When Sasha Kesler, 25, was preparing for her Orthodox wedding two years ago, she participated in a routine “kallah class,” which were created to teach religious brides about the laws of family purity.
“It was pretty bare bones, just the basics of what to do, what not to do,” said Kesler, who was then living in Portland, Oregon. The wife of the local Chabad rabbi taught the course.
“Things were painted in black and white that shouldn’t have been,” said Kesler, who described often thinking she was a niddah, the Hebrew term for a state of ritual impurity, when she was not.
Today, Kesler, a social work student at Hunter College, has committed herself to a different kind of bride instruction. Along with 22 others, she participated in the first co-ed Chatan and Kallah Teacher Training (CKTT) workshop, a conference geared towards coaching bride and groom teachers on how to be sex educators.
The course, which spanned four days, included candid discussions about the first-night, masturbation and methods of enhancing sexual pleasure. At one point, Dr. Bat Sheva Marcus, clinical director of the Medical Center for Female Sexuality, produced a bag of vibrators to pass around the room. Close up pictures and life-size models of male and female genitalia were also passed around.
“If our educators aren’t able to speak about these topics freely and honestly, where does that leave our students?” said Marcus, who encouraged bride and groom teachers not to shy away from introducing more adventurous options to their students. “Only 30 percent of women can orgasm through vaginal intercourse alone — brides should know that so they don’t assume something is wrong with them when intercourse isn’t enjoyable.”
The conference, which brought together rabbis, teachers, and professionals from around the country, comes at a time when Orthodox Jews’ expectations for marriage preparation courses are shifting. While, in the past, the local rabbi or rabbi’s wife was tacitly appointed to the task of educating brides and grooms, today, professionals and laypeople with specific expertise in the area of family purity laws and sexuality are being approached to teach these courses. Bride and groom educators are increasingly looked to as mentors, confidants and relationship coaches, especially when it comes to sex.
Sarah Antine, 39, the rebbetzin of a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Potomac, Md., with 450 families, referred to the shift as a “revolution.”
“People don’t just want to learn the laws — they’re looking for a holistic approach that leaves them feeling empowered,” said Antine. Though she has not yet taught brides in a formal capacity, she hopes to begin after the conference. “I first want to gain the vocabulary and expertise to be an effective instructor,” she said. “There’s so much more to this than teaching the mechanics of the first night.”
Hosted by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), Yeshivat Maharat and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School (YCT), there were over 60 applicants for only 20 spots according to one of the conference organizers.
The packed itinerary included detailed sessions about male and female sexual dysfunction, and role-play in which participants pretended to be troubled newlyweds seeking council. One hypothetical case involved Sarah, a 21-year-old Modern Orthodox woman determined to have sex on her wedding night, but petrified.
“The first night can be a perfect recipe for disaster if our brides and grooms are not prepared,” said Marcus. “Our job is to reel in crazy expectations about what the first-night night should be, and instead educate brides and grooms about the different possibilities of what it can be.”
While some Orthodox rabbis encourage couples to consummate their marriage on the first night, Rabbi Dov Linzer, one of the conference presenters and a head rabbi at YCT, encourages couples to wait it out and explore other options.
“Sex is not synonymous with intercourse, and it’s a good thing for couples not to set that precedent at the very beginning of their marriage,” he told participants.
Aside from those serving in rabbinic roles, many in the crowd had started teaching marriage prep courses simply because they’d been asked.
Meira Wolkenfeld, a 27-year-old graduate student living in Washington Heights, described the system of appointment as increasingly democratic.
“People kept approaching me and asking if I could teach them before their weddings,” said Wolkenfeld, a Judaic studies graduate student at Yeshiva University. She wore a flowered scarf on her head, an indication of being married in Orthodox circles. “They wanted someone they felt comfortable with,” she said.
One teacher at an Orthodox high school, who preferred to remain anonymous for privacy reasons, said she felt a responsibility to formally train as a kallah teacher because her former students frequently sought her counsel on sexual matters.
“It’s less of something I chose, and more of a role that developed,” she said. Though only in her 20s, she’s formally instructed three brides and two couples. “My main goal isn’t to be a sex-educator, but I need to be more equipped to talk about sex,” she said.
Other professionals, including several social workers and two doctors, joined the group.
Dr. Debbie Raice Fox, an endocrinologist who practices in Pomona, N.Y., was petitioned by a rabbi in her community to start coaching brides and grooms 17 years ago. She has since counseled over 50 couples.
“The rabbi came over to me in shul and said ‘Debbie, you need to do this,’” she described. “There was a real need for teachers who were educated about sex.”
While other teachers in the area did their best to prepare brides, most of whom had absolutely no sex education, the teachers themselves knew little about sexuality, and talked about it as little as possible, she said. “They would use lots of euphemisms — they were afraid to name the anatomical parts.”
Today, she works with both charedi and Modern Orthodox soon-to-be-weds to inform, and often to correct misconceptions about sex.
“I’ll have clients who go to a traditional kallah teacher first, and then they’ll get referred to me to learn the sex piece,” she said.
Many of her students arrive unhappy, confused, and fearful about sex. “This has taken too long to catch on,” she said, referring to revitalized efforts to bolster the pre-wedding curriculum. “How do we expect our couples to navigate their sexual lives together if we don’t give them the information?”
While she has worked “in isolation” up until now, Dr. Fox, who is Orthodox herself, was glad to find out about the conference. “It’s a relief to find others doing the same work.”
Though two similar training courses have taken place over the past six years, this is the first time men and women have learned side by side. And, according to JOFA executive director Sharon Weiss-Greenberg, there’s no going back.
“If couples are going to learn together, men and women educators can learn side by side,” she said, praising the “equal gender dynamic.” Too many times, couples learn the laws separately just to discover later that they were given conflicting information, she said.
Rabbi Aviad Bodner, the rabbi of the Stanton Street Shul on the Lower East Side, said this was the first time he learned the laws of family purity from a female perspective. “In the past, I’ve only learned from other male rabbis,” he said, noting the nuance he gained from adding the opposite gender. “When these laws are taught by men and women, you understand things in a fuller way.”
Several times throughout the lectures on Jewish law, female participants would interrupt Rabbi Dov Linzer, the Rosh Yeshiva of YCT, to correct a fact or perception from a woman’s point of view.
In one such instance, while discussing the laws of hand holding after the chuppah, Rabbi Linzer said in very specific cases, the couple should avoid the custom.
Amanda Klatt, 27, raised her hand. “Rabbi, every woman dreams about that moment,” she said, as the women in the room all nodded in agreement. “There are some experiences you just can’t get back. The law doesn’t have to ignore that.”