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Can We Hug Now? Returning to Touch in Jewish Spaces

By Rabbi Daniel Brenner

(photo courtesy of Camp Tel Yehudah)

“When we determine that it is safe for people to touch,” a summer camp director recently told me, “we expect that there is going to be a tsunami of human contact.”

As part of my work with Moving Traditions’ CultureShift initiative to amplify safety, respect, and equity at Jewish summer camps, I have been thinking a lot about this comment and the ways that we might make the coming days of re-socialization more comfortable for thousands of middle school, high school, and college students returning this summer to camp (or to other informal education settings). Earlier this month, my Moving Traditions colleagues and I gathered together with 23 camp and teen trip directors to discuss the challenges facing their young staff and adolescent campers.

How will a year plus of touch deprivation change the way adolescents and young adults interact in large groups of their peers?  What are the possible dangers, as well as the clear benefits, connected to this return to physical contact and touch?

For most people, camp is a place associated with hugging friends, swaying with arms around one another, and other positive touches. It is also a place where young people learn to set boundaries. Before the pandemic, I was pleased to see that educators teaching boundary-setting were beginning to develop creative ways to connect physically through fist bumps, high-fives, gestures, and other interpersonal alternatives to hugs. There were also new books for children, like Benny Doesn’t Like To Be Hugged, that aim to teach about touch sensitivity, bodily autonomy, and consent.

In a consent education workshop that I led three years ago at a staff training for a large summer camp, a staff member said that she often places her hand on the shoulder of campers who are being disruptive to get their attention in the camp’s loud, often chaotic dining hall. This led to a discussion about the specific act—what happens when staff touch the shoulder of a camper—and to an exploration of the other available options, including trying to make eye contact with the person without touch, using a gesture to get the person’s attention, and, if those options were not possible, using a light ‘tap’ on the shoulder or upper arm instead of a prolonged touch. I tell this story not because I think that they landed on a perfect solution, but because by asking good questions about touch, they actually had a breakthrough about some of the underlying issues.

There are two key components to the work of changing Jewish communal culture around touch. As we emerge from the pandemic, my colleagues and I believe that NOW is an ideal time for educators to consider these components. Such an exploration will help us return to a better normal than the one that too often included—especially in Jewish youth group and teen trip settings—too much nonconsensual or uncomfortable physical connection, touch, and sexual pressure.

First, there is a need to engage in staff training for all adults who work with preteens and teens (many of whom are 18- and 19-year-old teens themselves). Second, we need to pilot and continue to refine developmentally appropriate educational experiences for preteens and teens where they can safely reflect on their personal experiences, learn how others view touch and bodily autonomy, and practice communicating boundaries.

Even some of the most beloved physical interactions of Jewish youth—like when we are part of a group with our arms placed around one another, swaying for havdallah or a campfire sing-a-long—can benefit from a conversation about how it can be approached with the maximal amount of respect for the people interacting in that ritual moment.

Questions for Staff

This year, in particular, staff at summer camps need time and space to reflect on their own relationship to physical touch and to discuss and reach clear understandings of their camp’s policies. They also need guidance in understanding and helping their campers, who will likely have a range of reactions to the process of returning to intense in-person community and will need support in setting healthy and appropriate boundaries.

  • How do staff generally use touch to convey support, encouragement, or comfort to other staff?
  • What are the boundaries for this type of interaction between staff and youth?
  • Where, with whom, and how can appropriate touch enhance some campers sense of safety?
  • What options exist for interacting with those who are not comfortable with touch and how can staff become more aware of individual campers’ needs and boundaries around touch?
  • What camp games, activities, and interactions require touch? Should any be modified?
  • How should an adult react when a child or teen extends arms to initiate a hug?
  • Are there situations in which safe touch should be used to redirect or to restrain participants?
  • How do gender norms influence our ideas about who is “allowed” to touch whom, and how does camp culture influence, challenge or reinforce these norms?
  • What are the patterns of touch among staff that you experience as healthy and unhealthy?
  • When should staff comment on the way that children or teens are touching?
  • How can camp help young people learn to protect their physical boundaries and respect the physical boundaries of others?
  • When we imagine a more positive and supportive staff environment regarding touch and physical connection, what do we envision?

