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Sex and the Haredi Jew

Both the media and the general population do a lot of speculating when it comes to the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) and in particular, there has been a lot of discussion in recent years regarding the overall sexual health and instances of sexual abuse within ultra-Orthodox communities. It’s nearly impossible to find any reliable statistics about sexual disorders (ranging from physical pain during intercourse and the inability to orgasm to pedophilia) and the frequency of sexual abuse among women and children, which makes it completely impossible to know whether or not the Haredi lifestyle, as many claim, actually creates an environment with proportionally high instances of these issues. Many researchers and journalists have opinions and educated guesses, but the reality is that the Haredi communities, both in Israel and around the world, are only recently starting to deal with these issues– and they aren’t too keen on letting outsiders know about what goes on within.

Dr. Mark Greenberg* founded and serves as the director of an organization that focuses on treating sexual disorders within the Haredi community in Jerusalem. His organization, which he does not want to be named, is one of a few organizations with the same purpose and his is the smallest with the least amount of paid staff and the smallest budget. His organization provides counseling for Haredi couples that are experiencing sexual problems within their marriage; they also hold workshops for women that are having problems reaching orgasm or that find sexual intercourse with their husbands painful. In addition, there is a small team of social workers on hand that deal with cases in which a doctor or a psychologist suspects sexual abuse of a woman or a child.

On the condition of anonymity, for fear of being criticized by his fellow Haredi community members, Dr. Greenberg* agreed to speak about what he has observed behind the closed doors of Haredi society. "A lot of Haredim argue that the fact that sex is not an acceptable topic of casual conversation and that it is strictly reserved for married couples, renders the Haredi community a group of people with a high degree of respect and appreciation for sexual relations between man and wife– a sort of spiritual connection with one’s partner that the secular world, whose communities deal with sex in abundance from very young ages, cannot possibly compete with," explains Dr. Greenberg of the Haredi perspective. "That may or may not be true; it’s true that the Jewish law requires a man to sexually gratify his wife, and that men and women are supposed to maintain modesty and reserve sexual desire for their spouses. It’s possible that this creates something unique and special. The downside, though, is simply lack of education, awareness, and outlets for sexual desire. It hurts the population and it’s difficult for them to find help."

Dr.Greenberg explains that there area a few ‘repeat problems’ that his clients tend to have. First, many women experience vaginismus (burning, discomfort, and/or serious pain occurring during or before penetration that prevents women from enjoying sexual intercourse, or having it all), which is also a common problem outside of the Haredi communities. "The difference here is that if you’re in a secular community and you suffer from vaginismus, you can go to your gynecologist, psychologist, or sex therapist and talk about your problems. They can run tests and make sure that there are no health issues, give you tips for working through the problem, and discuss any psychological issues that may be causing the vaginismus. Haredi women, however, go to doctors and live entirely in the framework of their own ultra-Orthodox communities. Many are ridden with sexual guilt when they are making the transition from single to married– it’s difficult for them to suddenly accept that acting on sexual desire is now completely acceptable, despite the fact that they grew up feeling the need to constantly repress this desire. That guilt makes vaginismus common, and it also makes it very difficult for women to seek help. They don’t always feel comfortable talking to doctors or community members because everyone knows everyone. If they say something wrong of the sexual nature, they could be ostracized from their communities." Dr. Greenberg’s organization, then, serves a very important purpose. They have a team of employees that are required to keep all information about clients confidential, regardless of their status within the community. Also, as a member of the Haredi community himself, Dr. Greenberg makes certain that all services offered are within the bounds of Jewish law. "No one would come to me for help if they weren’t certain that I was operating in accordance to halacha {Jewish law}. My goal is to show my clients that we can deal with sexuality as religious Jews; Jewish law allows for this, and it encourages it." Another common problem that Dr. Greenberg sees amongst his clients is a general inability to have an orgasm among women, and premature ejaculation among men. For women, the organization offers workshops that focus on basic anatomy and techniques for reaching orgasm with their husbands. These workshops include everything from discussions that are both sexual and religious in nature, and even live demonstrations that show women how to climax and exactly what happens physically when a woman reaches orgasm. Although men are less likely to seek help, workshops for men related to premature ejaculation and how to gratify one’s wife are also offered. "Most Haredim grew up without learning the basics about their bodies and their sexuality. The intentions aren’t bad; parents want to shelter their children from sexuality before they are prepared to deal with it. Still, this means that marriage is the first time that Haredim have the ability to deal with sexuality in a healthy way. They have to start from scratch, and they don’t always know how to do that. People in the secular world tend to forget that it isn’t completely intuitive," he adds. Dr. Greenberg and his team have also worked with members of the Haredi population that are pedophiles and victims of sexual assault. "These issues are so hush hush; people don’t know where to go to talk about them. My goal, and the goal of organizations like mine, is to provide a framework within the ultra-Orthodox community for dealing with sexuality. If this framework doesn’t exist, the Haredim have much less of a chance at achieving sexual health." Before speaking with Dr. Greenberg, I contacted two other organizations that are similar in nature. One refused to talk to someone ‘on the outside’ (his words, not mine), and the other spent most of our interview defending the Haredim and telling me what was wrong with sexuality in the secular world today. Dr. Greenberg wasn’t surprised by my experiences: "People talk about the Haredim in a way that shows a lack of understanding. They’re portrayed only as extremists, and the world has little tolerance for them. As a result, they’re extremely, extremely defensive. They don’t want their problems being discussed by the rest of the world– people chastise them enough." I wondered what made Dr.Greenberg different and why he was willing to discuss his clients’ issues with me, being that I would ultimately be publishing much of what he said. "I don’t want to reveal my name or the name of my organization because I don’t want to jeopardize the confidence that my clients have in me. I would not be able to serve my community if they didn’t come to me for help. At the same time, I think that it’s important for the Haredim to air their dirty laundry, so to speak. The reason that people talk about us like we’re animals at a zoo simply to be observed and talked about is because we don’t give them anything to work with. We give them too much room to speculate. If we tell them more about our lives– the beauty and the struggles– maybe they’ll understand us. It’s more difficult to chastise what you can almost, sort of understand." Additionally, Dr. Greenberg feels as though the Haredim would benefit if they were able to form some sort of professional connection with the secular world. "Doctors and psychologists have made amazing strides as far as treatment for sexual disorders," he explains. "If our organizations felt like they could have professional relationships with secular professionals without risking their reputations, we could provide much more extensive treatment. We do what we can, but the few Haredi professionals that are committed to the cause can’t know everything on their own. Just like secular people, we’re limited by our own education and our own experiences." It’s clear that Dr. Greenberg and his team are doing great things for the Haredim, and that he wishes that he could do more. "I wish that I could make my community understand that being a good Jew means dealing with sexuality. You must please your wife, you must never hurt her, even if it is unintentional. You must love one another, and to do that completely, you must have a healthy level of intimacy. What can I do? I can sit in this old building and hope that they come to me despite decades and decades of a preoccupation with unnecessary shame." *The name of the doctor being interviewed has been changed.

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