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October 9, 2015 | 26th Tishrei 5776

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, Regional Biennial Sermon, 2006-2007

Regional Biennial Sermon, 2006-2007
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, President, Union for Reform Judaism

Let me begin with a story.

Our Union operates a dozen summer camps; we own the largest network of Jewish camps in North America, involving ten thousand young people in activity that is intensively Jewish, educational, and fun. At the end of every summer, I review with our staff the strengths and weaknesses of our camping program. I also ask them about the problems that we face, knowing that every year a small number of kids are sent home for disciplinary reasons. A few years ago, when I asked the question, I heard an answer that I had not heard before: we had sent home some fourteen-year-olds for engaging in oral sex.

I sat there in stunned silence, desperately wanting to cover my ears with my hands.

I am a child of the sixties, from the first wave of the Baby Boomer generation. I went to the Pentagon to protest against the Vietnam War, I attended rock festivals, and I did a variety of things that, all else being equal, I would just as soon that my children not engage in. I do not delude myself into thinking that I am in any way cool; there is no way for a fifty-something rabbi to be cool. But I don’t think of myself as naïve, either. And I am certainly aware that sexual experimentation by young people has been going on since the beginning of time, and has always been an issue that our camps have had to deal with.

But oral sex? By fourteen-year-olds?

In my day, oral sex had been considered far more intimate than sex of the regular sort. But today, my staff told me, kids hoot at that notion. It is often seen as no big deal. For some, it is not even considered to be sex; it is just “something to do.”

Fighting off my own discomfort and embarrassment, I persisted, and permitted myself to be educated about what is happening with our kids.

At a large Reform congregation in Los Angeles, they have prohibited the use of full-length tablecloths at b’nei mitzvah held in the synagogue. Why? Because kids are having oral sex under the tables.

Oral sex, I was told, is part of a broader phenomenon known as “hooking up.” As all of you know by now, hooking up can refer to different kinds of physical contact. But it always means a casual physical encounter with no commitment of any kind. It means getting physical without getting emotional; it means that sex and feeling do not have to be connected in any way. It is kind of like a “junior quickie.” In theory, hook-ups are equal, although in fact, they are almost always about girls pleasing guys.

I would like to stress, by the way, that our youth staff rejects the media-fueled hysteria that suggests teen life is one big orgiastic encounter, or that every ninth grader is leading an erotic life worthy of an NBA all-star. That is simply not happening. But the changes from ten years ago are real enough. A small percentage of middle-schoolers and a much larger percentage of high schoolers are experimenting with oral sex. And the whole nature of the sexual conversation has shifted. A generation ago, the discussion was about whether sex belonged in marriage or in a serious, committed relationship. Today, the very idea of having, or needing, a healthy relationship is under attack. Hooking up does not involve “going out,” or any of the obligations that a real relationship entails.

When I asked our youth staff what we were doing about all of this, they assured me that we had it under control. Kids who act out sexually at camp are sent home. And kids attending our NFTY conclaves are obligated to sign contracts promising not to engage in “inappropriate sexual activity.” All of that is fine and good, I said, but what are we doing to help our kids in a positive way to deal with these issues. And the honest answer was: not much. I then went to the heads of our education department, and asked them if we had a curriculum on this subject that our congregations could use in their religious schools. And the answer was no. And then I talked to some rabbis and congregational youth leaders and principals and asked them what they were doing in their synagogues. Many of our congregations, it turns out, teach about the threat of drug, alcohol and cigarette abuse, perhaps because the health dangers are obvious and the remedies are fairly clear. But when it comes to sex, no more than a relative handful are trying in a serious way to reach their kids. The overwhelming majority are doing little or nothing.

And so, as the President of this Movement, I found myself asking: How could this be?

We are the largest and most dynamic movement in Jewish religious life. We are forward looking and proudly progressive. We have no fear of the encounter between Judaism and modernity; on the contrary, we are confident that the Judaism we champion has answers to the most difficult problems of modern life. If anyone should have something to say about these matters, surely it should be us. So why the silence?

The reason, I suspect, is that the world is moving a little too fast, even for us. Our educators, youth workers, and synagogue leaders are understandably overwhelmed. They also take their cues from parents. On such an intimate matter, they do not want to offend parents, but at the same time they have no idea what the parents are thinking. They sense, probably correctly, that parents are as confused as they are. Many parents see the world in which they live as so totally different from the world in which they grew up that they are reluctant to tell their children anything, out of fear that they will steer them in the wrong direction. The result is that the best they can muster is to urge their children to be careful or to take precautions when dating.

