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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But others can see the allure of the hookup scene “At times are there parts of me drawn to it? As an adult male sexual being it has its appeal,” said Doniel Sherman, 21, a sophomore at Penn.

Lavaddin was also candid about the temptations. “Human nature is if you’re a guy and you’re a girl, you want to touch. Sometimes, you want to break out of shomer negiah and make out with a guy.” But it’s just one of the many challenges of being an observant Jew. “I was taught there are a lot of things you have to keep in Judaism that go against human nature. It’s a test.”

Yet, since college is often a time for questioning beliefs and self-discovery, some students realize over this time that shomer negiah is not right for them. Jordan Katz, who graduated from Columbia University in 2011, began practicing shomer negiah in 11th grade after years of involvement with the Orthodox organization the National Conference of Synagogue Youth. At the time, she wanted to take on “one more tangible thing” to prove how religious she was to her peers and, especially, her advisers.

Although she was very involved with the Jewish and specifically Orthodox community at Columbia over her four years, her practice of religion became “much more intellectual and philosophical.” As she re-examined it, shomer negiah seemed juvenile to her. “I think a lot of it is silly now,” she said, “like when you poke someone with a pen to get their attention. It’s easier to do when you’re younger.” Not only did Katz feel she was maturing out of shomer negiah, but she also believed it inflated the significance of minimal physical contact to a deleterious effect. “It places such a pressure on touch. It’s just not that big of a deal,” she said. “It puts so much unhealthy energy into each time you touch someone because it’s so important. It’s not the way to conduct your life.”

Katz added many of her observant friends stopped upholding the practice by the time they were in their early 20s or had been in a relationship for a year. “I’ve found no one actually does it,” she said. “If no one’s doing it, why are we doing it?” Ultimately, she believes shomer negiah needs to be re-evaluated by religious leaders because it encourages a culture of hypocrisy toward physical contact. “Is it worse to hug friends in public or make out with your boyfriend in private? Everyone’s cheating, but no one is telling anyone.”


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