Originally published in The Forward By Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt
Sitting in her living room in Hillside, N.J., talking into an iPhone, Bracha Bard-Wigdor, 32, is schooling Orthodox Jewish women about sex. Instagram is her platform. No filters.
“It is not O.K. for our children to be learning that men are predators, animals, that they have sexual urges they can’t control as boys,” she said, looking straight into the phone’s camera, pushing a lock of hair from her wig behind her ear. “What do you think that girl is going to live her life living like? She is going to start thinking that her body is up for grabs, that anyone can touch her.”
She is a birth doula and intimacy coach, and she has 13,000 followers and counting. The evening was a typical one — blunt talk about miscarriages, C-sections, sexual positions and abuse. In a community where sex is reserved for after marriage, and where sex education is still largely nonexistent — this sort of Instagram therapy has caught on like fire. From the kitchens and bedrooms of Crown Heights and Boro Park, N.Y., Lakewood, N.J., and Kiryas Joel, N.Y., women are watching her.
That night in July, Bard-Wigdor posted an Instagram story about sexual miseducation in the Orthodox community, and hundreds of responses poured in. Here are a few:
“I went through the Bais Yaakov system, and was brought up with this idea of men. I’m currently married and having a very rough time with the physical aspect.”
“I approached a prominent famous rabbi…about helping me get through a sexual assault. He asked me what I was wearing…here I am, 16 years old, broken and hurt, and essentially being told that it was my fault.”
“There was the idea in my Christian community that the wife must always be ready and willing in order to keep her husband happy. Because if he cheated that meant that he wasn’t getting what he needed at home.”
Later that night, after putting her kids to sleep, Bard-Wigdor returned to her pulpit, now wearing a headscarf instead of a wig, visibly overwhelmed by the onslaught of messages: “This is still being taught in schools right now,” she said. “You don’t know what your kids are being taught.”
For the religious woman who is conditioned to constantly censor herself, the superwoman balabusta who runs a small business and whips up Shabbos meals for a small army and volunteers in all of her spare time — Bard-Wigdor, with her straight-talk about the wonders and trials of the female body, is a welcome revolutionary.
The interview was edited for clarity.
How did you get into sex education?
It was always in my personality that people would open up to me. Even as a teenager, growing up in Crown Heights, girls would come and talk to me about their eating disorders and abuse histories.
I got married at 20, and young marrieds would come and talk to me about their private, intimate lives. I remember thinking: “I’m only married for six months, and you’re asking me questions about orgasms? Shouldn’t I be asking you? You’re married for many years.”
It made me realize that there’s a huge sex education gap. Most of our parents didn’t discuss sex. Growing up, we don’t talk to boys. As teen girls, we would ask teachers about marriage and the mikvah, and would get shut down. Even in school, they’d created a class for “young girls acting out,” who were rebellious and testing the waters with the opposite gender, and they only taught them negative things about sex. That not only didn’t help — that’s miseducation.
In seminary, our ‘Jewish home’ class only covered mikvah, and only twice, in a whole year. And at every point, you think: Now they’ll teach us. I got engaged, I got to kallah [pre-marital] classes, and I didn’t learn anything about sex. Nothing. I got married, we moved to Israel, and I took a course for kallah teachers — I learned the texts there, and I’m grateful for the Judaic sources — but still not much about intimacy. No practical sex advice.
So I created my own curriculum. I researched studies, read books on anatomy and psychology and pleasure.
Soon after I got married, a woman I knew who was married for over 10 years confided in me that she had never enjoyed sex. It broke me. I told her, “There are sex therapists, you know?” and she said, “What is that? Do they have sex with you?”
So 10 years ago, when we came back from Israel, my sister got engaged. I studied with her the laws of family purity, but also my sexual-education curriculum. And she told her friend, and her friend, and it spread by word of mouth. In the beginning, it was just in Brooklyn, in Crown Heights and Flatbush. Then it reached Williamsburg and Lakewood. I started teaching via video chat, too — learning with women in New Jersey, California, and even Hawaii. I teach Jewish law alongside sex ed — anatomy, what to expect on the wedding night, consummation, communication, sex dysfunction, hygiene, spicing it up, and so on.
