Growing up in Connecticut in the 1980s, Mara Yacobi had a rich Jewish upbringing: the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, she attended a Conservative day school and participated in Jewish summer camps and Jewish youth groups. But she never had a health class, let alone any sex education.
Years later, as a teen educator for Planned Parenthood, Yacobi, a licensed social worker, found herself wondering if more education might have prevented a day school classmate from getting pregnant in high school or empowered another classmate, who was sexually abused, to seek help earlier.
At the same time, she found herself increasingly yearning to incorporate religion and values into the sexual education she was offering through Planned Parenthood.
“It started to dawn on me how much my Jewish identity was surfacing in my head when I was talking to teens,” she said. “It wouldn’t have been appropriate to tell them what I wanted to about waiting to have sex or dressing appropriately to fit the occasion.”
So Yacobi, who lives in Edgewater, N.J., with her husband and two small children, started JLove and Values, a mostly one-woman operation (with consultants hired as needed) that travels to liberal Jewish synagogues, day schools, youth groups and camps, offering workshops and sessions on everything from puberty to contraception to abstinence. She also facilitates mother/daughter workshops and parenting sessions, and addresses not only sexuality and healthy relationships, but also bullying and peer pressure.
With teens today “bombarded by sexual content 24 hours a day,” and with cyber-bullying and “sexting” making headlines, values-based sex education is particularly needed, she said.
“I want students to learn to communicate while looking into each other’s eyes, yet they also need to know how to use cell phones appropriately,” she said.
But don’t compare Yacobi to Dr. Ruth. “She’s about sex therapy and improving your sex life,” she said. “This is about self-esteem at the end of the day and about making healthier choices.”
Israel connection: Yacobi met her husband while participating in a post-college year-in-Israel program. They stayed in Israel for two more years, where she worked for One in Nine, an advocacy group for women with breast cancer, and Physicians for Human Rights.