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By Jaq Greenspoon on May 1, 2013 [DAVID Magazine]
“This is not just erotica with a menorah thrown in,” says Ayo Oppenheimer. “Jewrotica is bringing the sex to Judaism, but also the Judaism to sex.”
“Jewrotica” is a brand-new dot-org website (founded by Ms. Oppenheimer), which went live last October and has been slowly, but steadily, gaining notice and page views. People will hear about the site through friends, family, their religious leaders or various articles published around the world. “There was a Russian relationship or sex site that wrote about us,” Ayo says with a laugh. “So for weeks we were having insane traffic from the former Soviet Union.”
In the past eight months or so, Oppenheimer has traveled from her home in Austin, Texas, to places as far flung as Jerusalem and Orange County, Calif., from Sarah Lawrence College in New York to Texas State University in San Marcos, all to promote a new idea, one she was surprised no one had tapped before her.
“There’s a lot of different topics that interest me. I’m constantly bristling with ideas for cool products and things that I can do, but this was one where I thought, ‘How does this not exist yet? How is there not a hub for Jewish sexual expression?’ ” So she started one.
Growing up in New Jersey as part of a small Orthodox Jewish family, Ayo always has felt the need to make her world a better place. A self-styled social innovator, she shies from the entrepreneur label. As she puts it, “If I (were) doing my projects to make money, I would be doing different projects and running them quite differently.” In high school she saw a need for peer tutoring and peer counseling programs, and did what was required to solve the problem. At Johns Hopkins University she founded an international relief organization that has raised tens of thousands of dollars to alleviate international crises.
On a personal level, she’s “always been that go-to person. People feel very comfortable opening up to me,” she says, especially when it comes to sex and relationships. “I’m always happy to help and lend an ear.” While at Johns Hopkins, she simultaneously met the requirements of her international business and management major and took human sexuality classes. She also volunteered for a number of organizations that deal with women’s health issues.
As a member of an Orthodox community, she found time for outside activities foreign to most of her peers. Oppenheimer found herself straddling two worlds. And by the time she returned to that ultra-religious world, others sought her counsel. “I had people coming to me with questions about sexual problems and dysfunctions,” she says.
A lot of the “problems” she confronted involved finding answers to questions like “How can we make this more exciting?” and “What should I do about that taboo?”
Because she was “very out and about in the secular world,” Ayo says, people felt comfortable approaching her about intimate issues. “In the part of New York where I lived, the kallah classes (Jewish marriage prep) were a lot more progressive. They weren’t about the rituals (most kallah classes focus on issues of nida rather than sex ed), but more ‘some people use lube’ things that are super basic, that maybe a ninth-grade public school kid would know but that aren’t spoken about in the Orthodox Jewish community.”
The plethora of questions and answers aside, she still wasn’t ready to create Jewrotica.org. Not yet.
After graduating college, she took a job with Deloitte Consulting, “honing that instinct of how do you take a company and help them reach their goals.” At the same time, she created a film program about the state and religious issues going on in Israel – then took it on the road. She gave away most of her possessions, downsized to an RV and started visiting as many Jewish communities as she could. At the same time, she experienced things like Burning Man (an annual gathering of artistic-minded people who set up a temporary city in the northern Nevada desert), and “a lot of different, sex-positive, but very out there, boundary-pushing environments.”
She learned a lot on the road by mingling with different cultures and people. She wanted to take all this knowledge back to her home community, to share the information and celebrate sexuality within a Jewish context. She soon realized, though, that the information she provided her New York/New Jersey community needed a larger audience. And an erotic book that took America by storm in the early summer of 2012 was just the catalyst she needed.
Last June, The New York Times reported that E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey was popular among the Orthodox population of The Heights, a predominantly Jewish area of New York City. “If people are reading it in the Orthodox Jewish community,” Oppenheimer thought, “the Jewish community has everything – books and conferences and organizations galore, and this is one thing we don’t have. What an interesting niche to fill.”
She immediately bought the domain “jewisherotica.org” before having second thoughts. “Not only is ‘Jewish Erotica’ a really lame title,” she decided, “but there’s so much more here than just erotica. Let’s make it an umbrella, and that’s [how] Jewrotica came about.”
At Tribefest in Las Vegas in 2011, she’d met David Abitbol, a co-founder of the popular Jewlicious website. They reconnected in the summer of 2012 at the ROI Summit (for Jewish innovators). Oppenheimer pitched her idea of a website catering to the sexual side of the Jewish community – all Jewish communities. Abitbol served as a sounding board and an idea generator, working to flesh out the idea through many, many conversations. Jewrotica.org was born.