I never planned to be a teacher. But I have three younger sisters, and I told myself that I wouldn’t let it happen to them, to go into marriage unprepared. They, and my friends who confided in me, were my motivation.
But now, a whole universe of information is available online. How is it that so many young frum people are still unprepared for marriage?
I don’t believe anyone should learn about sex only on the internet — secular or religious. The information there is more often than not extremely damaging and harmful. It’s easy to stumble upon negative sexuality, part of that one-night stand culture — that’s not what anyone who wants a healthy intimate relationship should look into.
There is a lack of Jewish sexual education. If Torah is absent from our intimate life, we’re missing a powerful component. We believe that sexuality is fun, pleasurable, and a spiritual experience. Connecting with your spouse, knowing there is Godly light in your home. Some Orthodox people think it’s just a mitzvah — not something to enjoy.
But enjoyment is very important: God wants us to not just eat, but to enjoy foods, so He gave us taste buds. Sex without spirituality is just sex: It’s O.K, it’s not amazing. And same too, sex that is just completed for a “spiritual” purpose, isn’t what sex is either. It’s supposed to be fun, pleasurable for both partners, and interactive.
So when did you take this to Instagram?
It actually started as a Facebook group that I created for new frum moms. I started getting a lot of family purity questions, about sexuality and halacha, and then on dysfunction, sexual addiction, and abuse. I got a lot of flak for it, because people felt it was too open.
Then, when Instagram gained traction in the frum community, I switched over. At this point, my 15-second Insta story yields 6,000 views and sometimes over 100 messages. People can message me privately, and I can share their comments anonymously, if they let me.
So your stories become a sort of safe yet public conversation, moderated by you?
Yes. And I find that it works. I am connecting with women in the comfort and safety of their own homes. A few years later, and literally, women just keep walking up to me — in the grocery, at weddings, in restaurants.
At a conference for Orthodox Jewish women recently, one woman pulled me aside, and told me that she had been married for four years but never enjoyed sex. But now she did, after following my Instagram stories. “I literally am thanking you for saving my marriage,” she told me. And she isn’t even a client! She simply gained knowledge and empowerment from the information that I share.
One thing that I love is you not only post information about sexual health, but you also share responses from followers.
Sometimes it’s “Wow, yes, this happened to me,” and sometimes it’s, “What are you talking about? These things don’t happen here.” I find the vitriol you receive sometimes really shocking — some people’s heads are so deeply buried in the sand.
I share the hater’s flak too, because it’s transparency and accountability. I don’t tolerate online bullying, and I want my followers to know that these sorts of attitudes, and denial, still exist.
Why do you think people have such extreme reactions?
The answer is very hurtful, but it’s the truth: They live in a bubble — they don’t know that their sisters and aunts may be struggling in their private lives. And my content hurts their bubble.
Some women tell me, “My life is O.K. — my intimacy is just fine. Why do you need to publish this?” So you’d rather sacrifice people not getting educated — just so an Orthodox woman doesn’t talk about it publicly?
Some others are upset because they’re like, “You’re telling me it can be different?” It’s a mentality like, “If I suffered, you have to suffer also.”
One bridal teacher told me, “For 30 years, I taught thousands of brides, without teaching sex.” But that’s wrong. And it’s easier for them to blame me than accept responsibility. But if they did their job, I don’t believe I would have mine now.
Tell me about some of the positive responses from your followers.
The overwhelming majority of the messages are positive. So many are grateful. Many feel less alone. I get thousands of messages that all say, “Me, too,” “Me, too.” “Same here.” People see that others are struggling, alongside them. There is solidarity and hope for change in that.
So, how do we fix this? What are the solutions?
I can’t convince many of our pre-marital class educators to teach more. They don’t all want to know better. I have privately reached out to some, but I wasn’t met with much love. Some told me that I have no business teaching, that I am too young, not married for 30 years. Some teachers I’m friends with, and we exchange resources — I wish it was more often!
Firstly, when you’re a mom —talk to your daughter. Dads, talk to your sons. There are parents who don’t know what to say to their kids, but they can and need to get educated. They themselves ought to speak to a sex coach or therapist. Don’t pass on your discomforts to your kids. Some of my clients come to me not for themselves, but for help with talking to their kids.
