It’s “more out of control than Facebook,” boasts one Facebook group about OnlySimchas.com. This online home for Jewish celebratory news—focusing on Orthodox nuptial announcements—has been full of activity since its launch, with new announcements popping up multiple times a day.
Now the website plays an influential role in the Orthodox college dating scene. Many students who return from Israel after studying there for one or two years after high school have a goal: make the homepage of OnlySimchas as the newest engaged Orthodox Jew before graduating college.
The OnlySimchas phenomenon, in a way, represents the adaptation of Jewish tradition to the 21st century. Jews who strictly abide by the regulations of the Torah and Talmud avoid premarital promiscuity, which includes any physical—and particularly sexual—contact with individuals of the opposite gender—called shmirat negiyah in Hebrew. With these restrictions, marriage is never far away.
Despite those norms, however, the vast majority of Orthodox college students are unmarried at graduation and many lead active dating lives during their four years on campus. These students live in tension: they want to act according to the laws and mores of Orthodox society while living on campus, one of the least conducive atmospheres to the Orthodox way of life—especially regarding sex.
Students respond by finding ways to negotiate that tension, either by discarding the norms of Orthodox observance for those of a secular college campus—or vice versa—or by attempting to live with both. Through these negotiations, the approach of Orthodox Jewish students to laws of premarital relationships has developed into three categories: those who observe shmirat negiyah completely, those who observe it in public but not in private and those who do not observe it at all.
A first year student at the University of Maryland, College Park (UMD) notes that most Orthodox Jews at her school do not observe shmirat negiyah.
“There isn’t anyone who pretends to be shomer but really isn’t in private or in relationships,” she said. “There are those people who will go fairly far with regards to random hook-ups, there are those people who will just give high fives and hugs, and there are those people who will go a small distance with their boyfriend.”
Communities at other schools with large observant populations have more of a culture of refraining from touch. “The majority of the community is not shomer at all,” said Erin, a junior at Brandeis University. “There are, of course, those that are shomer in public but not in private, and those who are shomer at all times. At times there is a lot of peer pressure to act a certain way in public that one would never act in private.”
New York University sophomore Jake added that the majority of people in his community “are probably not shomer negiyah at all, but in a religious environment such as right after shul, during kiddush, [they] will be more careful [about] where they put their hands.”
Resisting temptation becomes easier when the school’s administration tries to solve the problem for you. Yeshiva University (YU), an Orthodox institution, takes a hard-line approach when it comes to relationships among students. Men and women are free to interact only in public places: they live and study on separate campuses and are not allowed into each other’s dorms.
The university’s monolithic policy, however, does not reflect the student body’s practice. Shmuel, a sophomore at YU, said that the percentage of shomer negiyah students there is much higher than at other campuses but that many students also do not keep the Jewish law.
“The majority of students here are shomer negiyah at all times,” he said. “But my guess would be that there is a contingent of students who are only outwardly shomer, and although small, there is definitely a group of people here who even publicly do not keep the laws of negiyah.”
Sarah, a junior at Stern College—the women’s division of YU – disagrees, claiming that most students “are outwardly shomer, but aren’t in private.”
At the very least, students at YU seem to care more about appearing to abide by the mores of shmirat negiyah, a concern not as present elsewhere. YU junior Ben adds that while students at YU want to observe shmirat negiyah, the obstacles may be too difficult to overcome.
“People [at YU] don’t realize that not every [Jewish law] is kept in its entirety,” he said. “People try—we all try—but at times it is just way too hard. Personally, I feel that if you are dating for a long time it becomes really hard to keep and you slip. Attraction, love, deep feelings: they all cause one to want to touch the person they are with, whether it’s a simple hug or a kiss.”
He qualified that maintaining appearances is important regardless of how much the individual actually observes the law. “It is best to keep these matters private, I guess, in order to avoid the harsh scrutiny of the community at large, which portrays itself to believe and practice shmirat negiah in its fullest,” he said.
Whether people observe shmirat negiyah in public or not reflects the conflict of worldviews between YU and secular colleges. Students at YU portray themselves as traditionally observant Jews, while at secular college campuses students are encouraged to approach religiosity with mutual respect and open-mindedness. Hannah said that at Maryland “everybody accepts their peers’ decisions,” but at YU, Ben claimed that “those who do not keep it are looked down upon, perhaps, by those who adhere to it.”
Faced with no societally acceptable prospect of touching the opposite sex while single, many YU students choose marriage. On the whole, Orthodox Jews tend to marry at younger ages than the general population and at YU it is common for students to be married or considering marriage.
Not everyone, however, is rushing to the chuppah. Ben explained that YU students get married as undergraduates based on criteria that many couples, students or not, consider: love, financial viability, timing, cultural customs and a desire for companionship. At YU, however, he claims that whether the marriage is financially viable is of more importance than how much the couple love each other.
Marriage is not the norm on secular campuses, but students do not look down on it there, either. “While there are not many married couples at Brandeis,” Erin said, “the community is very open-minded about it. Whenever a couple gets engaged, the whole community celebrates.”
The UMD says that such a celebration is extremely rare at Maryland. “[I] can’t think of anyone who is married,” she said. “Most people here wait until they graduate. Nobody here really speaks of getting married and there is no pressure to get married by a certain time, at least none imposed by the community.”
Even at Stern, the YU women’s division, Sarah says that marriage is not the only thing on people’s minds and that many want to have a more mainstream college experience. “Most people concentrate on their career, studies, learning, and extra-curricular activities,” she said, adding, however, that marriage is “pretty common. I don’t know numbers, but there are many engaged o
r married students.”
But marriage and shmirat negiyah do not necessarily correlate. YU students live in an atmosphere encouraging marriage at an early age, so some of those who are not strict observers of traditional Jewish law still marry as undergraduates.
The Orthodox populations at YU and on secular campuses also self-select: students attend schools based on the values and atmosphere they want at college. This suggests that social norms may determine the Orthodox Jewish college student’s attitude toward marriage and premarital relationships more than Jewish law does. “One of the reasons that I came to this university is because of the environment here,” said the UMD student. “I did not want to be in an environment where there was a lot of pressure to get married as an undergraduate.”
Ben, who attnds YU, is also wary of such social pressure and would rather students make intellectually honest decisions about whether, or how, to observe shmirat negiyah.
“Young adults in the Orthodox community should learn to develop their minds and their hearts towards God without the fear of judgment by the community,” he said. “Yes, God gave us rules to follow, but I’ll be honest enough to admit [that there are] laws I am just not strong enough to keep.”
He added that too much pressure to be shomer negiyah may end up alienating otherwise passionate and committed students from Orthodoxy.
“You are a good person even if you hold your girlfriend’s hand,” he said. “Kids learn Torah, wear tzitizit and end up having premarital sex at the same time because they can’t be open with their family and friends about the person they are dating. So, one thing leads to the next. If we were more open-minded and accepting, then maybe it wouldn’t lead to that.”