Hands-Off Approach

Hands-Off Approach

With the blessing of rabbinic authorities, the Orthodox Union’s youth group has launched a Web site promoting abstinence and warning of the impact of premarital sex on the body, mind and spirit.

While declaring that they are “deeply disturbed” by teens “increasingly engaged in sexual experimentation,” officials of the National Council of Synagogue Youth insisted there was no particular catalyst within the organization’s membership.

Rather, they said, the site, negiah.org, is intended to use the near-universal availability and access to the Web to promote Orthodox values and counter other messages. Negiah — literally, contact — is the halachic term that describes touching, sexual or otherwise, by unmarried males and females.

“Our sense is that this kind of education is needed, and the Web has given us the ability to put up some articles that, if people are looking for, should be accessible to them,” said NCSY director Rabbi Steven Burg, whose organization serves some 25,000 teens nationally.

“We sense over the years that teenagers will get into relationships when they aren’t emotionally ready. The things that may happen as a result should be in the back of your mind.”

The Web site launch comes at a time when the Bush administration is spending $179 million to promote pro-abstinence youth programming, much of it through religious groups, although the OU is not among them.

Studies, most recently from the Department of Health and Human Services, have suggested that such programs are ineffective in reducing teenage sex, and critics say the money should be spent to educate young people about contraception and avoiding sexually transmitted diseases.

But halacha requires an Orthodox organization to discourage any unmarried sexual contact, regardless of the precautions.

Intended for all Jewish youth, not just the Orthodox (NCSY programs include public school and yeshiva youth), the site features an account from a pseudonymous “Sara,” a former public school student who is now Orthodox. In high school, she recounts, she and her boyfriend “decided that ‘going all the way’ was the next step that we just had to explore. So we did.”

Later, when the couple grew apart, she realized that: “No matter what else may happen in my life, there is nothing I can do about the fact that I gave him a piece of myself that I can never get back.”

Attending NCSY Shabbatons, she said, “I would be sitting in a room with advisers who were five or 10 years older than me and who had never even kissed a boy [or a girl]. But I was not a virgin. I felt low. Very low.”

She is now studying at a yeshiva in Israel.

Declaring “It’s OK To Say No,” the Web site lists questions and answers under four topics: “Your bod [sic], your mind, your life, your soul.” Topics range from sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy and suicide rates among the sexually active to the health effects of birth control methods, including their failure rates.

Some of the language speaks to teens on their level, while other points are deliberately evasive. “We’re not even going to discuss how one can get Hepatitis in the mouth, as it’s particularly nasty,” reads one section. “Just trust us: you can.”

The text was written by Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, director of programs for NCSY, who has written other material for the organization, such as pamphlets about drinking on Purim, respecting parents and avoiding gossip.

The content was submitted for approval from Rabbi Herschel Schachter, rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University’s rabbinic school and a halachic consultant to the OU. David Pelcovitz, a YU education professor who has written extensively on parenting and adolescent development, and Dr. David Hurwitz, a pediatrician, also approved the content.

Striking the right balance of language was a delicate task, says Rabbi Abramowitz.

“We have to be straightforward enough that the kids know that we know about it and are not afraid to talk about it,” he said. “But being blunt is not an excuse for being crass.”

Since the site went live on Thursday, response has been generally positive, says Rabbi Burg. “We have a forum where people can give us feedback,” he said. “At one point, if people want to submit their own stories or thoughts we may consider sharing them. Nothing is going to speak to a teen as strongly as someone else sharing firsthand.”

NCSY’s activities are co-ed, and the organization does not take a direct position on teen dating, although it does not allow open displays of affection.

“There is a lot of interaction between guys and girls,” said Rabbi Abramowitz. “We let them know about developing relationships and that many may not be emotionally mature enough to handle it.”

Rabbi Abramowitz said he had seen no survey data about sexual activity among Jewish or Orthodox teens. But in his 11 years at NCSY, he said, anecdotal evidence suggests it is either more prevalent, or kids are more open in discussing it.

“In the population as whole it is rising, and we are a part of the population as a whole,” he said. “Back in the day, the assumption was that sexual activity was the exception, rather than the rule. Nowadays, the assumption is that it’s the rule.”

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