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Tackle Teenage Destructive Sexual Behavior

CONTACT: Emily Grotta
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ESGrotta@urj.org

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Reform Judaism to Tackle Teenage Destructive Sexual Behavior
Yoffie: In a media-driven world that too often demeans women and makes a mockery of gentleness, Judaism offers a message of holiness and hope.

HOUSTON, November 19—The leader of the Reform Movement today called on its members to stem the tide of teenage oral sex and “hooking up” by teaching youngsters what their faith has to say about sex, love and relationships.

“A growing number of middle school students are sexually active, and oral sex is both prevalent and widely accepted,” Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, told the 4,200 people in Houston for its Biennial convention. “Most striking of all is a social ethic known as ‘hooking up’ that severs sex from any pretense of a relationship,” he said. Hooking up “means never having a healthy relationship and not knowing what’s involved in developing one.”

Teenagers experimenting with sex is hardly new, acknowledged the 58-year-old rabbi. “But what is happening now is radically different. We are witnessing changes that go far beyond sexual experimentation of the past. ”And he noted that the Reform Movement’s dedication to the equality of women “is worth nothing if Jewish girls define their worth by how they please boys.”

While oral sex and hooking up are prevalent, teenagers yearn to know how sex relates to love and a caring relationship, and what is permissible and what is not, Yoffie said. And he acknowledged that the Reform Movement has, until this point, failed to provide them the guidance they need.

“Our youth groups and camps do a pretty good job of policing our kids’ behavior, but not a good job at all of teaching the values of our Jewish tradition,” Yoffie said.

“We are not very good at saying ‘no’ in Reform Judaism,” Yoffie said. “We are the most creative and forward-looking movement in Jewish life, but in the realm of personal behavior, we are reluctant to ever use the word ‘forbidden.’ Yet in dealing with kids engaged in destructive behavior, the concept of autonomy leaves us unable to set limits and make sound judgments.”

As a result, Reform teens are frustrated by the combined failure of their parents and their synagogues to offer them practical help. “More often than not, hookups leave them depressed, confused, and guilty. But very few of them see the synagogue as a place to go for support, or their Judaism as a source of comfort and direction. And they wonder why. Since we have told them again and again that Judaism is an all-embracing way of life, they expect that their tradition will have something to say about matters of such importance.

“And they are right. Judaism does have something to say to them,” he said.

“Judaism tells them that they are created in the image of God, and each and every one of them is unique, of infinite worth, and entitled to respect,” Yoffie said. “It tells them that the guiding principle of sexuality in the Jewish tradition is K’doshim tih’yu—“You shall be holy,” which means that sexuality is linked to blessing, commandment, and God.”

And, he said, “It tells them that in our tradition, both partners in a sexual relationship must be sensitive to the sexual needs of the other. In Judaism, a woman never exists to be a subordinate vessel to the man.”

To help synagogues impart these lessons, the Union is creating a six-session course for 12 and 13 year-old students, and will unveil a course for high school freshmen in 2007. The courses will speak plainly and openly about the real issues teens confront, and will not take a “just say no” approach or one based on generalities.

“We do not tell our kids that sex before marriage is forbidden,” he said, noting that as many will not marry for fifteen years after the onset of puberty, it is unreasonable to suggest that this traditional standard should be maintained for young people who are adults.

“On the other hand, we 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 tension with parents, pressure from friends, a desire for approval, and an uncertain sense of self. This means that students in high school are not yet ready for the loving, mutual relationships that make sex an experience of holiness,” he said.

“We are not naïve,” he said. We do not promote abstinence from all forms of physical contact. But we do take on the issues of oral sex and hooking up. We tell both boys and girls that sex is not about controlling or servicing the other. And we tell girls in particular that their worth is not defined by what they do for boys,” he said.

As for the parents of these teens, Yoffie said they need to remember that kids need parents who know how to listen and who set firm limits. And he also reminded them that “gay and lesbian children are the children of God just as heterosexual children are, and parents need to be prepared for the possibility that their child is gay.”

“In a media-driven world that too often demeans women and makes a mockery of gentleness, Judaism offers a message of holiness and hope, Yoffie concluded.

 

The Union for Reform Judaism (formerly the Union of American Hebrew Congregations) is the central body of Reform Judaism in North America, uniting 1.5 million Reform Jews in more than 900 synagogues. Union services include camps, music and book publishing, outreach to unaffiliated and intermarried Jews, educational programs, and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, DC.

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Editor’s note: A full text of Rabbi Yoffie’s remarks may be found at http://urj.org/yoffie. Information about Sacred Choices may be found at http://urj.org/youth/sacredchoices.

 
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