Health and Sex Education in our Day School

  • by: Michael Novogroder

This article originally appeared in Ten Da’at, Vol. 2, Issue 1, 1987, pp. 18-19. Appears here with permission.
For many years the Board of Education at Moriah Day School in Englewood, N.J. had planned to initiate a program which would include sex education. Their goal was to formulate a course which would present basic information from a halakhic point of view. A subcommittee was formed which included two rabbis, two psychologists and a physician. Their initial task was to explore existing courses amongst the yeshivot in the metropolitan area. At that time, only two schools had a program as a formal part of their curriculum. In one yeshiva the course was taught by the principal, and in the other, by a local physician. After a careful review, the committee decided to write its own course.
The initial draft included various aspects of adolescent development. Information regarding the physical and physiological changes occurring during puberty was to be presented in a very objective and honest manner. Major psychological problems of adolescence would also be included. The physician involved prepared the former presentation while the latter was prepared in conjunction with the psychologists. A final portion of the course would discuss various aspects of social interaction which are pertinent to the adolescent. The entire syllabus was presented to the Rabbinic members on the committee and to the principal.
The course, taught separately to the eighth grade boys and girls, is divided into four sessions. In order to form a sense of continuity, the material is presented as a cycle beginning with conception and going through the development of a male and female newborn. Following birth, the cycle then continues with the growth of the child into adolescence when physical growth and psychological changes occur. Finally, marriage and conception complete the cycle.
In the first class, we see the developing fetus as a means of teaching the students about their own anatomy and that of the opposite sex. Slides of photographs and drawings are used throughout the course. Both internal and external anatomies are completely described.
We then begin a discussion of puberty by describing the normal variations of growth (length) patterns. Emphasis is placed on how varied normal children can be, with some being normally tall and others normally short. Pubertal changes occurring during adolescence are accurately described from the prepubertal to the fully developed adult. The accompanying physiological changes, including the menstrual cycle and nocturnal emissions, are fully reviewed. During this discussion we also emphasize how variable normal pubertal development can be. We especially attempt to allay fears of either precocious or delayed development.
Obviously there are a host of psychological and emotional changes that occur during puberty. We narrow our discussion to those areas that are felt to be most pertinent to this age. We begin with a discussion of the normal ambivalence that teenagers feel towards adolescence and its accompanying responsibilities. We then proceed to discuss their new feelings for independence – from teachers, parents, and any person of authority. On the one hand we explain these new feelings as age appropriate but we also offer suggestions on how they can channel these thoughts under the guidelines of Torah, common decency and respect for others.
Finally, we enter the area of sexual awareness and physical desires. This part of the discussion is sensitive and must be presented in an honest, thorough and objective manner. Once again emphasis is placed on the normal occurrence of these thoughts. References are made from the Gemorrah and Meforshim on the Jewish approach to a healthy physical and emotional attachment between husband and wide. We thus attempt to channel and divert their sexual awareness to he proper place in marriage. Respect for the marriage partner and fulfillment of a physical bond as opposed to celibacy and denial of physical feelings, is the center of our discussion. Our entire presentation is under an umbrella of Torah guidelines; no different than guidelines for eating, drinking and other physical needs. It is during this part of the discussion that we include basic facets of physical relations between husband and wife. With this we have completed our initial cycle.
During the past few years we have expanded from the discussion of respect between husband and wife to respect for peers and one’s own self. Thus, we now include comments on how one should respond to peer pressure, smoking, drug and alcohol abuse.
Our experience during the past four years has been a very positive one. Students have made it very clear that they are interested in the course material. Their active participation in discussions has necessitated the addition of another session to the initial four. Once a sense of honesty and objectivity is assured, they have felt free to question and comment on every aspect of the discussion.
At present, the course is given in its entirety by a local physician who is not a member of the school faculty. Ideally, we would like to incorporate the material into the regular school curriculum. Our future efforts revolve around expanding the midot aspect of the course and presenting a portion of the material to the seventh graders.
Unlike similar programs given in public schools, we have the luxury of not only offering factual information, but also Torah direction and guidelines in the use of this knowledge. It is our belief that our students will have a better understanding of, and be better prepared to cope with the problems of, adolescence.
DR. NOVOGRODER is Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, N. Y.C., and Director of the Pediatric-Endocrinology Department at Englewood Hospital, N.J. He also has a private practice in Teaneck, N.J.