I’ll always remember it because it was the first,” said Chana Lavaddin, 21, a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania. In the way that some convey the minute details of their first sexual encounters, Lavaddin recalled the chapped skin and firm grip of the first man who shook her hand, a former professor congratulating her on winning an award. “It’s intense when you haven’t touched anyone and a man’s hand is on your arm. You just pay more attention because it’s never happened.”
Most students head off to college with a common set of goals: learning, making friends, avoiding the “freshman 15,” improving beer-pong skills and, not least of all, hooking up. But Lavaddin is one of a subset of Jewish students that has another concern in mind: avoiding physical contact with the opposite sex. These students are shomer negiah, meaning they follow the Jewish law that prohibits men and women from touching. Though some rabbis argue that shomer negiah only applies to romantic situations, many unmarried Jews — from Modern Orthodox to ultra-Orthodox — try to avoid physical contact with the opposite sex altogether.
Many Orthodox students attend sex-segregated schools like New York City’s Yeshiva University for men and its sister school, Stern College, where being shomer negiah is practically a given. But every year, a number of observant families send their children to elite secular institutions, forgoing the religious atmosphere for a school’s stellar academic reputation. Oren Rabinowitz, 22, chose American University because he valued a strong political science department. “I came for academics, not necessarily for the social [life],” he said. Ariella Levine, a 22-year-old senior at Penn, who is more observant than the rest of her family, has two older siblings who attended Ivy League schools. “I wasn’t allowed to apply to Stern because it’s not good enough academically,” she said.
Shomer negiah is a highly demanding lifestyle even in Orthodox settings, but religious students say the environment at secular colleges poses extra challenges. “I knew there would be a lot of issues I couldn’t foresee ahead of time,” said Leah Rothstein, 22, a senior at Barnard College, who attended a Jewish high school. “Being in coed environments was a big deal. It was a shock to my system. Who are these people? Should I talk to them?”