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By the second semester of her senior year, she had started openly hugging some of her male friends and not caring whether photos of her with arms around guys appeared on Facebook. “The fear element I had when I was younger is not in me so much anymore — the fear of ramifications or consequences,” she said.
Conversely, some students decide to take on shomer negiah to help them navigate the four years of college. Rebecca Khalandovsky, 22, a senior at Princeton University, was not observant when she began school, but over time, she found shomer negiah to be the best tool for handling her evolving relationships with men in college. She chose to take on the rule after her freshman year, when she noticed that with some male friends a single embrace “would lead me to think, ‘what does he think? Should I ask him out? What should I do?’” This physical contact resulted in “a lot of wasted emotional energy and time and thought. It wasn’t an efficient system of evaluating of who I should be in a relationship with.”
More than a matter of temptation, being shomer negiah is often a matter of logistics. Aside from the fact that the American college campus often seems like a Sodom and Gomorrah built on red Solo cups and Trojan wrappers, even friendly high-fives and handshakes can pose a challenge to those who practice shomer negiah.
Rabinowitz and his friends came up with the “shomer hug.” When people greet each other on the Sabbath at the Hillel house, Rabinowitz and his friends will stick out their arms and do an air hug as a symbol that they “don’t just accommodate [shomer negiah], but make it into a thing.”
And hugs with friends are harder to resist than sexual relations. Sherman recalled that when a good female friend who had recently graduated came back to visit, it was difficult not to hug her. “It was not sexualized, but it was about the emotions for the person,” he said. “You can’t communicate with touch — only words — and words have to suffice. There are emotional wants.”
However, after nearly two years of practicing shomer negiah, Khalandovsky firmly believes that emotional connections can be established even without physical contact. “One can comfort and empathize with another person through speech,” she said. “It requires more effort and is harder without touch, but both people clearly see what the input and output is.”
Emily Shire is the chief researcher at The Week magazine and is a freelance writer. Find her work at emilyshire.wordpress.com.