Interview with Mara Yacobi

Mara Yacobi is an educator, social worker and public speaker who works with teens and educators around issues of sexuality. She will appear on Ma’yan’s Progressive Sex Education Panel on March 14th, 2012. 

Ma’yan: How does the inclusion of Jewish values make your work different than typical progressive sex education? 

Mara Yacobi: In many respects my work is no different from what is being taught in the progressive sexuality-education classroom. The primary goal of sexuality education is to establish a safe space in which students recognize the importance of respecting one another’s opinions and beliefs. Another aspect that remains the same in teaching this topic is maintaining a positive approach rather than focusing solely on the negative issues associated with sex. Laughter is a large part of my work with students. Role-plays, media clips, and interactive games are the also the norm.  

Oftentimes, simply being Jewish creates enough of a bond among the students to establish a good rapport in the classroom, which instills a feeling of safety. When this occurs, the real work of educating students about their bodies and how they function can begin. When working in diverse settings, it can take longer to establish the trust to begin authentically discussing sexuality topics. 

Sexuality education is about the core of our identities as people and the way we behave. Many sexuality-education classrooms do a wonderful job focusing on the “behavioral” aspects of sexuality, such as preventing pregnancy or infections. However, if we want our youth to think about the ethics of their behavior, we also need to have conversations that involve morals and values.

Public schools often don’t have time or the ability to address sexual ethics and are prohibited from teaching within a religious framework. For example, if a teen in a public school asks, “How do I know when I’m ready to have sex?” the “appropriate” answer will vary depending on state and district laws. Generally, in my experience working in the public schools, the response and conversation following such a question may have included a conversation about abstinence until marriage or waiting to find a partner based on the universal values of respect, trust, and honesty. 

Even when giving this sound advice, I still felt limited in my ability to give a holistic response. Ultimately, it always came down to telling the student that the answer to his or her question depended on family values and/or religious beliefs. The premise of JLoveandValues is to reach out and help Jewish youth process many of these value-based questions within the context of their traditions. 

Teaching teens about sexuality is not only about providing information; it is also about modeling appropriate boundaries and giving students a chance to think critically about issues they may encounter down the road. This is perhaps even more important. That being said, teaching this topic from a Jewish perspective is a delicate balance of offering the information that young people have a right to know and adding in the religious aspect when they are receptive, so that both aspects can be integrated on an intellectual level.

Please note, however, that a very small percentage of my work actually focuses on studying Jewish text. As I mentioned earlier, the common bond among Jewish teens fosters a safe forum in which they can openly discuss their feelings and ask questions. I have a talent to use this and other commonalities among the students to build group trust, enabling me to guide the youths toward self-empowerment. Jewish teens are generally not a high-risk population for pregnancy, STDs (such as HIV), or risky sexual behavior. The greatest challenge among this group is a general lack of information and the perception that they are immune to these dangers because they are not regarded as an “at-risk” population.

 

You wrote that “most Jewish day school students have not received any authentic sexuality education.” How do you convince adults that sex education will help young people, not harm them? 

Let’s begin by looking at the language people often use to describe my work in the field: S-E-X education. Adults often misunderstand what sexuality education is about. The reason for this may be that they are reflecting back on their own “sex-ed” experience in which they learned in a sterile, uncomfortable environment about the mechanical facts or had a vague discussion of the “birds and bees.” Or perhaps their experience of sex ed was an embarrassing conversation they had with their parents.

One of my favorite sexuality educators, Deborah Roffman wrote in her book Sex and Sensibility, “Sex is something that people do, sexuality has to do with who people are. Sexuality is fundamentally our identity.” That being said, sexuality is about  the “UALITY” (with an emphasis in pronunciation on the YOU-ality). The YOU-ality is about who YOU are and includes all the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors about how you feel about being male or female and your relationships with others.

Once parents and educators recognize that sexuality education is not just about sex, they start asking more questions and begin opening up by sharing their own points of view. There is an “ah ha” for many parents and school educators when they realize that it is relevant to talk about what they are observing in their schools regarding the latest trends with clothing, teen relationships, how to manage the new modes of communication, girls’ obsession with thinness, and how to support students who don’t fit in because they don’t fill the “typical” gender roles.

In the two years I have been working with the Jewish community, I have not encountered too much resistance. Parents and professionals all agree the health and safety of our children is paramount. The challenge is the lack of time to make room for sexual education. Day Schools need to address information that does not fall into their academic course work.

One of the reasons some adults resist talking about sexuality with teens is that they fear talking about sex and sexuality will cause young people to engage in sex. Numerous studies indicate that comprehensive sexuality education (a focus on abstinence and contraception) do not lead youth to engage in sex at an earlier age and have actually been shown to help delay sexual activity.

 

Did you receive any kind of useful sex ed. growing up? How did you become passionate about this field?   

I grew up in a small Jewish community in Connecticut. My parents sent me to a Jewish nursery school, an Orthodox Yeshiva, and later to the Solomon Schechter Day School. Each of these Jewish educational environments heightened my awareness about the traditional roles that were expected of boys and girls, and outlined standards for modesty—from how to dress to what was forbidden to discuss. Learning about our bodies, puberty, healthy relationships, or HIV/AIDS was off limits. In all my years of attending Jewish day school, Jewish camp, study abroad programs, and youth groups, I did not receive a single health class or presentation about sexuality.

I am the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, and from a very young age, I felt it was my job to carry on their legacy. I became very curious about my identity. My main question “Where do I come from?” reflected my quest to build my identity not only as a Jewish person but also as a young woman. As I learned more about my family history by visiting the towns in Eastern Europe that my grandparents came from, the more empowered and secure I became. Learning about my grandparent’s struggle for survival strengthened my identity and provided me with a positive foundation from which to make good choices. 

I have always had a strong interest in woman’s health, and at one point, I thought about becoming a nurse mid-wife. In college, I learned about the work Planned Parenthood offered and my heart was set on working for the organization. After graduating college and living in Israel, I came home on a mission. An opportunity presented itself for me to work as a sexuality educator at Planned Parenthood in 2001, and my dream came true. It was the start of a career and a passion that I can’t ever imagine leaving. 

 

What kinds of issues do kids face today that they didn’t face when you were a teen?

I am so glad you asked this question! I just asked a group of teens what they want their parents to understand, and the number-one response was “life is different from when they were teens.” This was followed by “respect our privacy, too much school work, trust us more, and we like to eat—a lot!”

We all know today’s teens are growing up with technology, social media, and instant access to information. Teens have a bird’s-eye view of the world in a way we never had. As today’s teens are experiencing their own process of growing up with the normative challenges all teens encounter, they are also being held accountable for managing and navigating the ethics of technology plus dealing with an overexposure to information they may not be ready to handle developmentally. All of this is happening before we as parents and professionals have even had a chance to create laws or set examples for technology etiquette and digital citizenship.

Reality TV is another new phenomenon that teens really enjoy because they play into the issues teens encounter in their own lives—aggression, bullying, drugs, romance, sex, and of course, drama. The way I see it, reality TV is a great opportunity to start conversations and begin to help them dissect the meaning behind the message.

Parents are the primary sources for providing their children with sexuality information, but they often say they don’t know how to discuss sexuality. I look forward to sharing my experiences in teaching sexuality education at the community forum on March 14th, but more importantly, I look forward to giving parents the skills, advice and confidence to speak openly and honestly with their children about sex and sexuality.  

 

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