There is a certain irony here. Many of our parents, by the time they finished high school, felt they knew more about sex than their parents, talked more about sex, were cooler about sex. And they were confident they would do far better with their children than their parents did with them.

And then they had a son or daughter. And the daughter, who just turned sixteen, finds them in the kitchen and asks if she can invite her boyfriend to sleep over next Saturday, and they say you mean in the guest room, and she says no in my room, and they say what exactly are the two of you planning on doing in that room of yours, young lady. And all of a sudden, they don’t feel so cool anymore.

Because it turns out that the sexual fumblings of adolescents look a teensy bit different from the other end of the kitchen table, even to someone who once wore a miniskirt, especially when the rules just aren’t clear anymore.

And the rules are not clear, not at all.

Part of the reason is that we have created an environment for our kids in which we are absolutely insane about achievement. In the last twenty-five years, schoolwork is up fifty percent. Fifty percent! We are obsessed with our kids getting into the right schools, getting the right grades; we smother them with psychological counseling, with college counseling, with lessons in sports and culture; we urge on them more and more extracurricular activities, encouraging them to spend weekends working with orphaned woodpeckers. And I know, because I was as much of a “helicopter parent” as everyone else, hovering over my children, ever ready to swoop in and meddle – er, I mean, rescue – them when they were in academic trouble.

Please understand: Ambition doesn’t put me off. What does offend me is the idea that we set our kids on this course when they are so young. When was it decided that children had to perform brilliantly at school right out of the gate, and that everything was riding on it? When was it decided that not taking the advanced chemistry course could affect you in a decisive and adverse way? And all of this leaves our kids shell-shocked; believe me, I’ve talked to them, I know. Because what if all the promise their parents keep telling them they have comes to nothing? What if, after all this, they don’t get into the right school or the right graduate program?

And even worse, we let other things slide. We don’t ask our kids to do chores any more because there just isn’t time. And because we favor résumé building over character building, we usually spend a lot more time talking about exams and grades than we do about relationships, love and sex. When we prioritize achievement above all else, kids get the message. And if they are rude, obnoxious and acting out sexually, they are probably trying to tell us something – something they think they’ve got to shout for us to hear.

The other reason the rules are not clear is that popular culture has changed radically in the last fifteen years. The turning point, in retrospect, came in the early 1990s; that was when rap music that included some of the most violent, sexually explicit and misogynistic lyrics ever recorded slipped virtually unnoticed into so many North American households. It was entirely possible for teenagers in the 90s to have their well-intentioned parents buy them a CD in which they were urged to do things that I couldn’t possibly mention from this bimah. Our Movement, it should be said, was and is proudly opposed to censorship in all forms. But looking back, we could have been more sympathetic to campaigns that did not involve censorship issues, such as Tipper Gore’s efforts to get explicit music rated and labeled.

Since then, of course, it has been all downhill. Ours is a hyper-sexualized culture that encourages its young women to be Girls Gone Wild and its young men to be piggish voyeurs. Prime time TV features confessional and reality shows whose participants shed civility for prurience and brutality. Harem-themed reality shows are the most common: troupes of women are secluded with one man in a fantasy locale, where the women engage in competitions to show who among them is the hottest and the hungriest. We like to think, sometimes, that we are shielding our kids from all this, at least when they are younger teens, but even if they are not allowed to watch certain TV shows and movies at your house, chances are they know someone whose parents are less vigilant.

The origins of this cultural shift are not entirely clear. Part of what is happening, it seems to me, is a result of unrestrained corporate marketing. Sex sells, and so sex is ever-present. But because sex is not endlessly interesting, the depictions of sex become all the more daring and explicit just to keep people’s attention. The result is a culture that is wildly overheated in the sex department.

It should hardly be a surprise, therefore, that so many adolescents are profoundly confused. We are sending them utterly contradictory messages. We expect them to control and restrain their instinctive desires and curiosities, even as we bombard them with images that say that lust is the most important appetite and hotness the most impressive virtue.

And so, I suggest, it makes no sense whatever to rant and rave about our dissolute youth and to blame them for what is happening. They did not invent our culture of exhibitionism. What they are doing is simply reflecting back this culture in miniature.

