this week, “Surely the instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach.” (Deut. 30:11)
In truth, I know that it is difficult; many parents squirm at the thought of talking to their kids about sex. Yet, it’s critical for parents and the community as a whole to teach our children about sexuality, both the physical and emotional aspects. It’s as important to teach them to make good decisions about their bodies as it is to teach them to drive a car; we may feel uncomfortable with them behind the wheel, but we’d never let them drive without first having driving lessons.
As Jews, as parents and as a community, we know that we have specific responsibilities to our children, in preparing them for adulthood.“…Our Rabbis taught: The father [sic] is bound in respect of his son [sic] …to circumcise, redeem, teach him Torah, take a wife for him and teach him a craft. Some say, to teach him to swim, too” (Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 29a). In Talmudic times, teaching children to swim meant teaching children how to physically save their own lives. In the 21st century, teaching children to swim means teaching our children how to keep themselves physically and emotionally safe.
How do we teach our children to be physically and emotionally safe? We must do this by weaving together Jewish values and medically accurate information in a way that is comfortable and relevant to 21st century children and adolescents. To this end, the Initiative for Jewish Women has created Shmirat haGuf: Irreplaceable You, a program for Jewish children and their parents which addresses these issues.
We recognize that we cannot teach about sexuality in a vacuum; the two most important components for teaching about sexuality are medically accurate information and Jewish ethics and values. Our partnerships with community organizations, including the University of Texas School of Public Health are essential to provide the up-to-date information to our students. Using ideas such as shmirat haguf (protecting your body), and ometz lev (courage), lo levayesh (not embarrassing) and emet (truth) helps make conversations about self-esteem, decision-making, sexuality, and relationships more relevant. Shmirat haGuf incorporates state of the art technology, and operates in a variety of settings spanning from kindergarten to college.
For the past year, Rabbi Amy Weiss and I have worked on expanding the program of Shmirat haGuf. This spring, we learned that our grant proposal for the program is a finalist for a prestigious Signature Grant through the Covenant Foundation. As we continue to further develop the program to expand the use of 21st century technology, we are continuing to actively seek funding for this innovative project. One of our goals is to teach parents that although many people think it’s difficult to talk to our children about sexuality, it is “very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart.”