Ayo surmised that when it came to sex and relationships, Jewish communities fell into one of two categories: “We’re a very traditional Jewish community and passionate about the tradition and the religion and all those things, but we don’t do sex education, we don’t really talk about sex. Save it for marriage, but even then we’re not really going to have a conversation.”
On the other side, she said, were those who took the approach that “We’re so liberal and we’re so progressive.” They did Q&As with the rabbi on sex, she says, but often with the mentality that Judaism doesn’t have anything of relevance to say about a person’s sex life or relationship. As she saw it, neither side had the whole picture.
“A big part of Jewrotica is filling in the missing pieces for both communities,” she says, with the site becoming an extension of Oppenheimer herself, a person able to “walk the walk and talk the talk” in either community and bring understanding to both.
“In the first (category),” she says, “you have silence on sex and sex education, and the silence is what leads to ignorance … to feelings of shame and embarrassment and isolation. Even though Judaism is a sex-positive religion, practically, if you’re not having any discussion about it, if you relegate it to the back corners, that’s where people are going to end up feeling somewhat bad about it.”
With the second group, she reasons, the problem is slightly reversed. “I’m all for the empowered sex-positive approach; that’s a big part of what Jewrotica is. But I believe that (there are) a lot of really beautiful, fascinating things that we can learn from Jewish tradition. Even in the way of having Kavod Ha’Briot – having respect for other people.”
Basically, the idea is this: Just because you’re talking about sex doesn’t mean your Jewishness takes a backseat; and being Jewish doesn’t diminish your sexuality. For Jewrotica, this is one of the biggest differences between Christianity and Judaism: “Christians believe in this concept of original sin. Eve seduced Adam and their downfall was in the Garden of Eden.” This interpretation leads to sex and sexuality as a negative thing, something tinged with temptation. “I believe in Original Mitzvah,” Ayo says impishly. “Not Original Sin.”
The first commandment G-d gives to humanity is to be fruitful and multiply. And so we shall. But even beyond procreative sex, there’s a great deal of talk in the Bible about sex. And once you get to the Talmud … forget about it. “In the Talmud you get the idea of onah, which is pleasure, just sexual pleasure (granted, these are more in the context of a relationship and a man pleasing his woman),” Oppenheimer says. “Our tradition is so full and rich with these commentaries and explications on sexuality, and yet modern day culture is quite silent on the issue.”
All of these aspects are being represented on the site, with new content being added daily. Oppenheimer understands the Internet concept that content drives page views; and she has worked with her team (an internationally diverse group of experts) to develop a weekly structure:
Every day, readers can expect a different category to be updated. For example, Mondays will offer new fiction, while Tuesdays offer poetry, Wednesdays have essays, Thursdays are where the Jewrotica team gets to add its own voices via an editorial column and on Fridays we publish a weekly commentary on the Torah portion as it relates to relationships and sexuality called “Double Mitzvah”. The arbiters of the site also know that, especially within the Orthodox community, content must be organized appropriately, Oppenheimer says it only takes a click of the mouse to filter an individual’s Jewrotica experience from PG to XXX (Although the site does not have nude photographs or hard core pornography, the racy stuff is still pretty provocative).
It’s an evolving project. Ayo has plans for features such as “Sex With the Rabbi,” where insightful questions are answered directly, and “48-Hour Sex Diaries.” This one is generating some excitement, Oppenheimer says. “We take someone who is in the singles dating scene on the Upper West Side, someone who is in a same-sex relationship, someone who comes from the Orthodox community, someone who just got divorced, all these different phases of life, different backgrounds and have them, in time stamp format or essay format, record their sex lives and relationship encounters for 48 hours.”
Oppenheimer believes the site is only part of the process. She wants to move from an online community to an in-person one. She’s been rolling out Jewrotica events, the first taking place last March. There is a “huge outreach potential for engaging people in Jewish culture and tradition in a really interesting way,” she says.
These evenings, thoughtful as well as thought-provoking, usually are sponsored by local Jewish groups and have drawn big crowds. “People don’t realize that they’re learning about Jewish culture and tradition,” Oppenheimer observes. At a Sarah Lawrence event, a man from the Hassidic community had come up from Brooklyn, wanting to find out for himself what it was all about. At the end of the evening he offered an unsolicited endorsement: “I’ve never studied Torah like that. It was amazing!”
Outside groups are taking notice of the budding site, and partnership offers are tentatively being made. Organizations fighting sex trafficking and charities dealing with shelters and abuse issues all want to join forces, which couldn’t make Ayo happier. But she’s a realist, too. No matter how well the site starts out, she says, it’s going to require funding from an angel or a philanthropist to make it really viable. So she’s looking, and she’s working, bringing new ideas to the table, starting discussions and pulling the curtain back, exposing Jewish bedrooms.