A Touchy Subject

Some Jewish College Students Avoid Contact With Opposite Sex

School Rule: Rivka Holzer, a sophomore at Barnard College, practices shomer negiah.
Shulamit Seidler-Feller
School Rule: Rivka Holzer, a sophomore at Barnard College, practices shomer negiah.

By Emily Shire

Published November 16, 2012, issue of November 23, 2012.
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Everything from meeting with professors to hanging out with dorm-mates down the hall can pose obstacles for those practicing shomer negiah. Levine tries to prepare in advance for a potential handshake whenever she meets with a male professor or possible employer. But she also tries to be lighthearted about it. As a teaching assistant for a computer science class, she sent an email to a male student she needed to work with one-on-one, explaining, “I don’t have physical contact with men, but by the way, I am only as awkward as the rest of the computer science department.”

Rivka Holzer, 20, a sophomore at Barnard, worried that an acting class would potentially involve violating shomer negiah. However, her professor was understanding and asked her to speak about the practice to the class. She explained, “Touch is very sacred. Some people save sex for after marriage, but as an Orthodox Jew, I save touch for after marriage.” Her classmates were supportive, and one gay male student jokingly chimed in that he doesn’t touch girls.

Though some said that fellow students were initially confused by the practice, shomer negiah was rarely a hindrance to friendships. In fact, Holzer has been pleasantly surprised that her “non-Orthodox friends are very fascinated by it and think it’s cool.” She recalled a study session with a classmate for an exam on the reproductive system that shifted into a personal conversation about sex. “She talked about her sexual encounters, and when I told her I was a virgin and didn’t touch men, she said ‘Your sex with your husband is going to be amazing,’” said Holzer.

At the same time, highly observant students sometimes feel there are few who can empathize with them, even among other Jews. While Hillel students advise each other on how to handle a final exam scheduled on the Sabbath, the same kind of support isn’t available for shomer negiah students, said Levine. “If you’re doing something above and beyond what the community standard is, it has to come from you because if you have difficulty [there is] nowhere you can go for help.”

Lavaddin admits that she faces “obstacles girls at Stern won’t face in their life,” but her commitment to shomer negiah is unwavering. “You can’t pick. You’re a Jew, and you have to do all of it,” she said. “It’s like saying ‘I don’t keep Shabbos.’ It’s a commandment; that’s it.”

One of the biggest challenges is avoiding the hookup culture. “Obviously, I’m not going to crazy parties because that’s not going to lead to anything that helps with my shomer negiah,” said Rabinowitz. “But I’m not sure I’d go anyway because I’m not the person who’s into crazy parties.”

Similarly, Levine notes that even without the concerns for shomer negiah, the frat parties don’t appeal to her. “I purposefully make it foreign because I don’t want anything to do with it,” she said.

Other students feel an even stronger sense of repulsion toward casual canoodling on campus. “It generally disturbs me when I go out on a Thursday night and see people wasted, half-dressed, coming from these parties,” said Jacob Kaufman, a sophomore at Penn. “I think going to these parties is mindless and corrupting, which is why I divorce myself from it to a certain degree.”


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