A novel era in Jewish marital intimacy

Merkaz Yahel, the pioneering Intimacy Center, is ‘lifting the veil’ on Jewish sexual married life, creating a new wave of satisfied couples.

Merkaz Yahel, the pioneering Intimacy Center, is ‘lifting the veil’ on Jewish sexual married life, creating a new wave of satisfied couples (photo credit: Courtesy)
Merkaz Yahel, the pioneering Intimacy Center, is ‘lifting the veil’ on Jewish sexual married life, creating a new wave of satisfied couples
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Merkaz Yahel, the Center for Jewish Intimacy, seems to be tapping into the Jewish cultural zeitgeist – ushering in a new, more open phase in Jewish marital sexual life.
The Hebrew acronym Yahel, or yeutz behadracha lehayei ishut (counseling and training in the discussion on intimacy), refers to the center’s mission of “lifting the veil of secrecy on the religious sexual experience,” says Abby Weisz, 32, the English-speaking head of center activities.
Merkaz Yahel “helps Jewish couples invest time and energy, hopefully with a sense of humor, in the quest for sexual satisfaction – with the understanding they are not alone in this struggle,” notes the youthful Weisz, a social worker and herself a Jewish wife (and mother of four).
While the Nayot, Jerusalem-based nonprofit started work in 2011, it seems to be addressing a problem in Judaism that goes back much further.
“Sexuality used to not be such a closed topic, there was a mesora [religious tradition] around it,” says Weisz. “But that’s changed throughout the generations. While the perception in the media is ‘Let’s talk about sex,’ it’s really not very open. A healthy message in Judaism needs to get out.”
As such, Merkaz Yahel’s goal is to change the Orthodox approach and relationship to sexuality and intimacy, says Weisz. This is done by giving couples sexual health information and counseling in the crucial early stages of marriage and the associated physical relationship – before they have a big issue and need a dedicated therapist.
“People are coming out of the woodwork with these feelings and need to be validated,” she says. “There is so much mystique around sexuality in Judaism. When married couples experience issues in their sexual lives, they think, ‘It’s not supposed to be this way, it’s supposed to be beautiful, husband and wife as one flesh [as it says in biblical sources].’ But they’re finding it’s not really like that.”
These issues are ever more baffling for the Orthodox couples who grew up sheltered and strictly observant, says Weisz.
With sex education not a part of the standard Jewish day school curriculum, and with expected adherence to the rabbinical strictures of shomer negia (abstaining from touching the opposite sex until marriage) among both sexes, and abstaining from masturbation among men, marriage often represents the first sexual contact of any kind for a young Orthodox person – of both their adolescent and adult lives. When it doesn’t go according to what they envisioned or have been told to expect, they have little or no frame of reference.
Moreover, with the subject of sex often regarded as taboo – beyond, upon engagement, “kalla classes” to teach family purity laws to the bride and one-off sessions with a rabbi for the groom – the couple often has no one they feel comfortable turning to or comparing notes with, such as fellow young married friends or even – or especially – their own partners, heightening feelings of frustration, loneliness and tension.
Yet the need is felt not just in Israel but around the world, and among not just the Orthodox, but also the traditional and secular, Weisz stresses. A counselor tells the tale of one modern Orthodox couple, who had one foot in both the religious and secular worlds, and the particular issues they faced: “They said how absolutely unprepared they were for the reality of a sexual relationship. Both were graduates of modern Orthodox schools, so they were not unfamiliar with sexuality. However, the man had been led to understand that after years of self-control, the bedroom would provide him with a regular and sanctioned outlet; she thought that after enjoying premarital touching [but not sex, a ‘modern’ compromise], her path to sexual pleasure was ensured.
“Both were wrong, and this made things very tense. Finally, they heard about Merkaz Yahel and called for counseling. To their surprise, when they began tentatively sharing their experience, they found that most of their friends had similar stories and had ended up at sex therapists, or eventually resolved it on their own but with much stress along the way. Now they have become advocates for [revealing the reality of] the religious sexual experience, so that other couples do not feel so alone.”
This diversity of religious experience, explains Weisz, “is why Merkaz Yahel has deliberately been kept a standalone institution – we want to remain a place that every kind of person feels comfortable, and don’t align with a particular hashkafa [religious stream of thought]. We have haredi and national-religious staff, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, and a Reform rabbi.”
“It’s all done in a dati [religious], tzanua [modest] way, but not overly frum. The center wants to create a good feeling – which we believe is what Halacha intended.”
