Arming our religious children

Manual protects observant special-needs youngsters from sexual abuse.

book 88 (photo credit: )
book 88
(photo credit: )
It took many years for the religious Jewish community - haredi and Modern Orthodox - to admit that it was not immune to incidents of sexual abuse against their children; it has taken even longer for educators to do something about it. Now an Orthodox clinical psychologist, social worker and educator at a Jewish school for developmentally disabled religious children in Teaneck, New Jersey has pushed ahead, authoring a 145-page, English-language teachers' and therapists' manual called The Jewish SELF (Sexual Education for LiFe). It is bold, considering the aversion to the subject in the American Jewish - and especially the Israeli - religious community. But there is a long way to go: The manual, according to author Rabbi Dr. Gil Elmaleh, is not meant for children - or even their parents - to read directly. And numerous sexually explicit drawings of naked boys and girls and men and women, sexual intercourse and masturbation are glued-over with a white sheet of paper warning about "sensitive and graphic content" that has to be ripped off by the authorized reader. Apparently, Elmaleh and his Sinai Special Needs Institute is concerned that children of teachers who use the material in class might leaf through it. STUDIES CONSISTENTLY demonstrate that children with developmental disabilities are sexually victimized more often than those without disability, says Elmaleh, who has a master's degree in clinical psychology from Long Island University and his doctorate in social work from Yeshiva University. "Reasons include the lack of fundamental skills, knowledge and awareness necessary to interpret abuse, recognize questionable behaviors and protect themselves. With appropriate education and instruction, children with special needs can learn to detect, communicate and ultimately prevent abuse." But, although there are numerous cases of sexual abuse in religious educational institutions for "normal" Jewish children in Israel and the Diaspora - although apparently fewer than in their secular counterparts - Elmaleh makes no suggestion that his excellent manual should be used to teach sex education in a tasteful way to children who are not mentally or physically disabled. Although the Bible and Talmud are full of references to sex, these are taught in a very muted way (as Rahab, the prostitute who lives in Jericho and is mentioned in the Book of Joshua is described in class as a woman who sold things other than her body). And in Israeli modern Orthodox and haredi schools, sex education classes are largely limited to explanations of puberty (for girls) and talmudic issues (for boys). But Elmaleh's manual is a good start, and can easily be used to educate generation after generation of religious youngsters in the English-speaking Diaspora and, if translated, in Israel. The manual, which incorporates Jewish religious values, is unique, as according to the author there is no educational material of this kind in English. The Jewish SELF, introduced in 2003 to a select group of educators in New York and New Jersey, is now being made available to educators around the world after the author and the Sinai Special Needs Institute received much positive feedback. Available for $98 per book from [email protected] (or from the institute at 1650 Palisade Avenue, Teaneck, NJ 07666) , it is claimed to be the only book of its kind written in accordance to Jewish law and recommended by religious organizations such as the Rabbinic Council of Bergen County. The manual is already part of the curriculum in Sinai special-needs schools throughout New Jersey and across the US, and reportedly in a few such institutions in Israel. Yet, if it is designated - as it should be - by the Education Ministry as a required and integral part of the curriculum in haredi and state religious schools, it probably will arouse much opposition among teachers and parents. The author notes in his introduction that "since there are complex and intricate rulings in regard to teaching material with sexual content to Jewish children and adolescents, students and their families are advised to check with their local rabbinical authority before participating in the program." But Elmaleh, who was director of therapeutic services at Sinai, has come on aliya with his family, so he will surely have an opportunity to promote his manual in Israel. Laurette Rothwachs, dean of Sinai Special Needs Institute, notes in her introduction that "we at the Institute are all too cognizant of the prevalence of sexual abuse in our community. We know that the problem cuts across all boundaries of class, culture and religious affiliation. We know, too, firsthand, of the vulnerability of our population of children and young adults with special needs, as they often lack the fundamental language skills, social awareness and general knowledge necessary to protect themselves." Rothwachs added that parents may often be "frustrated that there are limited resources to guide their children, and the fact that there is something out there has had a dramatic effect on