And by the way: Neither political conservatives nor political liberals have done much to help us deal with this situation. The conservatives deplore what is happening, but they are cheerleaders for the corporate culture that has created much of the problem. They are also averse to any discussion of sex outside of marriage. Liberals, on the other hand, become uncomfortable whenever you talk about sexual boundaries or limits. And simply telling kids that sex is fine isn’t necessarily any more helpful than telling them that sex is bad.

And so now we come to the real question: what can be done? Specifically, what can we do, as committed Reform Jews?

We need to begin by putting these matters front and center, discussing them openly and honestly, making it clear to our kids that yes, Judaism does have something to say about the most difficult issues that they face in their personal lives.

At our North American Biennial a year and a half ago, I promised that the Union would produce a new, sophisticated sex-ed curriculum for pre-bar and bat mitzvah students in Reform religious schools. That curriculum is now complete. Entitled “Sacred Choices,” it consists of five sessions for children and three for their parents. My hope is that every Reform synagogue not running its own program will implement our curriculum in the spring of this school year.

It does not try to teach by imposing dictates from above, but by reasoning, offering direction, and lovingly sharing. Still, make no mistake. It is not a curriculum of feel-good platitudes. It has a specific point of view.

Let’s begin with what it does not say. It does not take a “just say no” approach to all sexual activity. Sex is different from drugs, and sexuality isn’t something that kids can just opt out of. We try to remember what it was like to be seventeen. And we don’t say that sex before marriage is forbidden. This would be hypocritical at a time when adults are delaying marriage until their late twenties and beyond.

But we do say, in the clearest possible way, that high school students should not be having sexual relations. Our teens are not adults. They are beset by tensions with parents, pressure from friends, a desire for approval and an uncertain sense of self. All of this makes them far too vulnerable to unwanted sexual experience. We also take on issues of oral sex and hooking up. We tell both boys and girls that it is wrong to separate sex from feeling and caring, and that sex should never be casual or about controlling the other. We tell them sex needs to be more than a mark of power or popularity. And we tell girls in particular that girls servicing boys is exactly the opposite of what liberation is about.

At the same time, we are not naïve. We do not promote abstinence from all forms of physical contact. We talk about the kinds of sexual expression that teens who care about each other might consider.

What we are doing here – and it is not easy – is that we are moving the sex-ed debate out of the realm of absolutes. On the one hand you have the total abstinence crowd, who oppose pre-marital sex under any and all conditions. On the other hand, you have the non-judgmental crowd; they are the ones who, after distributing condoms, want to help teens adjust to the new sexual marketplace with minimum guilt.

What we are proposing is something else: Guiding teens toward loving relationships that stop well short of the risks and responsibilities of adult sexuality. We do this with an ethic that recognizes the reality of being a teen while also saying there are some things that teens simply should not do.

And I haven’t even mentioned the most vital part of the curriculum: the Jewish values and the Jewish language upon which it all rests. The heart of the curriculum is teaching kids that they matter; that they are made in the image of God; and that each one of them is a person of irreducible worth. We convey the lesson, drawn from our sacred texts, that they must see themselves as irreplaceable, entitled to respect, and with a crucial role to play in the world. And we remind them too that the premise of a hook-up – that sex can be physical only – runs contrary to Judaism’s most fundamental beliefs. Judaism teaches that it is impossible to make love only with your body without dragging in your heart and soul.

As hard as it is, I believe that we can do this. We can teach our kids a sense of reverence about sex. We can teach them that sexuality is related to kindness and trust, and that holiness is attained in loving relationships. And if we do, they will know that a hook-up in the back of the bus is not how God wants them to use their bodies, is not what will make their parents proud, and, more important still, is not what they want for themselves.

None of this can happen, of course, without intense parental involvement, which our classroom sessions with parents are meant to encourage. Yes, we all know about tension between parents and teens. But it seems to me that sometimes we have too little confidence as parents. We underestimate how much our children want to hear from us the values and stories that give sense and purpose to our lives, and will one day give them strength. There’s a lot to be said for switching off the television once in a while and talking to our children about the journey we and those who came before us have taken, and what we have learned along the way.

But that alone is not enough. The fact is that because our children can’t always say “no” to themselves, they must rely on the adults around them to teach them about self-respect, and about how to recognize dangerous environments. Daughters need the burden of our culture’s extreme sexuality lifted from their shoulders by parents who are willing to say, “no, you can’t wear that outfit out of the house.” And teenage boys need parents who will help them gain some control over their hormones by keeping them away from situations of high temptation.

