By Marcy Farrell
“Words Matter,” said relationship therapist Rachel Hercman, explaining to the more than 150 women at the recent Five Towns Yoetzet Initiative event “Wine and Wisdom” that the way we talk about things has an impact on the emotions we ascribe to them.
The program, a dialogue between Five Towns yoetzet Lisa Septimus and LCSW Hercman, focused on the factors that promote and those that complicate women’s intimate relationships with their spouses.
The program promised a chance to “explore topics and questions relating to intimacy and mikvah.” It did not disappoint. Rebbetzin Septimus conducted a question and answer dialogue with psychotherapist Rachel Hercman on everything from Taharat Hamishpacha to sexual desire to the changes women undergo in their lifetimes relating to sexual intimacy.
Septimus completed in 2013 the two-year Yoetzot Halacha/U.S. Fellowship Program at Nishmat’s Miriam Glaubach Center in New York, a project of Nishmat, The Jeanie Schottenstein Center for Advanced Torah Study for Women in Israel.
Hercman is an LCSW with a private practice as a clinical psychotherapist in New York City.
“Opportunity for intimacy goes beyond just two weeks out of the month,” Hercman said, explaining that intimacy is the connection between spouses, and not just intercourse.
To make sure that happens, some women need to shed stereotypes. Septimus said that when women come to her with issues of repeated staining (the No. 1 question she gets as Five Towns’ yoetzet), some say “I’m really O.K. with waiting, but I feel bad for my husband.” To Hercman, it’s not so black and white.
“There is a stereotype of men being more sexual and women being less. But there are women out there with normal sexual desires and men with fewer sexual desires,” Hercman said.
She outlined many factors that change sexual desire in women, including hormone levels, medication, anxiety, depression, health issues, instability in relationships, feeling overworked or put-upon, and messages about sexuality during one’s childhood.
“It doesn’t mean you are doomed if the messages you received are negative, but they do add up,” Hercman explained.
To combat negativity or discomfort regarding sexuality, open conversations between parents and children are paramount, both Septimus and Hercman agreed.
“Why are we so scared to teach women about these laws before they are married?” Hercman asked. “What we end up with is a jam-packed learning marathon where nuances cannot be explored.”
Many of the women in the room felt the idea of mikvah and separation were too much to deal with as they were planning a wedding and a home with another person.
“Easing into the concept and letting our children know earlier is healthier,” said Septimus, who teaches a class that touches on Taharat HaMishpacha to senior girls at North Shore Hebrew Academy High School, where she teaches Chumash and Gemara and serves as director of special programs.
“There is a conflict between wanting to be real about how women experience the laws of niddah and wanting to inspire and present everything as positive,” said Septimus.
This sometimes creates problems with intimacy, Hercman said. “For some, there is this notion that if you keep the laws of niddah meticulously then you are going to have a very positive sex life. And that doesn’t happen for everyone.”
For some women, the jump from not being allowed to talk about sex or sexuality to understanding sex as a mitzvah is too much. “For some people, it is easy for that sexual side to become dormant because it wasn’t developed to begin with,” Hercman explained.
Both women talked about how today, with so many roles and pressures – jobs, housework, child rearing, taking care of parents, volunteering in the community and others – “sometimes for a woman, sex can seem like another item on the to-do list.”
“Are those things that make us successful during the day – multitasking, super-meticulousness, hyper-focus, perfectionism – holding us back?” Hercman asked.
Septimus said that the second most frequent topic she is asked has to do with preparing for the mikvah. Gel manicures top that list. For Ashkenazi women, the Rema rules. A woman must remove any impediment to immersion and also anything that would not qualify as an impediment. So even though a perfect gel manicure would not be a chatzitza (impediment), “we have a very strong minhag to remove it.”
People asked about using Shabbos or vacations as times to reconnect. But both Hercman and Septimus pointed out that with cell phones and telecommuting on vacation and playdates and learning on Shabbos, neither of these respites are as relaxing as they were 50 years ago.
The key is getting into the habit of connecting emotionally with your spouse no matter what time of the month. “Couples should have emotional rituals throughout their lives,” Hercman said.
To that end, this inaugural program served as a conversation opener. “It’s an opportunity to talk about relationships, because that is what other people want to be talking about too,” Septimus said.
Yoetzet Initiative Committee member Alana Klein thanked the committee, Hercman, Septimus, and those in attendance for making the program possible.
Always available by cell, voicemail, e-mail, or in person, Lisa estimated she has answered 850 questions from women this year alone.
“Because of Lisa, more couples in the Five Towns are observing Taharat Hamishpacha than ever before,” said Klein. “As a community, we should do more to promote the Yoetzet Halacha program.”