The Latest From The Classroom, And Beyond
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The Latest From The Classroom, And Beyond

Sexual fantasies at seminary? New push for early childhood education; Houston temple offering Birthright-style trips; U.S. day school enrollment up.

New Sexy Podcast From YCT

Dov Linzer, chief rabbi of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah rabbinical school (YCT), hadn’t heard of the Kama Sutra — until, that is, he researched the topic for a podcast.

“Joy of Text,” a new monthly podcast hosted by YCT and the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), will address taboo sexual topics within the Orthodox community. Masturbation, premarital sex and pornography are just a few of the subjects in the works. The first podcast, “Fantasy, Concealing Abuse, Kama Sutra Cards and Vibrators,” went live last week.

“We don’t want people to be ashamed of these topics,” said Rabbi Linzer, who is co-hosting the monthly podcasts with Dr. Bat Sheva Marcus, an Orthodox sex therapist and one of JOFA’s founding members. “It’s time to name things for what they are — no more euphemisms and no more indirectness.”

The podcast follows in the path of Jewrotica, a pluralistic website launched in 2012 with the goal of discussing sex and Judaism in a positive, open context.

“Sexual identities are gentle souls,” said Marcus, who was profiled last week in The New York Times for her work with women in the sexually stringent charedi community. “They can be crushed easily under too much restriction. The goal is to bring these topics out of the dark; so talk and laugh about them. Sex doesn’t have to be such a hush-hush, heavy topic — it can be fun,” she said.

Though the podcast is primarily aimed at an Orthodox audience, the content is intended to attract listeners from all walks of life, stressed Rabbi Linzer. “Sexual fantasy is an important topic in general,” he said. “Our content is universal.”

The podcast is being produced by Jewish Public Media (JPM), the company responsible for “SermonSlam,” Jewish-themed performance art shared on YouTube and iTunes, and “Talking in Shul,” an audio segment about sex education in Jewish day schools. David Kalman, co-founder and CEO of JPM, said podcasts achieve an “intimate relationship with the listener.”

“Audio is an excellent medium for sensitive topics,” said Kalman. “It’s just the listener and his ear buds. There’s a lot of privacy, and total engagement in the conversation,” he said.

Each “Joy of Text” podcast will include three components: a conversation about the topic between the co-hosts, a guest speaker on the topic, and a segment dedicated to questions from the audience. Questions can be sent in anonymously via the podcast’s website, TJOT.org. Said Marcus: Addressing audience questions will give the “theoretical discussion practical impact.”

In the most recent segment, the two questions selected for discussion related to the use of vibrators and the Kama Sutra, the ancient Hindu sex manual.

Rabbi Linzer foresees other practical benefits of the project, specifically for seminarians.

“It can give a community rabbi footing to begin a conversation with congregants about how things are in the bedroom,” he said, noting that YCT students spend significant time training for such conversations.

Though they are not sure how many listeners will tune in, Marcus and Rabbi Linzer are confident that the podcast will make a splash.

“‘Oh, my God, did a rabbi really just say that?!’” said Rabbi Linzer, mimicking one response he received to the first podcast. “That’s one reaction. But then there’s this: ‘Thank you so much, rabbi, for just straight-up saying the word sex.’”

Hannah Dreyfus

Texas-Size Perk For Reform Students

How do you keep congregational school students enrolled through their senior year in high school? And increase their connection to Israel at the same time?

Send them on a Birthright-like trip to the Jewish state.

That’s the winning formula for Houston’s Temple Emanu El Religious School, which subsidized a trip to Israel last summer for about 45 of its students. The results of the trip, believed to be the first-such initiative for Jewish teens under the auspices of a synagogue-affiliated religious school in North America, have led Emanu El to plan to send another cohort in the summer of 2016.

The Shirley Barish Memorial Israel Experience, underwritten by the family of the late Jewish philanthropist, was part of a series of Israel educational activities at the school that included an immersion course for high school juniors about to go on the trip, and a follow-up course for trip alums.

Emanu El officials said students returned more self-confident, more knowledgeable about Israel and the Middle East political situation, more committed to working on behalf of Israel, and more excited about their final year in Religious School. Keeping students engaged after their bar/bat mitzvahs has been a longstanding problem for congregational schools. “They care more, and they understand that they should care more,” said Michael Duke, a veteran Emanu El Religious School teacher who was among the temple staffers who helped plan the schedule for this summer’s trip and chaperoned the group.

While Birthright Israel offers its trips to college-age and post-college Jews who may be susceptible to anti-Israel propaganda on campus and in the workplace, Temple Emanu El educators said high school students approach such a trip — Temple Emanu El’s brought the students together with both Jews and Arabs in Israel — with more open minds.

