This is a bit different than your average high school health class. Tucked within a safe space in Squirrel Hill, two rabbis have taken upon themselves the task of delivering sex education to 11th- and 12th- graders. The program, titled, “Love, Sex and Heartache,” provides open and frank discussions about college experiences with Rabbi Seth Adelson of Congregation Beth Shalom and Rabbi Danielle Leshaw of Hillel International.
We wanted to “give teens a forum to discuss serious issues that they will face when they leave their parents’ homes and head off to university,” explained Adelson. “We were concerned that our teens are not given adequate opportunities to process these issues in a way that frames them in the context of holiness in human relationships and respect for the self and others.”
So the two rabbis worked with Carolyn Gerecht, director of teen engagement and experiences at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, to create “a safe space in which to talk these issues through while drawing on our textual tradition,” explained Adelson.
“This is an area that [the students] are dying to talk about,” said Gerecht, who runs J Line, a JCC program that offers diverse courses and Jewish learning experiences for teens in 8th through 12th grade, regardless of affiliation or background.
While seven students expressed interest in the “Love, Sex and Heartache” series, five attended last week’s gathering at Dobra Tea House in Squirrel Hill, noted Gerecht. As word gets out about the program, more teens may attend the remaining sessions of the scheduled four-part course, she said. “What has attracted students to the program is that it is not driven by an agenda or desire to encourage a particular lifestyle. It is an opportunity [for the students] to ask questions honestly and openly and prepare themselves mentally and socially for the differences between high school life and college, especially from a social perspective.”
Aiding that pre- to post-secondary learning curve is Leshaw. Prior to arriving in Pittsburgh several months ago, Leshaw worked as the executive director and rabbi of the Hillel at Ohio University for 14 years. Although unavailable for comment, she currently works as a multicampus educator for Hillel International, and according to Hillel at Penn State’s website will be “visiting State College frequently to enhance how Jewish students and staff experience and express their Judaism.”
A major benefit of the program is that it is a chance to “bring [Leshaw’s] experience to students,” said Gerecht.
Because of her past work in a higher education setting, Leshaw is “very familiar with the challenges that Jewish young people face when they go to college,” added Adelson.
In the spirit of education, the rabbis desired that the program offer more than a place for conversations. While honest and frank dialogue is an aspired outcome, Adelson hopes that Jewish texts help generate some learning.
Reliance upon Jewish sources will allow students to discover that these materials “teach us not only about ritual matters (i.e. holiday observances and prayer and lifecycle events) but also about all of the aspects of our lives, and particularly how we interact with others. When the Torah says kedoshim tihyu, ki kadosh ani (“You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy”), it’s not only referring to lighting Shabbat candles and avoiding pork. Rather, this is [a] comprehensive statement about how we conduct ourselves as we walk through life, and how we act on the potential to raise the bar of holiness in all relationships,” explained Adelson.
Moving forward, future topics for exploration will include bystander prevention and navigating adult relationships.
Interested parties can reach out to Carolyn Gerecht at the JCC at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more.
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.