them." Communicating about sexual behavior and abuse, she continues, "has been taboo for many years in religious Jewish circles... Our goal through The Jewish SELF is to provide educators and therapists with instruction on approaching this sensitive topic in a comfortable and effective way. [It] aims to protect individuals with special needs by providing basic knowledge in the areas of the human body and social relationships." ELMALEH STRESSES to educators and therapists before they read the manual that just as God is modest, "we too have to be modest in our demeanor and our interpersonal relationships." By concealing His presence in the world, God "provides us with a true sense of ... free will, and thus expects us to choose to act in a modest and sacred manner even when we cannot see Him. This is the true basis of ... modesty - the ability to maintain one's presence without calling attention to oneself... As you embark on teaching this curriculum, realize that the human body is the repository of the neshama [soul], a sacred part of [God]. Every Jew is granted a beautiful and precious neshama, an actual piece of divinity. The human body, the repository for the neshama, is equally important, and likewise maintains a level of sanctity and purity." Educators who use it - and set objectives to lessons and give pupils a look at the illustrations - can help them understand important concepts such as private vs. public behavior and places, "good touch" and "bad touch" and halachic codes of social and sexual behavior. In one of the manual's exercises, pupils are asked to list 10 places they consider public and 10 more that are private. A battery of 53 questions are asked to assess their newly acquired knowledge about "private clothing," how boys and girls differ, the names of genital organs, bodily changes at puberty, and "when can a person have a baby." IT IS NATURAL to have sexual feelings and thoughts, the educators are urged to tell their pupils. But "one does not have to act on his/her feelings, but rather should keep them private." While the manual has illustrations of male and female masturbation, teachers are told "not to teach students how to masturbate, or introduce the concept of masturbation to students who are not aware of it." Those who do know about it are told that it "needs to be done in private." To guard against sexual abuse of children by a person of authority - adults or other children - the manual stresses that youngsters "may not ask others to touch them to make them feel good, as it is a crime. Again, reiterate the concept that feeling sexual is a private matter that should be done only by a person in a private place." The manual's five-unit strategy of educational objectives and activities starts with Unit 1 about relationships, clarifying the concepts of private versus public, understanding one's own sexuality, and prevention of sexual abuse. Unit 2 teaches about the similarities and differences between males and females, addressing the process of maturing to adulthood, and responsibilities of parenting. Unit 3 teaches about human anatomy, focusing on the transformation from childhood to adulthood and explaining the reproductive system. Unit 4 teaches about sexual feelings and thoughts, addressing how and when to keep emotions private - even touching on sexual conduct between unmarried men and women according to Jewish law. Unit 5 alerts pupils to the dangers of sexual abuse, and explains "non-touching sex crimes" such as public nudity, obscene language, obscene phone calls, peeping and exposure. It also presents various scenarios such as adults putting their hands under a child's underwear or men with unzipped trousers offering a child ice cream. Some of the adult figures who commit offenses of "bad touch" are recognizably religious (wearing a kippa) so that innocent religious children can realize that people who appear observant may be abusers. Asked to comment about why the manual was targeted only at special-needs children, Elmaleh told The Jerusalem Post in a phone interview from the US that he could not get leading rabbinical endorsements if it was aimed at religious pupils in general. They apparently feared sex education would give children and teenagers "ideas." "Before launching The Jewish SELF, Sinai approached halachic authorities due to the sensitive subject matter. Statistically, children with special needs are at much greater risk for sexual abuse. Sinai has found that there is an acceptance to talking more openly about sex to children with special needs, and so has introduced the subject matter in a way that can be easily taught to all children." But he added that although the manual was written for special-needs children, "it is presented in a simple and concrete format that can be easily understood by mainstream religiously educated children." In Israel, therapists and mental-health professionals are using the material on a one-on-one basis." Children who encounter threats of abuse are are encouraged to "Yell No, run Away and must Tell" (NAT strategy). But the whole manual - and human sexuality - is a "must tell" subject that should finally and widely engage the religious Jewish community here and abroad.