Gender and Sexuality for Teens: A Look at Reform Judaism's New Curriculum

Spring, 2008

Source: Jewish Educational Leadership. Spring 2008 (6:3) pages 33-35


This article describes the premises and aims of the Reform Movement's new high school curriculum: Sacred Choices: Adolescent Relationships and Sexual Ethics emphasizing:

"that our bodies and our sexuality are gifts from God, gifts that come with a grave responsibility. The models we choose to emulate as Jewish men and women have lasting repercussions on a personal, community and historical level. While during adolescence messages about gender identity are particularly impactful on developing teens, questioning our assumptions and stereotypes about gender at any age is an important first step in liberating ourselves from unrealistic ideas and in helping us to find the definitions that work for us. The issue of defining gender is not to be taken lightly. Helping teens to get in touch with this concept will allow them to broaden their thinking and challenge their assumptions when confronting their own and others’ gender identity and sexual expression."


The first lesson of the recently published high school module of the curriculum teaches teens to evaluate the messages they are getting about gender and offers an alternative Jewish voice. The students investigate images of men and women from magazine advertisements, becoming aware of the images to which they are routinely exposed. In the environment of the Jewish classroom, they are asked to challenge these messages and are safe to question them. The lesson then turns to some texts that have a long tradition as portraying feminine and masculine ideals. As students are asked to filter messages through their own healthy skepticism and to hear their own inner voice, they are asked to analyze the list of traits from Jewish tradition and add their own values as well. The students are then asked what real or fictional person they think of when reading these traditional Jewish descriptions. They are asked to describe them to the group and how tell they are a “real woman” or a “real man” in their opinion?


The final question is meant to get students thinking about the constructive images of men and women which the students already hold in their minds thus bringing positive role models to their conscious awareness. In addition to the ideal images portrayed in the Jewish texts they’ve studied, it is assumed that most students do know adults they admire, and that those adults exhibit much different qualities than the ones portrayed in the media advertisements or in pop culture. By placing these images side by side, it is expected that the students will be able to mentally challenge the negative and stereotypical messages and replace them with more realistic and admirable images.


After pilot runs of this lesson, it has been reported that the students do in fact make these shifts in their understandings. At the beginning of the lesson, when looking at “ideal” images of men and women from media and pop culture, student descriptions of qualities being portrayed generally center around physical traits, materialistic traits or stereotypical gender roles. At the end of the lesson, when asking the students to consider qualities portrayed by “real” men and women they know, admire and wish to emulate, they often describe individuals of true character.


The author feels that it is incumbent upon teachers to do the same kind of reflective exercise in their teaching that these students do in this lesson.

Updated: Sep. 24, 2008