The students who took part in the trip, according to Emanu El officials, said the experience influenced them to follow Middle East events more avidly and with a more-critical eye; to consult a wider variety of online news sources; and to go to more Israel educational and social events.

“There was an overwhelming positive response to the program,” said David Goldstein, Young Judaea’s U.S. director of Israel Experience, who coordinated the trip’s itinerary. “Given that their trip coincided with the Gaza war, these students also received an amazing, if unintended firsthand education in understanding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Steve Lipman/Houston

Expanded Push For Early Ed

A year-old interdenominational initiative in Colorado, focused on early childhood education and bringing synagogues together with the Jewish community centers movement, is set to expand beginning this summer.

The leaders of BUILDing Jewish ECE (buildingjewishece.org), founded by the Denver-based Rose Community Foundation, say the program has increased enrollment in the participating Jewish institutions and strengthened the Jewish connections of the participating families. (“ECE” refers to Early Childhood Education.)

The initiative, with an initial partnership between the Union for Reform Judaism and the JCC Association — the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism will join this year — offers “coaching, training and guidance” from the partner organizations, and a “Toolbox of Resources” in such areas as websites and social media, search engine optimization audits, and software and database support, according to a statement issued by BUILDing Jewish ECE. The training and “toolbox” are valued at nearly $100,000 per institution.

“The research is as clear as can be — everyone benefits when ECE centers and directors are resourced, supported and offered training and coaching that addresses all aspects of their operations,” said Cathy Rolland, director of engaging families with young children at the URJ. “BUILDing Jewish ECE takes the best practices from the secular business world, particularly marketing, enrollment conversion and customer service, and helps apply them to ECE and family engagement.

Rolland and Mark Horowitz, vice president of early childhood education and family engagement at the JCC Association, serve as mentor/coaches for the two JCCs and two Reform congregations in Denver and Boulder that are part of the program. Maxine Segal Handelman, early childhood specialist at the USCJ, will serve in a similar position for the participating Conservative congregations.

“We must bring families into Jewish communities at formative stages of their lives and their children’s development,” said Lisa Farber Miler, senior program officer of the Rose Community Foundation. “Together, we can improve early childhood education and Jewish family engagement, and make these crucial areas part of our national, communal agenda.”

Staff Report

Charedi Growth Fuels Day School Numbers

Jewish day school enrollment in the United States is up 12 percent from five years ago, primarily due to growth in charedi Orthodox schools.

Nearly 255,000 students are enrolled in 861 Jewish day schools from the pre-K level through 12th grade, according to a new census of the schools conducted by the Avi Chai Foundation.

The day school survey, which has been conducted every five years since 1998-99, found 59 more schools and 26,437 more students since the last study, in 2008-09. Previous surveys found enrollment growth rates of about 11 percent in each five-year period.

The primary drivers of growth have been chasidic students, whose enrollment has increased by 110 percent since the first census 15 years ago, and yeshivish (charedi non-chasidic) schools, which have grown by 60 percent since the 1998-99 survey.

The challenge is “whether there will be sufficient [financial and infrastructure] resources to provide adequately for the growth in these two sectors,” said Marvin Schick, who conducted the survey for Avi Chai.

Overall, 60 percent of Jewish day school students in America are charedi Orthodox.

By contrast, enrollment in non-Orthodox schools is declining. Reform day school enrollment fell 19 percent from five years ago, to 3,704 students nationwide; enrollment in the Conservative movement’s Solomon Schechter schools is down 27 percent from five years ago, to 9,718 students; and nondenominational community day school enrollment has slipped by 2 percent to 20,413 students, according to the census.

Together, the non-Orthodox schools have just 13 percent of day school students. In 1998, the proportion was 20 percent.

The number of Centrist or Modern Orthodox students has stayed flat since 1998, at about 46,000 students. The survey divided those schools into two groups: Modern Orthodox schools, which are generally coeducational and have about 27,000 students across 83 schools, and centrist Orthodox schools, which generally are gender segregated and have about 19,000 students in 77 schools.

Since Avi Chai’s surveys began in 1998, Conservative day schools have taken the largest tumble. The number of Solomon Schechter schools has dropped to 39 from 63, and the number of students has shrunk 45 percent to 9,700 students from 17,700. Some of the departing students were lost to community day schools, which since 1998 have grown by 22 schools and increased enrollment by about 5,500 students (though community day school enrollment has been relatively flat steady over the last five years).

The figures were self-reported by every known Jewish day school in the United States, according to Avi Chai.

The day school numbers are not a reflection of American Jewry overall. Last year’s Pew Research Center survey of U.S. Jewry found that only 23 percent of American Jews said they attended a yeshiva or Jewish day school.

Uriel Heilman/JTA

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