While Israel is more progressive in its approach to sexual health services – even offering a yoetzet min, or sexual health counselor, as part of standard health fund staff – there is still a demand for the center’s services. This speaks to the unique nature of the Jewish state, says Weisz, and “the volume of Jews here that want the most out of their life. They want the best education, the best of everything – so why not the best intimacy? They deserve it, and it’s within the Jewish tradition to have that.”
Indeed, the center has no shortage of willing participants and is thriving, becoming a hub for counseling and education, with services fanning out to areas such as Beersheba and the Golan.
With a new focus on training, Merkaz Yahel now offers a course to equip social workers, teachers, therapists, kalla teachers, doctors and nurses “with the language, ability and understanding to be a counselor and help Jewish couples in the ‘wondering/is this normal/ do we need help, where do we turn’ stages,” says Weisz.
After taking the course, “I felt like we were pioneers in a new venture that will have long-lasting effects on the Jewish world for years to come,” enthused one professional.
The center has also become a referral point for specialists such as therapists and obstetrician/gynecologists.
The next stage, Weisz explains, is to “hook up with actual teaching institutions that are graduating teachers, and incorporate the sex education piece into their masters’ programs. Teachers with the halachic, biological and physiological perspectives on sexual health could change the whole landscape in Israel – and this will trickle down to the whole world.”
Weisz, who grew up in Miami, began to see the need for sexual health training when she became a rebbetzin in Ohio alongside her rabbi husband, teaching brides about marital intimacy and seeing a void in their understanding of the myriad issues that come up in married life.
Upon aliya with her family two years ago, Weisz began to work with Merkaz Yahel founder Michal Prins, also in her early 30s. While writing her doctorate at Bar- Ilan University on sexuality among young women in the national-religious community, the Hebrew-speaking Prins recognized the same void – creating the center together with Rabbi Rafi Ostroff.
In terms of the clientele, Weisz explains that generally couples come in together and are supportive of one another. But of the times when only one partner comes in, it is usually the woman taking the initiative to discuss problems of physical pain or other sensitive issues.
The center is a benign, non-clinical space that encourages participants to let their guard down. The consultation room is set up like a regular therapeutic room, with a round table and bookshelves filled with tomes on Judaism and sexuality.
“There are surprisingly a lot of books on that topic,” smiles Weisz.
Fresh flowers and scented candles enhance a feeling of warmth, creating a comfortable, relaxed environment that make participants feel good about coming in.
Judaism's historic approach to women and sexuality is not what one might assume, says Weisz.
“Judaism was cutting-edge in terms of feminism for 3,000 years... come the 1920s and the feminist revolution, the sexual revolution – we were suddenly thrown backward. Women were given rights in the Gemara – with the ketuba, you’re worth something, with a contract in marriage to prove it.”
“But as the rest of world opened up discussion, there’s been a negative, reverse side: The strong woman gets attention, but is a little scary,” she says, noting this caused Judaism to turn inward. “There’s been a shift in the Orthodox community – we have stopped talking about this topic, while the rest of the world is talking about it.”
Weisz sees the need for healthy Jewish messages on sexuality to begin at a young age. “Nobody is saying, ‘Wait, there’s a healthy way, God created our bodies in the perfect way – you have a pleasure center.’
“How are you supposed to know what you want from a marriage partner, if you don’t know your body yourself?” she asks. “We have to teach our children, flip the message – your body is perfect and made for certain things – encourage healthy exploration, and teach them about periods and STDs.”
Indeed, a May Times of Israel blog by Tali Rosenbaum, an academic adviser at Merkaz Yahel, on “10 tips for raising sexually healthy Orthodox daughters” ignited a firestorm of commentary, most of it grateful and favorable. “Create such a list for our boys!” several commentators implored the author.
“Judaism does have a very strong, positive, feminist message we’re trying to return to. With this new approach, we’re making the necessary change to catch up the Jewish world to where everyone else is holding.”
When asked if she had a mantra for sexual health, Weisz replies, “When I speak to a younger crowd, I say, ‘Know your body, trust your body, love your body.’ This could be applied to any young couple – and their bodies.”
“It’s very exciting,” she concludes. “We’re at a starting point, and are looking to grow by leaps and bounds. Anyone who is a thinking person feels the need – the beginning of a ‘healthy sexual revolution’ for all.”
Contact Abby Weisz at Merkazyahel.abby@gmail.com (contact may be anonymous); learn more about the center at Zoogy.org (in Hebrew).