The STAR Curriculum: Sex, Torah, and Relationships

This fact-based curriculum is rooted in Jewish values. It is based on the premise that parents are the primary sex educators for their children, but that the synagogue community is a supportive and safe environment in which to wrestle with the challenges of relationships and emerging sexuality.

Creation of the STAR Curriculum began in 2004 when parents of 8th and 9th graders raised concerns about teen sexual behavior and relationships and the impact on their children. Recognizing the long-term and ever-changing nature of these concerns, a committee was formed to create an on-going and evolving curriculum. The committee includes long-time Jewish educators, clergy, medical professionals, social workers, teachers, and others with expertise in the lives and behavior of young people. We consulted organizations and publications on both the local and national levels.

Clergy and teachers can be an important resource in during the difficult growing-up process. The ultimate goal is to help students form healthy, loving, committed relationships arising from good decision-making based on both knowledge and values.

The curriculum addresses four critical stages of a child’s development.

  1. A program for parents of preschoolers to talk about age-appropriate behaviors and teaching opportunities to open a healthy dialogue between parents and children, and help parents provide ongoing thoughtful guidance for their children.
  2. The 6th grade program anticipates the increasing social opportunities of the b’nei mitzvah year.
  3. The 8th and 9th grade program helps students make healthy and informed decisions as relationships and sexual pressures intensify.
  4. The 11th and 12th grade (Post-Confirmation) program is a pre-college discussion of the opportunities and challenges ahead.

Parents of Preschoolers

The goal of this one-session program is to give parents of young children the tools to address issues of sexuality in a way that will lead to open dialogue and healthy behaviors as children grow up. It addresses such questions as: What language do I use when discussing body parts? At what age should we deal with issues of modesty and how can we do it in such a way that will not make children ashamed of their bodies later on? How do I explain to my child that the open discussions we have about sex at home are not appropriate to be shared with their friends without having them think that sex is a “dirty” or “secret” subject? How do I begin educating my child on the difference between a diverse range of healthy expressions of love and dangerous or abusive behaviors? The program provides an opportunity for parents to ask questions and share their own concerns with a panel of experts.

Sixth Grade

In anticipation of the increasing social opportunities and pressures that begin with the b’nei mitzvah year, and recognizing the enormous range of physical and emotional maturity among kids ages 12 and 13, the 6th grade program seeks to help kids cope with their changing bodies and their changing environment, and to open or increase the dialogue between parents and their children. The program is in three parts.

The Parent Program

This one-hour session presents the philosophy of the program, and gives parents an opportunity to ask questions and share their concerns about the challenges their child will be facing. Affirming that parents are the primary sex educators for their children, the program offers resources and support to the entire family. Each family receives a copy of It’s Perfectly Normal, a fact-filled book presenting information about our bodies, puberty, sex, relationships, health, and electronic communications in an engaging, age-appropriate manner. The parents participate in a guided meditation designed to refresh their memories of key moments of sexual awareness as they grew up, and develop empathy for their emerging teenager.

The Kids’ Program

This six-hour, fast-paced Saturday afternoon program of games, activities, videos, and discussions covers a wide range of topics including friendships, puberty, and health and safety. An opening activity attempts to get past the embarrassment and the mystery of sexual topics, and sets the expectation that we will use correct terms for body parts and sexual activities. A “touching table” allows kids to see first-hand many of the objects they’ve heard about or will encounter growing up — from body spray to acne cream; from tampons to condoms. One important goal is for students to understand that the pace of their own body’s maturation and their comfort level in various situations is natural for them and must be honored. A Question Box allows opportunities throughout the day for students to pose anonymous questions, all of which are answered after dinner in the closing session.

Wrap-up Dinner

This final session is for parents and students together. Families report back on a series of exercises the students were given at the end of the kids’ program that are intended to foster conversations about growing up and delineating each family’s value system. The most important exercise asks parents and kids to agree on at least one non-parental adult that kids would feel comfortable going to with questions or problems if they couldn’t talk with their parents, and that parents would trust to support their child. Parents and students are all given opportunities to ask questions or share observations, and the importance of framing behavior in Jewish values is reiterated.

Eighth & Ninth Grades

Each grade participates in four 45-minute sessions as part of the Consolidated Hebrew High core curriculum in which Temple Beth El students learn about Reform Jewish values. The 8th and 9th grade program recognizes the students’ emerging sexual awareness, their desire to form healthy, mutually-supportive relationships, and the challenges of maintaining healthy behaviors — nurturing self-respect — in the face of societal pressures. The program supports the position of the Union for Reform Judaism that students should postpone having sex at least until college; that high school students do not yet have the maturity and decision-making ability to accept full responsibility for the consequences of having sex. Is there a link to the URJ website with this information?

In addition to technical and frank discussions about health and safety surrounding sex, students in the 8th grade are challenged to wrestle with several topics: how they treat others in light of the assertion that every person is created in God’s image; the sexual and gender messages they receive from society; the importance of cultivating healthy relationships; and the challenges of electronic communications.

The 9th grade curriculum begins with an anatomy review, and then encourages the students to reflect more deeply on forming healthy, intimate relationships, recognizing and getting out of dysfunctional relationships, the effect of body image on how we care for ourselves, and good decision-making regarding relationships and sex.

POST-CONFIRMATION (ELEVENTH & TWELFTH GRADES)

The 11th and 12th grade program prepares students for the increased challenges and responsibility of making healthy choices for themselves after they move away from home. The program begins with a review of the 8th and 9th grade curriculum. This serves two purposes: 1) to help the STAR team remain up-to-date on the challenges facing middle school and high school students, and keep current on vocabulary and trends; and 2) to open the conversation among the Post-Confirmation students about making healthy personal choices drawing on Jewish values.

The program recognizes that no longer living under their parents’ roof means that students must be more self-motivated to make healthy decisions for themselves in social and sexual relationships, and in coping with increased responsibilities in schoolwork and/or employment. Students discuss the temptations of emotional/sexual urges and the pitfalls of getting caught up in group behavior. The students are challenged to make thoughtful decisions in light of Jewish values. As with the 8th and 9th grade programs, the students also benefit from a review of anatomy and the mechanics of sex. Students preparing for college are urged to familiarize themselves with campus resources.