Untouchable: Chronicling Stories, Thoughts, and Insights into Shomer Negiah

A178 shomer

Written by Sarah Epstein. Sarah, a first-time Jewrotica writer, is the founder of the Shomer Chronicles. Sarah hails from Dallas, Texas and is a recent graduate of Brandeis University.

Rated PGI first became interested in the institution of shomer negiah while in college. At Brandeis, I worked as a sex educator, leading on-campus educational programs and holding one-on-one counseling sessions about sexual health and sexuality.

As a peer educator and observant Jew, Orthodox girls began reaching out to me with their questions about sexuality. Yes, Orthodox students, like any other group of students, think about sex and wonder about their sexuality. They want to explore their sexual identities, think about sexual boundaries, and experiment with sex. They face questions of what it means to be a sexual being and how to integrate their sexuality into their larger definition of themselves. They deal with the physical, emotional, and psychological questions inherent to that process.

I did my best to fill this community’s need and created workshops specifically geared towards Orthodox girls on campus. At the workshops, in addition to the questions and topics that arise at all my programming, the issue of shomer negiah and intimacy emerged.

Shomer negiah, literally translated as “guarding one’s touch,” describes the practice of refraining from physical contact with members of the opposite sex until marriage. The institution is a nuanced one, taking on slightly different meanings for different people.

It does not surprise me that shomer negiah became a topic of conversation at workshops. Being shomer negiah on a secular college campus can come with all sorts of challenges.

A person who observes negiah has to navigate the ubiquity of handshakes and hugging in everyday interactions. Dating means finding somebody with the same beliefs about shomer negiah or figuring out how to manage a difference in beliefs. Some meet their future spouses in college, even freshman year, but choose to wait until after graduation to get married. How does a shomer negiah couple maintain intimacy for three years prior to the wedding? Sometimes individuals must also deal with community members who make assumptions about their general level of observance based on whether they are shomer negiah. These struggles, along with questions of God, identity, and sexuality make shomer negiah a hot topic among college students.

To illustrate the prevalence of these questions and start to address them, I launched The Shomer Chronicles.

The Shomer Chronicles is a national project to collect stories about the experiences of college and young professional Jewish men and women (roughly ages 18-35) who have somehow engaged with shomer negiah. I want to gather people’s stories, publish them, and open up the conversation surrounding people’s experiences. The goal is twofold. I want to create a community of voices surrounding this vital aspect of many people’s everyday lives and identities. My hope is that, if enough people write down their stories openly or anonymously, The Shomer Chronicles will help people talk about their experiences, address their struggles, and celebrate their choices. I hope that by starting this conversation, I will illustrate the prevalence of these questions to the larger Jewish community.