There is a little three letter word that when uttered, even simply implied, causes many to cringe and shudder. This word has caused great controversy among the Jewish community throughout the generations and has been declared a taboo topic for all. What is this word you may ask?
Among the Orthodox Jewish community, sex is rarely spoken about publicly or privately. Many men and women grow up not understanding their own bodies or what it means to have a healthy sexual relationship. When it comes time to marry and become physically intimate, these men and women are navigating a completely foreign world, leading to copious amount of intimacy problems that left untreated can last for years and even entire marriages.
A revolutionary organization based in Israel is seeking to remove the taboo from healthy understandings of sex. Called Merkaz Yahel, or the Center for Jewish Intimacy, the organization was founded in 2011 in response to the realization that women and their partners have no outlet in which to ask questions and seek help when it comes to their sex life.
The founders, Mrs. Michal Prins and Rabbi Raffi Ostroff, both saw a noticeable need in the Orthodox community regarding a lack of knowledge and information pertaining to healthy sexual relationships. Prins, a social worker in Israel, completed her doctoral work studying Orthodox women and their relationship to their bodies. Rabbi Ostroff is a rabbi of the Gush municipality and a community activist.
I spoke with Abby Weisz, Director of the International Outreach Division of Merkaz Yahel. Weisz, who holds degrees in social work and Jewish education, explained that the organization was founded on three pillars: education, training, and intimacy.
When it comes to education, Merkaz Yahel seeks to make women knowledgeable of their bodies. Weisz, who is also a kallah [bride] teacher, is usually the first to explain to many young women getting married the simple basics of their bodies and the simple basics of sex.
“It is surprising to see how little young women know about their body,” Weisz said. “Basic information about anatomy, health, sexual health, physical pleasure, male and female orgasms – these young women are many times shocked to find out all this information.”
“Women need to know their own body and what is stimulating and pleasurable. Women have a responsibility to figure out her body on her own,” she added.
Understanding the need for education, Merkaz Yahel also founded a specialized training center for men and women comprised of social workers, marriage counselors and therapists to prepare professionals on how to go about the delicate balance of dealing with intimacy issues within the Orthodox community.
“Marriage counselors and other professional must be well versed in the different intricacies of sex and Jewish marriage laws to deal with the issues properly,” Weisz said. “Jewish law has amazing positive messages about intimacy and all we read is a negative take. Our training center wants to send out others into the world and change that.”
Lastly, Merkaz Yahel takes on the issue of intimacy head on. Not afraid to show others that they are not alone, the organization hosts getaway weekends for couples, workshops, and lectures surrounding intimacy within Jewish law.
Working with the different views and rulings surrounding Jewish intimacy and Jewish law, Merkaz Yahel has enlisted the help of Orthodox rabbis across the Jewish spectrum to provide guidance. From modern Orthodox to ultra-Orthodox rabbis, Merkaz Yahel provides a portal to “talk out the issue, see what the problem is, and give answers that people will hold by.” Professionals meet privately with couples and offer a variety of languages.
Weisz explains that the women who come to Merkaz Yahel are “normal, regular women” and many couples who are “worldly and Orthodox.” The organization services the span of the religious community but even non-religious people seek out Merkaz Yahel.
Merkaz Yahel has found that a rapidly growing number of couples turn to them for intimacy help. Weisz explains that after sitting with the couples in one-on-one sessions, the big issues come out only after three to four sessions. For newlywed couples, Weisz explained that these couples are “really in it together” and are open-minded enough to turn to professionals.
“The husbands are usually supportive. When a man is having his own issues, we have Rav Raffi meet with them privately which has added major value in operating the center,” Weisz said.
“Many couples come in and ask for information – what is allowed, what is not allowed. Dealing with the transition between shomer negiah [no physical contact] to married life takes six months to a year for a couple to normalize their physical relationship,” Wesiz added. “If it takes this long with help, imagine those who do not seek help.”
Weisz spoke about the growing need of establishing new norms among the Jewish community when it comes to educating our daughters, sons and even grown men and women about the relationship they have to their own bodies.
“Since Merkaz Yahel was founded, we realized that we needed to expand to serve other purposes. The media provides a negative take on sexuality to the younger generations that no one gain from,” Wesiz explained. “You don’t have to be Orthodox to realize that Miley Cyrus is not the way to go.”
Weisz explained that there is a major gap between knowledge and reality. “There is not a lot of quality information out there,” Weisz said. “Messages in movies and commercials do not portray relationships and marriage in real life. No one brings into the conversation the importance of a connected, emotional relationship along with a physical relationship. We see in the movies that sex is amazing and think that’s how it always it. This has tremendously warped the views of young people.”
“Many go through a rough wake-up call when they realize the disconnect between their expectations of how intimacy is supposed to be and how reality actually plays out.”
Merkaz Yahel is not just some clinic. It is not just some place for women and men to vent their frustrations. Merkaz Yahel is a grassroots movement trying to help those who feel helpless in a very private, intimate situation.
“We are changing the mindset,” Weisz explains. “We don’t want a person’s intimacy to be an open topic. It’s private and sensitive! However, we don’t want people to feel ashamed. Merkaz Yahel is setting out to show that halacha [Jewish law] is aware of modern day changes. How we live and the world we live in has changed.”
“By figuring out intimacy problems in a sensitive, informative way before it becomes a bigger problem, we are giving the Jewish community a place to turn to. The first of its kind in Israel and hopefully in the future, the rest of the world.”