JLI In the News

Life Lessons for Jewish Teens
Posted Sunday, Mar 11th, 2012

Secrets from Sinai emphasizes building healthy relationships

Now that he’s 18, Benjamin Russell figures it’s a good time to tap into his 3,000-year-old Jewish tradition for some dating advice. “Very few teens know how to create a healthy relationship,” says Russell, who attends Adas Kodesch Shel Emeth in Wilmington. He knows if love is not approached in the right way, it can be destructive, so on Tuesday nights you’ll find him at Secrets from Sinai, a six-week class on what’s healthy and what’s dysfunctional in establishing a bond with another person. He’s impressed that close to 20 teens, from various congregations and branches of Judaism, have shown up for the first two sessions.

The course was created by the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute (, an education arm of Chabad-Lubavitch, a Chasidic movement in Orthodox Judaism. “When most of us were going through high school there was nothing like this,” says Rochel Flikshtein, who is youth and family program director of the Delaware Chabad Center, along with her husband, Rabbi Motti Flikshtein ( They’ve brought the course to the Jewish Community Center in Talleyville, making it one of 70 locations around the nation where it’s offered.

Much of thecredit for the class’s success goes to the Flikshteins, says Lilah Kleban, a 16-yearold who lends a hand with practical things such as preparing snacks. It helps that the couple, who are in their 20s, are close in age to the young people they’re teaching. “We want to treat the young people with respect, to get to the depths of things and not sugar-coat life,” Rochel says. “Everywhere there’s this obsession about relationship and intimacy. I think students are surprised that Judaism has so much to say – that it teaches that love is something we actively create.” She believes in the value of asking about one’s obligations to oneself and others, a teaching she learned from Judaism. In her view this can help two people form a lasting bond, despite the messages of pop culture that little seems to last. She jokes that even Carrie Bradshaw, the fictional “Sex and the City” columnist, is looking for that kind of answer.

Last Tuesday Rochel and Motti shared answers that they’ve found in the faith, pointing the way with everything from “Saturday Night Live” sketches to Bible stories. After warm-up exercises and asking students about how they present themselves to others, Rochel and Motti showed a video clip of KristenWiig’s character Penelope, the hair-twisting chatterbox who one-ups everyone to the point of silliness. “My cat was my child. I was pregnant with my cat,” she says in the sketch, making the students laugh. Afterwards Rochel asked, “Can a normal relationship be built on a lie?” The students were doubtful and said they felt most relaxed and safe around people who are honest, lighthearted and down-to-earth. They said, if someone is insecure, like Penelope, all that’s positive goes away.“Why are we so concerned with popularity?” asked Rochel.

The students answered by saying, “Status” and “It makes you look cooler.” Rochel says it might be that teens, uncertain of who they are, will define themselves by being drawn to another person. And it’s easy to be obsessed with that person. But can you fully love your neighbor (or your boyfriend-girlfriend), if you don’t have a sense of who you are? Not in Rochel’s view. And she shared a disturbing story in the Book of Second Samuel that addresses this point. It’s the story of Amnon, who is obsessively drawn to his half-sister Tamar. Pretending to be sick, Amnon asks Tamar for food and when she brings it, he forces himself on her. But after he overpowers her, he feels loathing and disgust.

“Tamar was the victim and did nothing wrong,” says Rochel. “She is not to blame.” All agreed that Amnon did not love Tamar but loved the way his lust made him feel, and then he hated what his lust led him to do. Amnon diminished Tamar by seeing her only in terms of what she could give him, says Rochel, adding that it was an “I-It” relationship, rather than an “I-You” relationship built on respect.

It’s that idea of respect, and two people growing together, that the Flikshteins will explore in the remaining classes. “If everyone is thinking about the next person, then everyone is taken care of and the lessons of Torah reach beyond the Sabbath morning,” Rochel says.

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