And our synagogues too have a critical role to play in all of this.

There was a time when parents could depend on the “it takes a village” philosophy. Even if they were clumsy in speaking to their children, they could rely on common cultural assumptions to give their children direction. But today, of course, this philosophy is a joke, because the village is completely polluted. Under these circumstances, it is the synagogue’s job to become the village. It is our job to create a place full of caring adults who love and inspire young people, and to offer times and places for our kids to talk about what’s on their minds. It is our job in the synagogue to help our parents, who get so little help elsewhere, and who are exhausted, frustrated, and confused by the most demanding job they will ever have in their lives.

One of the great tragedies of synagogue life is that our educational efforts are focused on grades four to seven, and kids drift away at precisely the moment when they need us most. There is no magic solution to keeping our teens involved, but we cannot afford fatalism, and we all need to be far more creative than we have been. And by the way, we shouldn’t think that a charismatic youth rabbi is the only way to get kids to stick with the synagogue. Some of the best programs are led by a middle-aged mom who really cares about kids and has the full support of her congregation.

And then there’s one other uncomfortable subject that deserves mention. No one is saying that Jewish teens are leading the way, but Lilith, a feminist Jewish quarterly, has reminded us of what may be the one distinctively Jewish contribution to the hooking up revolution: the bar and bat mitzvah party circuit. Let’s face it, the magazine said, these parties mean that our kids are exposed to a supercharged social milieu before their non-Jewish peers, resulting in earlier and more frequent opportunities for sexual contact.

There has, of course, been endless discussion of the extravagant expense of these events, but the issue here is a different one: grown-up women are dressed seductively, everyone is in a party mood, and thirteen-year-olds sense the sexual tension in the air. Some parties feature hired dancers whose job is to cavort in a seductive way with both kids and adults. Worst of all, all of this may be combined with minimum oversight – unsupervised bus rides, for example, or grown-ups gathered in a separate room.

It is best not to read too much into this. Some of this is just teens being teens. Still, it is our job to shield our kids from the pressures of premature adulthood; our job is to give them a chance to think and dream and figure out what they are going to be. But that is hard to do if what the synagogue teaches in its classrooms is being undercut every week by what happens in its social hall.

So let’s begin to deal with these issues, and let’s start by introducing this curriculum into our schools. If there are parts that some congregations don’t agree with, they are free to make their own adjustments. And a year from now, we will have a second curriculum available for ninth graders.

Let me say that I am confident we are ready for the challenge that I have presented. When I introduced this subject at the Houston Biennial, a few of our leaders were squeamish or uncomfortable, but none denied its urgency. In fact, Reform leaders are very wise; they know how much is at stake. They know that we will lose our teens if we are silent or timid about sexual matters. They know that this is a central moral issue of our time, and if we can’t help our kids with this, it won’t matter a whole lot whether or not they know the words to their Torah portion or the Motzi.

After all, our leaders know something about the complicated dance of life. As Larry Kushner reminds us, we spend our whole lives trying to get away from our parents, and trying to keep our children close. As this dance plays out, we can’t be sure of much, but we sense that the way to keep our children with us is to do our best to engrave our values on their hearts.

And our leaders know something too about the synagogue. We live in a world where everything is “hype” and “spin” and relentless promotion; and so they want the synagogue to speak the language of truth, and to set before their kids what we think on the issues of the day – and to do so earnestly and without condescension.

They are also looking for a religious middle way, for themselves and their children. They are tired of the Pat Robertsons and all the other far-right preachers and religious fanatics. And they are tired too of the silly spirituality of the Madonnas and other so-called spiritual seekers who want feel-good religion that doesn’t involve any standards, or moral seriousness, or inconvenience, or work. And so they come to the synagogue, with their kids, in search of moderation, and hoping to do Judaism right.

And they dream of a Judaism that is modern and open, but still rooted in Jewish soil; a Judaism that does not yield like wax to every impress from the outside, but blends the best that it possesses with the best that it encounters. And since dreaming is a collective activity, at least for Jews, they see the Reform synagogue as a means to give voice to this message. And they see their task, and ours, as carrying that message from this place into the world and into our lives.

In short, an ancient people, forever renewed, will not be defeated by sexual revolution, reality TV, the Internet, or the DVD. And the Reform synagogue, forever vibrant, will continue to put children first, and make education a conversation between generations.

This is what Jews have always done, and this is why we are still here today.

Shabbat shalom

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