50 Shades of Religious School

Debi Swedelson Mishael

Debi Swedelson MishaelI was very excited about my lesson for this week’s 8th grade Religious School class. I was planning to start with an attention catching set-induction including props! (I love to start a lesson with props!) Little did I know, my students had another idea. We all walked into the room at the same time. Everyone settled into their comfortable spaces. Some sit in chairs, some on the tables, and a couple of lucky kids grab the two bean bags donated by my daughter after space became a premium in college living. “Ms. Mishael, have you seen the 50 Shades movie? Have you read the books?”

Questions were coming at me from several corners of the room. From their comments, it didn’t take me long to realize that their knowledge of 50 Shades was far deeper than the movie trailers would provide. Some of my 8th graders had seen the movie and some had read the book. I knew right then that my lesson on the upcoming elections in Israel would have to wait.

The first thing you need to understand is that half of the year, our curriculum is called “Sex in the Text.” It’s a catchy title that can more accurately be described as “Exploration of Body Ethics and Relationship Values Through Jewish Texts.” (Catchy titles are better.) So, my students are accustomed to discussing these topics with me. Our classroom is a safe space to talk about things that busy parents often neglect or are afraid to address.

This was not the first time the students and I had a chance to speak this evening. We begin our Wednesday nights in the Youth Lounge with a kosher pizza dinner and 30 minutes of “hang-out-with-your-peers-and-teachers” time. We were hanging out. We were chatting; we were talking about their week. It would have been the kind of time two friends would have said, “Hey, did you see that 50 Shades movie?” But no, the students did not take this casual space and comfortable setting to ask me questions. Instead, they chose the classroom. They had been taught that the classroom was a safe space in which they could freely ask the uncomfortable questions.

As you can imagine, it was quite an evening. I first wanted to impress upon the students that this movie was not a real depiction of a healthy relationship. It involves a highly-romanticized view of a character who was sexually abused in his youth and his need for a disproportionally controlling and abusive relationship with a naïve young woman. I asked my students to look at the quilted banner in the front of our room and reminded them of our very first lesson of the year. We reviewed key concepts that we had already learned this year about how we should treat out bodies, how Judaism extolls sex and pleasure in appropriate context. I did not need to teach them, rather I was reminding them of the lessons we had already learned and showed them how to use those values in order to process the 50 Shades to which they were exposed.

We are all created b'tzelem elohimHow were they exposed you might ask? I did? Turns out that teenagers don’t always tell their parents the truth. Sometimes they sneak into movies when their parents thought they were elsewhere. Sometimes they download their Mom’s books from the shared kindle account.

The morning after class, I sat down to write an email to parents. I informed them of the prior night’s discussion in detail and suggested that it would be good for them to open a dialogue with their own teen. Parents were stunned and shocked but mostly they were appreciative about two things.

  1. They were glad that I kept them informed. (In addition to the current email, I send weekly emails with my full lesson plans attached.)
  2. Parents were deeply grateful that our Religious School provided a class and context where their teens can receive the information and have a place to discuss the topics relevant and integral to their developing teen’s life. In contrast to mass media, we were reinforcing the lessons parents want their kids to hear but are often afraid to say. [i]
  3. Our bodies are sacred and special and we must treat them this way. There is a difference between a physical act of sex and the intimate and sacred act of making love. Treating one’s body poorly or using it for casual sex diminishes/harms one’s mind, soul and even health.
  4. In Judaism, sex is sacred. Judaism acknowledges and encourages pleasure in sex. It is not just for procreation.
  5. Healthy relationships should not hurt and are characterized by both parties wanting to elevate and not diminish their partners.

Judaism has a beautiful and rich tradition about sexuality. It is something to be shared…the tradition not the sexuality, with our kids. At the end of class, one of the boys said, “You would think everyone would want to be Jewish if they knew all this stuff!”

PS…During the evening, students enjoyed sharing all the “clever” ways their parents got them out of the house for a few hours on Valentine’s Day so that the parents could be alone. Most thought it was gross. Despite all the grown up dialogue we had just completed, no one wants to think of their own parents having sex! I reminded the students that it was a good thing their parents still made time to share intimate moments and express their love for one another. That is a sign of a healthy relationship.

[i] Too few of our schools are teaching “Sex in the Text.” There are materials available from many sources. I use many of Torah Aura’s Body Ethics Instant Lessons and augment with my own methodology. In addition, Paul Yedwab wrote a book titled, “Sex in the Texts” that is published by UAHC Press. It served as the starting point for me to design my own lessons