Secondly, schools must introduce intimacy. Our teens are, whether you like it or not, all online. They know and are exposed to a lot more than you think.
Thirdly, pre-wedding teachers must take responsibility. I know grooms’ teachers who will say to their grooms: “Do you know someone who can teach you about the wedding night?” They put the responsibility to get educated from the teacher on the student — that’s negligence. The “cool yeshiva guy”, what is he going to say? That he doesn’t know what to do with a girl? He’ll pretend that he knows what he’s doing. And it can create a lot of anxiety before the wedding.
I had this one student — I checked in with her after the wedding, as I always do. A month later, she reached out to me; she was still struggling to consummate her marriage. I referred her right away to a pelvic floor therapist. She told me: “When you were teaching me about sexual dysfunctions, I thought, why do I need to learn this? It won’t happen to me. I cannot imagine now not knowing.” Our young people need to know about dysfunctions, infertility, miscarriage, and more before marriage. Not after.
Parents, teachers, principals, rabbis, rebbetzins, therapists, coaches, kallah teachers — we need all community members to pitch in on this.
You once posted an Instagram story asking frum women about their wedding nights. I was pretty shocked by your gall in asking people about this — and also by the responses.
Yes. I did a poll, asking women how many had had their marriage consummated “in a forceful way.” I got a lot of flak for asking. People wrote to me: “We get it’s important, but why are you bringing this up here?”
Because if I’m noting a trend, I need to get to the bottom of it. I thought, maybe because I’m only hearing problems, maybe my version is skewed? Or I am right, and I need proof of it. So I decided to see what the women have to say. I asked my followers: “Were you prepared? Did you feel violated?”
Around half said they did not feel prepared, and roughly half of those respondents said they felt violated. Some people need therapy for years afterwards, because they feel that in their first sexual encounter they had no control. This is devastating, and it’s avoidable.
I think our generation of Orthodox Jews is standing up and saying no to the status quo. And we are not being hateful. We don’t have a problem with the community, or with Torah, God forbid. But we do have to face the ugly in our community, in order to heal and live healthy lives.
You start teaching when they’re babies. Use the right anatomical terms. It’s important to teach your daughter about puberty and period; to teach your son about erection and masturbation, at every age, appropriately. They’ve done a study, that kids who use the right body terms are less likely to be abused. Teach them: It’s private, it’s sacred, and no one is allowed to see or touch it.
I don’t believe that these things are only “frum people problems” — not abuse, not sexual dysfunction, not lack of pleasure. The whole world struggles with this: 30% of American women never had an orgasm. In public schools, sex ed is all about condoms, STD’s, abortion, consent, birth control – they’re not teaching about pleasure or relationship communication.
You talk quite a bit about abuse.
Well, studies show that one in every four females, and one in six males, is sexually assaulted in their lifetime. That means, this is too common to not talk about.
I share messages with purpose. And I try to offer a voice to my followers who feel they can’t speak up, who feel that so much of the blame was placed upon them, and that they wanted to say something but didn’t have the words, or that they couldn’t tell their parents. It’s time to change that narrative for the next generation.
So recently, a writer for an Orthodox women’s magazine reached out to you to profile your work as a doula. But then, they killed the story. What happened, exactly?
The story was about my doula work — but my being an intimacy coach, even in my other time, was too much for them. I was disappointed. A lot of my followers were angry — the knowledge that 99% of that magazine’s readers are frum women – exactly my audience, even more targeted than Instagram —these are the women who need to hear these things most. For me, this was a mirror — these are the stigmas that we’re up against. It hurt, but I moved on.
Maybe social media is a more powerful platform for Orthodox women to have free discourse on things that are sensitive? You can reach people directly. No censors, no filters.
Yes. When you’re on your social, you own your voice on it. You can be unapologetic and honest.
The establishment still wants to save face, unfortunately, and that’s why they won’t talk about these issues. Yet.
I can sleep at night because I know I’m helping people. I’m helping marriages. Couples. Families. I teach the things I should have learned, but didn’t. So I’m still here. I hope, with time, others will join me.