Questions for Teens

In preparation for the re-socialization in the summer of 2021, here are some questions that teens might reflect on by themselves, with a friend, or with a trusted adult in their lives—including their camp counselors.

  • What are you looking forward to experiencing when it is safe to connect to others through physical touch?
  • What kinds of physical touch are you not looking forward to? What touches make you uncomfortable in some or most circumstances?
  • How have you communicated your boundaries—either verbally, emotionally, or physically—to others?
  • How do you learn about others and how they experience touch?
  • What would a positive and supportive environment of touch look like for you? Have you experienced it?
  • What are good ways to interact with peers who have different boundaries or preferences around physical touch than you have?
  • Do you or your friends comment on the way that people are touching one another? Why and in what contexts? How is this helpful or unhelpful?
  • What games, sports and activities would you describe as “high-touch?” Are the rules about touching clear?
  • What would you do if you experienced discomfort or confusion around physical touch?
  • What would do you do if you experienced non-consensual or abusive touch?

Teaching ‘No’ and Teaching ‘Yes’

In my work with my colleagues at Moving Traditions over the past decade, as we trained those who work with teens in the Jewish community, we started to address the use and abuse of power as it relates to touch. There is much good work to draw upon. Best practices are being developed in teaching touch and bodily autonomy in special education contexts, and for supporting students in high touch activities like sports, dance, and drama. And science is developing descriptions of our bodies’ touch systems and how those systems work differently in different bodies.

Moving Traditions knows from research that we conducted in Jewish settings, particularly in summer camp and travel programs, that it is normative for teens to begin exploring sexual touch at age 14. But long before they reach that age, educators and others can help children learn how to treat one another’s bodies and their own bodies with respect and dignity.  This work includes the lesson of saying “no!” but also includes exploring the question, “What does ‘yes’ really look like?” To help teens understand what ‘yes’ means in different contexts, we incorporate more sophisticated models of consent, like Betty Martin’s Wheel of Consent, and Charis Denison’s Feel, Think, Act practice.

The SHIFT (Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation) research project at Columbia University found that teens who learned prevention techniques—both assertive verbal techniques and physical de-escalation or self-defense techniques—experienced lower rates of sexual assault.  Assertiveness training and self-defense approaches, particularly for preteen and teen girls, have proven to be one of the most effective tools to decrease unwanted touch.

Before the pandemic, I participated in a project led by Yudit Sidikman, a violence prevention advocate who runs the El Ha-Lev center in Jerusalem, and has helped teach thousands of teens and others to understand when a boundary has been crossed, when to raise their voices to protect themselves, how to run (if possible), and how to fight back with basic, effective self-defense techniques (if necessary.) She likens learning how to protect your personal boundaries to learning how to swim—a basic life-saving skill endorsed by the Talmud and taught by many Jewish community centers and camps. New research on similar sexual assault prevention models, EAAA (Enhanced Assess, Acknowledge, Act) show that even with minimal training in the self-defense elements, there are strong benefits.

The writer Melissa Febos recently wrote in The New York Times about the pandemic and touch:

“This long isolation has also been a respite from navigating forms of touch that I find more intrusive, even violating. The phrase ‘skin hunger,’ the state of longing that results from touch deprivation, has become newly familiar to many, but we still don’t have words for the receiving of touch we don’t crave but commonly endure and even consent to because we don’t feel entitled to resist it.”

Now is a perfect time to emphasize the skills required for setting boundaries and to imagine what a better touch culture could be.  To help advance this vision, Moving Traditions will be holding an online train-the-trainer institute on May 20, 2021 for senior camp professionals; other youth professionals, such as travel staff, are welcome. We will explore how to support campers and junior staff in the unique challenges of Summer 2021, with particular attention to the social emotional issues that youth will likely be experiencing this summer around touch, to promote shared values and a sense of community.

As we emerge from this time of touch depravation, may we learn to use our bodies to comfort, support, encourage, teach, welcome, and guide one another.


Rabbi Daniel S. Brenner serves as the Chief of Education for Moving Traditions.

This article appeared in eJewishPhilanthropy on April 23, 2021.

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