“You mean you don’t touch boys at all?” my niece Tracy exclaimed.

“Nope,” my daughter Sarah responded. “Not ever.”

I was in the kitchen chopping salad vegetables when I overheard this snippet of conversation between my 17-year-old daughter and my 16-year-old niece, who was visiting us in Israel from New Jersey.

I set down my chopping knife, moved closer to the kitchen door, and began to prepare a potato salad. I wondered what had precipitated this conversation."Do you like boys?"

“Gosh,” Tracy said after a pause. “Do you like boys?”

“Of course I do!” Sarah laughed. “I just don’t touch them. I’m what we call shomer negiah—which means I follow the rules that forbid touching men or boys not in my family.”

“I never even heard of that!” Tracy answered. “That seems so weird.”

“Well, when you’re used to it, it’s not weird at all. I feel like these rules really protect me.”

There was a pause in the girls’ conversation.

“Well, what if a guy just wants to ‘high five’ you?” Tracy asked. “Is that considered touching?”

“I’ll throw it back at you,” Sarah replied. “What do you think?”

“Well . . . of course it is touching, but it’s just innocent.”

“Is it?” Sarah asked. “Always?”

“Well,” Tracy answered, “I guess sometimes yes, and sometimes no.”

“So,” Sarah responded, “I never even have to analyze—is it innocent or is it a come-on? Do I say okay to one guy’s high five and no to another’s? I’m off the hook. I’m safe!”

“But hey, what if there’s a guy you like? You’d want to give him a high five, or just hold hands, wouldn’t you?”

“Well, I’d feel like I wanted to, but I wouldn’t do it. Just imagine, if you wait until you’re married to touch a guy, think of how special that first kiss will be. You won’t be comparing your husband to anyone. It’s so romantic.”

“Well,” Tracy replied, “It sounds romantic, but not really practical. I mean, have you ever had a boyfriend?”

“Well,” Sarah answered, “I did meet a boy I liked, but I wouldn’t call him a ‘boyfriend.’” “Have you ever had a boyfriend?”(Our family is Orthodox but a bit “modern,” and it is not uncommon for boys and girls in our community to develop friendships with each other, although in communities that are more careful, that too would not be appropriate.)

“Well,” Tracy continued, “didn’t he want to touch you?”

Here Sarah paused. “Well, he did like me, so I guess he felt like touching me, but he was shomer too.”

“Really?” Tracy responded, surprise in her voice. “So what happened?”

“We liked each other, and it was a good feeling. We talked about it. But we both realized that we weren’t ready for a serious relationship, so we decided to just be friends. His family moved, so we don’t see each other too often, but we’re still in touch.”

I knew the young man Sarah was describing. Sarah had confided to me about him during a late-night chat over hot chocolate and popcorn. Although Sarah knows I don’t want her to be involved in a romantic relationship before she’s ready to commit to marriage, I was pleased that she felt she could come to me to talk about her relationship with this young man. I was proud of her for sticking to her principles and keeping shomer even though she had feelings for him.

We talked about the pressures women and girls feel to act and dress in ways that aren’t always comfortable for them. Sarah initially argued with me about the laws of modesty, which sometimes feel restrictive. But in the end she admitted that, especially for girls who have trouble standing up for themselves, these laws do help keep girls from getting pulled into relationships they may not want, or may not be ready for.

The I sorta wish I had those rulesdoorbell rang, and Sarah told Tracy that the younger kids were expected home. I heard Sarah’s footsteps as she headed toward the door.

“Hey,” Tracy said before Sarah reached the door, “I just want to tell you that you’re really lucky. I sorta wish I had those rules to back me up.”

“You don’t have to be religious to stick up for yourself,” Sarah answered. “Try it.”

As the door opened, I heard Tracy’s answer. “Awesome. I think I will!”