At a recent lunch in Jacobs Camps’ dining hall, Jeremy and Jack, co-counselors in a Talmidim (9th grade) bunk, approached me: “When we were in Talmidim, you came at cabin prayers (bed time) and gave us a ‘sex talk.’ Would you be available to come to our bunk and do that tonight?
They remembered! Jack and Jeremy were 14 in 2013, fully five years ago, my first summer on Jacobs’ faculty, after 20+ years as Rabbinic Advisor of Greene Family Camp. Perhaps they more than remembered: They were aware of the impact, perhaps lasting, and wanted the same for their campers.
The “sex talk” isn’t really about sex, and certainly not only about sex. We often say that home and house of worship — and URJ camps are, of course, an extension of our synagogues — are the best places to communicate our values about this most intimate part of life. In my experience, though, these conversations don’t happen often enough.
I begin by asking the boys how why Bar Mitzvah was fixed at age 13. Fairly quickly, they make the connection to puberty. 14 year old boys know about puberty, but they haven’t internalized its essence, which I articulate as the time in their lives when they become physically able to become parents. I ask how many of them feel ready to become parents, and they unanimously agree that they aren’t, which leads to discussion of the centrality of their responsibility not to become parents before they’re ready.
My theory: The rabbis piled adult responsibilities upon thirteen year olds to drive home the message that “adulthood isn’t all it’s cracked up to be,” in the words of one of the 2018 campers.
The heart of the conversation is about respect for women — and, more broadly, for any potential romantic partner. I explicitly acknowledge that statistics indicate that some of the campers sitting before me are questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity and will come to know themselves as LGBT. Any “sex talk” with adolescents brings on a certain amount of joking and cutting up, which I tolerate without judgment, until they start to make inappropriate gestures in response to my LGBT point which may make some campers in the room feel unsafe.
A fair amount of the discussion is an in-depth conversation about consent, real consent, sober consent, and consent that is required to begin with the most chaste forms of physical comment. Also, we address the ways that adolescent boys talk about girls and women, emphasizing that what some, even our President, have deemed “locker room talk” is inappropriate in any setting.
And, of course, we discussed the consequences of becoming a father when one isn’t prepared, based on “Unplanned Fatherhood,” which I wrote for CCAR Press’s The Sacred Encounter.
I have these talks with boys only, hopeful that my female colleagues have similar opportunities with girls. This year, I did talk with a bunk of 14 year old girls about the Supreme Court’s decision about Crisis Pregnancy Centers and their role in ensuring the perpetuation of a right that their mothers and grandmothers have taken for granted.
And I talked with a group of ten year old boys about cleanliness!
I left that boys’ bunk on Thursday night, hoping that I had an impact, perhaps as I apparently did on Jeremy and Jack all those years ago. Those young men’s parents, their camp, and their congregations may all be proud of the adults they are becoming.
The next evening, as Shabbat began, I noted that many of 14-year-old boys made a point of coming up to me, to make yet another connection. I think they got the message.
Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas, and is a member of the CCAR Board of Trustees.