Jerusalem-area parents were shocked to discover that a religious organization recently gave their ninth-graders at secular state schools a workshop on “spousal relations in the spirit of Judaism."
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Haaretz has learned that the Education Ministry's religious education department approved the organization, Am Yisrael Echad, to run workshops in schools. But the ministry's department for sex education and life skills — which is the area the ministry billed the workshop as addressing — has never heard of the group and never authorized it to give such classes.
The organization said it has given workshops on various subjects in about 80 different schools, most of them secular.
Am Yisrael Echad is just one of countless organizations that operate in schools without adequate supervision. The group’s English-language website says it was founded in 1998 “to help secular children connect to their Jewish roots and understand their heritage” and “strengthen the students’ sense of Jewish identity.” It gives workshops in state junior high and high schools nationwide, the website says.
An employee of the organization told Haaretz that the workshop on spousal relations, called “Between Him and Her,” is meant for seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders. It includes two sessions, each an hour-and-a-half long, involving simulations and improvisation. Boys and girls are separated for the sessions. There is a different workshop for eleventh- and twelfth-graders, which specifically deals with sexual relations.
The employee, who works as a coordinator, said the instructors are all religious, but the workshops are intended mainly for secular schools. All instructors must undergo training and have experience in leading workshops, she said, noting that one instructor is a clinical psychologist.
“Sometimes ‘in the spirit of Judaism’ sounds as if the woman should be in the kitchen, but that’s not the idea,” she said. “The direction is more that the woman is in a more sensitive place, she’s more influenced by emotion, so we connect that to the positive place this has in Judaism.”
But a mother whose ninth-grade son attended the workshop painted a very different picture. The boys were told about "negiya," the religious prohibition against unmarried men and women touching each other, she said. They were also told “how man was created, and after him woman was created.”
“The instructor asked why there are so many divorces among Jews, and one student answered that there are divorces in other countries too, and the instructor told them he was only talking about Jews,” the mother continued.
The mother was furious that a religious organization had been brought in to teach secular students about an important topic like sex education. “What does observing negiya have to do with secular children?” she asked.
A father whose child attends the same school noted that a workshop on sex education “in the spirit of secularism” would never be allowed in a religious school.
Gideon Samuel, Am Yisrael Echad’s educational director, told Haaretz that the family unit is currently in crisis, “and we believe that Jewish values have something to offer in preserving the family unit. It’s important to us to expose teens to Jewish content, so that they’ll be proud of their Jewish identity.”
“I’m not teaching the children about safe sex; I’m teaching them about traditional Jewish values,” he added. “In ‘Between Him and Her,’ I explain the difference between love according to traditional values and one-time infatuation; I move them from the concepts they see in movies — a large proportion of Israeli students watch pornography — and it’s important to us that people don’t start to build a family with non-Jewish and uneducated ideas. We don’t presume to advise about sex education, but about building a family. Jewish values include treating the other person well, and treating the other sex well. The Bible has a great deal of material and values that lead to respect for the woman and her place.”
“This isn’t a matter of religious or secular, but Jewish, and that unites us all,” he insisted. “The only thing that unites and connects us is traditional Jewish values that are part of the consensus. I don’t teach anything that isn’t part of the consensus ... What you and I have in common is that we’re Jews and we share a common fate, and we have the State of Israel, and it’s important to preserve its character. A generation has grown up here, of which part is ignorant and unaware of the values and identity that accompanied us for thousands of years, and that’s a disaster.”
The Education Ministry said that Am Yisrael Echad has permission to give workshops on Jewish issues, but not on sex education or spousal relations. The ministry said it is working to regulate the activity of all outside organizations by creating clear criteria for educational activities and promised to address the case of the workshop with both the school and the organization.