Attending the day of lobbying in Trenton are, from left, Jane Hutnik, chair of Choice NJ; and NCJW Union County Section members Phyllis Bernstein, Susan Coen, Gloria Brown, Ruby Glassel, Lois Kliener, and Gloria Segel.
May 7, 2009
About 100 New Jersey members of the National Council of Jewish Women gathered with other activists in Trenton on April 23 to meet with experts; lobby legislators for action on such issues as sex education, domestic violence, and custody and visitation; and to honor those leading the fight in the halls of power.
The organization, which has about 7,000 members in six sections around the state, arranges a day of such action every two or three years. NCJW was joined this year by Choice NJ and the NJ Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.
Among those honored with Pro-Choice Awards this year were Assembly Members Linda Stender (D-Dist. 22) and Bonnie Watson Coleman and Reed Gusciora (D-Dist. 15); and State Sens. Nia Gill (D-Dist. 34) and Loretta Weinberg (D-Dist. 37).
Susan Coen, a member of the Union County Section and recently appointed cochair with Bergen County Section member Joan Snider of the NCJW’s State Public Affairs Network, said the participants declared the day a success. According to evaluation forms they filled out, most rated it “excellent” or “very good.”
Coen said, “They said they felt they had learned a great deal and that they got information they could work with in their own communities.”
The need for comprehensive sex education was high on the day’s agenda. National NCJW president Nancy Ratzan recently called for comprehensive sex education for young people based on science and public health rather than religious views or ideology, and that theme was reinforced by speakers and audience members at a discussion held in the morning.
The topic for the session was titled “What are our children learning? Is sex education really comprehensive?” One of the speakers was Gusciora, who authored bill A794, which would require comprehensive sex education and the repeal of the abstinence-only statute.
Other participants included Nora Gelperin, director of training and education for Answer, a national organization that provides and promotes comprehensive adolescent sex education; Bill Taverner, director of The Center for Family Life Education at Planned Parenthood of Greater Northern NJ; and Elizabeth Gyori, a teen contributor to Sex, Etc., a newsletter that is published by Answer.
The panelists examined the successes and failures of Bush administration policies. Among the findings they discussed was the fact that of 20,000 youngsters who signed the so-called “virginity pledge,” an estimated 88 percent failed to keep it. There is massive public support for a more comprehensive approach, they said, with around 82 percent of parents favoring the provision of information about condom use and other birth control methods.
The later session explored an issue that affects fewer people than sex education but carries even greater dangers: sexual abuse or violence against children during visits with a non-custodial parent.
Among the speakers was psychologist Amy Hoch of the CARES Institute, an expert in evaluating abused children; Middlesex County Superior Court Judge Robert Figarotta, who handles family matters; and Susie Groisser, an attorney for the Rachel Coalition, the organization that deals with domestic violence and teen dating abuse. They talked about ways to recognize when abuse has taken place and what can be done when allegations are denied.
Phyllis Bernstein of Westfield, one of the six women from the NCJW Union County Section who took part, has been a life member of NCJW for a number of years but this was her first participation in a Trenton trip. She joined fellow members Coen, Ruby Glassel, Gloria Brown, Lois Kliener, and Gloria Segel.
Bernstein was struck by the lack of uniformity in the state’s approach to sex education. She pointed out that New Jersey is the only state to have mandated comprehensive sex education in grades kindergarten to 12, but added, “There are 620 districts, and every school does something different.”
Reflecting on what had been discussed, she said teachers worry that parents will object to what they teach, but that can lead to silence on subjects like the increasing diversity of family structure.
With regard to teen pregnancy, the organization champions an approach that promotes abstinence but also birth control and condoms. Bernstein said the current emphasis on abstinence alone has proved a failure. “In 15 years, $15 billion has been spent on the ‘Don’t have sex until you’re married’ line,” she said, “but one in four teens in America has a sexually transmitted disease, and the country leads the developed world in teen pregnancy.”
The federally funded programs of the past few years were so ineffectual, she said, that 25 states chose to reject federal dollars. Of the 20,000 youngsters who took the so-called “virginity pledge,” 88 percent failed to keep it. “We scare kids but we don’t give them complete education,” Bernstein said.
Longtime national and Union County activist Gloria Brown of Elizabeth said she found the day energizing. “It’s so wonderful to see a coalition like this working together, and it took that array of organizations to make the program successful.”