I believe that it was Bangitout that broke the story about the Hareidi ban on visiting Miami Beach a couple of weeks ago. At the time I chose not to comment on the issue – frankly, I wasn’t even sure that the ban was real! Since then I actually had a chance to visit Miami Beach, and I’m not sure that I disagree with the Hareidim, at least as far as they go.

Miami Beach, and the Miami area in general, is one of the least-dressed places I’ve ever been to. It’s not just that the weather is hot. I’ve been to hot cities before, but I’ve never seen quite what I saw in Miami. I fully agree that there is a culture of immodesty in Miami Beach that exceeds most other cities (though it may be matched – I’ve never been to LA, but I hear it’s pretty bad). I mean, even the mannequins in the stores featured larger endowments than most private universities! I think that for the Hareidi community it is perfectly appropriate to limit or ban trips to Miami Beach. As to the extreme extent of the ban, I just don’t feel like I’m in a position to make the determination of whether that has gone too far.

In a related matter, the New York Jewish Week had a cautionary article by Alisha Abboudi and Debbi Frankel about the unsupervised antics of Jewish day school students vacationing in Miami Beach. Even if you don’t read any other part of the article, you can’t miss this excerpt:

The interaction between the girls and boys was grotesque. Hands and mouths were everywhere. Nothing was private, no body part untouchable. A small boy of 15, walking around in a daze searching for his older sister, was easily deterred from his mission by a “friend” who smacked him on the back and said, “Come on, let’s go find us some chicks!” He followed.

The article is a little over-the-top, with its descriptions of virtually unclad teenage girls, drug-dealing children, and bare-bottomed, drunken boys. And surely, whatever these young Jews are up to, it pales in comparison to the debauchery of non-Jewish teens at spring break or Mardi Gras. Nevertheless, the concerns are real, particularly given the almost nonexistent level of parental supervision over these week-long breaks.

I’m not a regular reader of the Jewish Week, and I probably would have missed this article if not for Harry Maryles over at Emes Ve-Emunah. His take? That the deplorable behavior observed at Miami Beach is a result of a failure by parents to transmit proper Jewish values to teens. Here’s the relevant passage:

But another very important factor is the near lack of proper Torah values being transmitted about interacting with the opposite sex in their homes. It is an unfortunate truth that most Modern Orthodox Jews are more in the category of Orthoprax… or my favorite term for them, MO-Lite. These are Jews who are basically Shomer Shabbos and Kashrus and attend Orthodox Shuls. But they are more concerned with lifestyle issues than they are with Halacha. Their values are not centered in Torah but in other things. Typically, the parent of this type is more concerned with getting his child into an ivy league university than he is with his level of Mitzvah observance. Not they they aren’t committed to observance. They are. They want their children to be Frum. But it is a secondary concern.

I have an alternative theory, that is simpler and I believe more accurate. (I might say it’s less slanderous, but I’ll leave that to you to judge.) A large segment of the Modern Orthodox community simply doesn’t hold by Shomer Negiah. To some this might seem an extreme statement. I’m reminded of a post I saw on Rabbi Yitzchak Abbadi’s controversial website, Kashrut.org. A questioner asked for age-appropriate information for a 9-year old interested in becoming shomer negiah. Rabbi Abbadi’s response (by way of his son) was that “it’s not an issue of “Shomer Negiah,” but rather keeping the Laws of the Torah. By labeling it Shomer Negiah, we have given the ones who are not Shomer, a license to do that. What if I am not Shomer Retzichah? That would mean I don’t follow the laws of not murdering.”

Compelling as the answer may sound, it bears witness against itself. No one claims to be both frum and not shomer retzicha! Yet there are many otherwise-observant Jews who proudly proclaim that they are not shomer negiah. This is not a case of acknowledging an obligation even while failing to meet it. Rather, an impossible-to-ignore segment of the MO community simply does not believe that refraining from touching members of the opposite sex is a mandated halachic practice. Moreover, while some consider the practice a meritorious stringency, others consider the practice of shomer negiah a perversion of the proper relationship between the genders.

Is there room in halacha to not be shomer negiah? I’m no expert in the matter, but it does seem that laws intended to prevent a menstruating woman from having sex with her husband might not apply to unmarried teens who may or may not be ritually impure. Certainly, the existence of exceptions for touching that is not affectionate indicates that some skin-on-skin contact is okay.

The above is really just halachic apologetics though. The community that rejects, or even repudiates shomer negiah isn’t doing so to preserve the rights of men who wish to shake hands with women. Rather, this community embraces what they consider a more natural set of rules to govern contact between the sexes. This community fully expects that teens will date, hold hands, and kiss. Premarital sex is still considered out-of-bounds, but sexual experimentation on some controlled level is expected, and even encouraged. Together with that is a more permissive attitude towards other avenues of teenage experimentation such as drugs and alcohol.

What can we make of all this? Are teens who are engaging in this mild form of teenage rebellion doomed to a life bereft of proper Torah values? Perhaps parents are more permissive because they expect their teens to return to the straight and narrow after a year or two of study in Israel. Maybe parents simply remember the less-stringent days of their youth, when Young Israels sponsored mixed dances and nobody had yet heard of shomer negiah.

What’s certain is this. Bad behavior by teens while on unsupervised vacations is not a problem specific to one denomination, or even one religion. It’s the nature of adolescence. The Miami Beach scene is populated not only by the Modern Orthodox. Syrian youth, Yeshivish teens, and many other sects and subgroups can be seen walking the boardwalks and frequenting the hotel lobbies and bars. The vices of drinking, smoking, and drug use have also penetrated all of our communities. As for sex, while its true that MO girls are more likely to be found in bikinis, more extreme problems like molestation and prostitution, though rarer in general, appear to be a greater problem in communities to the right of Modern Orthodoxy.

Before we run around blaming the hashkafot of one group or another, and before we accuse parents of negligence, let’s just ask one question. Is the Miami Beach scene really a problem? In the words of a good friend of mine, and a keen observer of human behavior, are we just lamenting the tail-end of a normal distribution? Maybe 99% of kids go to Miami and have a good, reasonably wholesome time. Maybe it’s only that last 1% who are acting out, engaging in risky behaviors, and calling out for attention through their misbehavior. It would be tragic if we forgot about actually dealing with that troubled 1% because we got caught up in a game of hashkafic Gotcha!