I didn’t know how to phrase it.

“I’m not a virgin” I muttered in the end. 

I grew up in what I would define begrudgingly as a modern yeshivish or machmir modern orthodox community in New York. I was educated in girl schools that were in line with the Bais Yaakov system. I went to a seminary that aligned with my high school’s values and looked forward to a year of rapid change and growth. My year was anything but that. Even though I made great friends and enjoyed the learning immensely I didn’t last there. I just couldn’t understand why. 

I came out on the same path I had started. Bound for Stern and a shidduch. But yet I followed a very different path. I felt broken, I didn’t understand what had gone wrong in my seminary year. I started hanging out with guys who had also been kicked out of Yeshiva. I went from being shomer negiah my whole life, with very little involvement with men, to making bad decisions. 

When I got back to New York things weren’t much better. At some point, around 19, I started living a double life. Keeping shabbat with my family, but not in my room or if I went away with friends. I dressed very modestly every day, but when I went out with certain friends I would change in my car to skinny jeans or short dresses. 

My first sexual encounter was not a good one. I was 19, alone with a man I barely knew, in a dinky motel off the side of the highway. I wouldn’t say my first time was consensual, I said yes, then I said no, and I was terrified. I felt so lost and hurt by the downward spiral that had started after seminary, that I was making unhealthy decisions, mainly about men. I was so sad I wasn’t a virgin and so ashamed. I was dressing modestly, living an outwardly frum life, knowing inside it was all a lie. I felt like I couldn’t breathe and couldn’t sleep.

After two years of being religious on the outside and being unhappy on the inside, I found myself in Israel. I slowly started becoming genuinely religious again, but still having some unhealthy relationships.

A year later I made aliyah, and started afresh. I still made some unhealthy decisions but I had a goal. I wanted to live a religious life and I wanted to start dating for marriage. And I knew that when I met the man I wanted to marry, I would need to explain that I wasn’t a virgin. I wanted there to be time between the last time I had sex, and meeting him, because I chose it. 

Time really heals wounds, at least in my case. Changing countries and making a fresh start really helped me with my past trauma. Yes, I still made some mistakes but I refrained from sex. I was busy, living in Jerusalem, studying for 2 degrees  and volunteering with at-risk teens. 

Being away from the town I grew up in, which in some ways I resented and held responsible, helped me heal. I was also many thousands of miles away from guys I had dated and been involved with. I felt a connection to Israel, and it felt like both a second chance, and being cradled in the warm, loving embrace of feeling at home in my homeland. Walking through the streets of Jerusalem gave me time to think. Davening at the kotel allowed me to cry, repent, and ask God to help me heal from the guilt I felt. Taking buses allowed me to breathe my country in, as I looked out through the window and felt gratitude for where I was living. Going away for shabbatot allowed me to see healthy relationships and families, and know what I wanted. As I volunteered with at-risk teens, I was able to relate to what they were going through and give them the support I had so badly needed. By some miracle of God I was able to heal, and find my connection back to religion and back to myself. I became comfortable with myself, I liked being alone. I realized how much I have to offer myself and the world. And I didn’t need these unhealthy relationships to feel self-worth. I felt self-worth through the person I became and the life I built on my own in a foreign country without family. 

I met my husband through a friend. I was terrified to tell him about my past. He couldn’t have been more understanding and loving. And it just wasn’t a big deal. By the time I met him it had been 2 years since I last had sex. And while we weren’t shomer negiah, we waited 9 months to have sex on our wedding night. 

Telling my kallah teacher felt even scarier. I was back in the Dati Leumi world, and she was a little bit to the right of that. She didn’t create an environment where I felt I could share my past, but I felt I had to, so she could tailor the classes for me. So at the second class, after plucking up the courage, I uttered the words “I’m not a virgin”. To be honest I don’t remember how she responded exactly, but I don’t think she really addressed it. She didn’t teach me about sex or pleasure or anatomy. I think she just assumed I knew everything. But I didn’t really know anything. When I was having sex, it wasn’t in the context of a healthy relationship, it was trying to escape trauma and hurt, and also my inability to say no. I wish she had taught me about healthy sex.

My kallah teacher wasn’t the right fit for me. Both by hashkafa and personality. She didn’t finish teaching me all of hilchot niddah, and told me to come back after my wedding, but never contacted me again. I have thankfully had the opportunity to do a refresher with an amazing teacher. Kallot should be empowered to know that they can change kallah teachers, even in the middle of learning, if the relationship isn’t working. I have seen the difference a kallah teacher can make. It’s not just about knowing hilchot niddah. It’s about being able to connect with a kallah. It’s making sure she knows what a healthy relationship looks like, that she knows about resources out there, that she knows her options for birth control. A kallah teacher must be able to deal with things that make her uncomfortable. My kallah teacher did not need to approve of my choice to have premarital sex, but she definitely needed to address it. She should still have discussed what my wedding night would be like. Made sure I had the knowledge I needed. Asked if I was discussing these things with my husband. Were we on the same page? Was I nervous? 

It felt like a missed opportunity. Luckily enough, my husband had a great chatan teacher and after each one of our classes we would discuss what we had learnt and make sure we were thinking alike about intimacy. 

My wedding night was wonderful. It was the opposite of everything I had experienced up to that point. It was worth waiting to meet my husband and to be married; and to put aside the life I had been living, for the future I wanted.