A woman in her late 60’s once shared with me about the loneliness she felt decades ago when she couldn’t consummate her marriage for months.
There was no one she could ask or talk to about what was and wasn’t happening. She didn’t take Kallah classes—they weren’t a “thing” yet. Her parents were Holocaust survivors and, as with many of her other life challenges, she didn’t want to burden them with her pain, especially as they rejoiced with the marriage of their precious child.
As the woman told me the story, she kept emphasizing how there was just no one for her to call with her predicament. There was no Google. She didn’t feel comfortable asking her friends. She wasn’t close with her shul Rebbetzin. Her husband was really frustrated and felt bad about himself, but he didn’t know who to ask either.
After months of trying to figure things out, they were able to have intercourse and eventually build a healthy sex life. But the process leading up to it was a time period she looks back on with profound sadness; not because they couldn’t have intercourse right away, but because of the long, lonely journey.
I often think of this story because when we look at the Jewish community today, it’s easy to focus solely on the work that needs to be done and miss out on the bigger picture of progress of how far we’ve come.
Today, Kallah classes are fairly common throughout the Jewish community. More and more women are looking to enrich their marriages and are eager to learn what Judaism has to say about building a vibrant committed relationship. Women are attending Kallah classes in person but are also utilizing technology to learn with mentors who live hundreds of miles away, sometimes on the other side of the world. Multiple Facebook groups devoted to discussing Jewish sexuality and intimacy have propped up, and have given women the opportunity to ask questions discreetly, feel validated in their experiences, and be connected to appropriate resources when necessary.
Kallah teachers are upping their game, increasing what they know, how they teach, and how they can be most effective. Kallah teacher training programs are moving beyond just Halacha and Hashkafa, and are working towards more integration of positive sexuality, importance of pleasure, and what a healthy relationship looks like. There is greater appreciation for referring out to professionals– and doing it sooner rather than later– before the issues intensify and create other issues in the relationship.
Whenever I get up in front of a group of Kallah teachers to lecture, regardless of where they fall on the religious spectrum, I see the same thing: An understanding that what happens in the bedroom affects everything outside the bedroom. That if a couple does not have the tools and support to cultivate a healthy sex life, their whole relationship will feel the void. They can have the best communication skills, have the most congruent life goals, but if their sex life stays stuck in a negative place, the relationship will feel stunted from reaching its potential for intimacy and connection.
Sure, we still have more work to do when it comes to preparing our women (and men!) for marriage. Kallah teachers can and should continue to become educated in important aspects of women’s health and be able to recognize what is and isn’t within the purview of a Kallah teacher. Discussions of clinical terms without relying on euphemisms can go a long way in normalizing women’s anatomy and empowering students to know their bodies and have the language to describe their experiences. Real conversations about the realities of niddah—even while sharing the potential opportunities for meaning—are important not just because of intellectual honesty, but because they prevent the letdown and isolation some women feel when their experience of niddah feels nothing at all like the blissful version they may have learned while engaged.
But the onus does not just rest on Kallah teachers. Let’s remember that when a Kallah teacher meets with a student, she is looking at someone who already has years of living and learning under her belt, and has absorbed many messages about sexuality from her family, educators, peers, culture, and community. Five to ten sessions of Kallah classes aren’t going to reverse the many years of internalized ideas, but they can provide a fresh space to explore, expand, and perhaps challenge those concepts.
There is a difference between Kallah classes providing a foundation versus building on one that is already there. As a community, we can continue to find ways to create awareness and appreciation for conversations around our bodies, sexuality, pleasure, and love. We can recognize that sometimes, the power of asking a question is not in the brilliance of the answer, but in the safety and comfort of being able to ask the question at all. Of knowing there are people to turn to, who can listen, who can validate, who can shed insight or offer needed direction.
Whether we are Kallah teachers or not, we are all relationships influencers, and we have tremendous opportunity and responsibility. We’ve come so far in answering the call, and we will continue to find ways both individually and communally to be sensitive, attuned, and approachable. We owe it to ourselves, our families, and the generations to come.
Rachel Hercman, LCSW is a psychotherapist specializing in dating and relationship issues, sexual health, and trauma. She is in private practice on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and lectures across the US. Rachel lives with her family in Riverdale, New York and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .