A number of years back, I attended a kiddush club gathering in the basement of a synagogue. Right when the haftara reading began, about eight or nine older men snuck out the back and in a small dark room in the basement opened multiple bottles of alcohol. They drank excessively until the sermon was over and then not so inconspicuously returned back for the final portion of the Shabbat morning service. Isn’t it fair for one to enjoy a nice scotch on their weekend, I wondered at the time?
Since then, I’ve learned how destructive this cultural phenomenon has become in shuls around the country.
To be sure, I’m not the first to go on this tirade. A few years back the Orthodox Union went on a fierce campaign to rid the kiddush club from our midst, and a number of rabbis courageously succeeded in eliminating or reducing the size of these gatherings at their shuls.
These rabbis understood that it was disrespectful to the congregation, as well as being a terrible influence on the children. There have been numerous reports of teens who have had to go from the synagogue to the hospital on Simchat Torah because they were so drunk. This drinking, though it seems harmless to many, can serve as a gateway to drugs, drunk driving, and irreversible, fatal decision-making.
One rabbi explained to me that many women plead with him to end kiddush clubs, since their husbands were coming home from shul so drunk that they couldn’t even sit at the Shabbat table, and as a result would spend the whole day drunk in bed.
Is this the holy day of rest? What kind of values are we promoting in shul?
Alcoholism is a pervasive problem in the community; one that JACS, a Jewish organization supporting alcoholics and those chemically dependent, works diligently to address. Some studies have shown that 10 to 15 percent of Jews are alcoholics; contrary to public opinion, it is not the lowest socio-economic group that predominantly struggles with this problem.
Rabbi Abraham Twerski, founder of the Gateway Rehabilitation Center in suburban Pittsburgh, who is affiliated with JACS, wrote, “A New York survey indicated that 50 percent of Jewish alcoholics studied had an annual income of at least $50,000 per year.”
Knowing that this is a pervasive yet often silenced issue in our communities, how can we possibly take a permissive approach to housing drinking spaces in our synagogues?
Jewish law prohibits achila gasa (overconsumption) because the Torah teaches that when one has consumed excessively one risks falling victim to greed and self-indulgence. It is not abstinence but moderation that is advocated. The Rambam prioritizes within his teachings on life ethics the shevil zahav, golden mean, in order that one emulates the ways of G-d. Yet, aren’t there Jewish festivities that might allow or even encourage a little overindulgence?
The Beit Yosef, the 16th century legal authority and author of the Shulkhan Arukh, went so far as to rule that “the mitzva to drink on Purim does not mean to get drunk, because being drunk is a totally forbidden, and there is no sin greater than this!” If this is true for Purim then how much more so for a Shabbat morning at 10:45 a.m.
Advocates of the club on Shabbat argue that it’s not about getting drunk but just about making a little l’chaim (toast to each other).
It is rarely manifested this way and pockets of exclusivity that reinforce materialism and reckless consumption are destructive to our spiritual communities. These clubs exclude women (and many men) and send an inappropriate message to our kids about drinking and about what shul and Shabbat are supposed to be about.
Adults deliberately ignoring and disrespecting Jewish communal life make the day school tuition they’ve been paying a waste of money. It is vital for the efficacy of Jewish education that the positive Jewish character traits taught in school are modeled at home and in the community.
A few shuls have recognized the extent of the problem and have fully banned alcohol from the building aside from the ceremonial wine. While this is a positive start, we must now attack not only the supply but the demand — the religious culture that prioritizes personal pleasure over communal responsibility. We must make it clear that a culture of sanctioned hedonism within our most sacred institutions has no place.
All of us as community members set precedents by how we spend our discretionary time and money; we need to be more sensitive to how and when we consume in our communities and how that impacts others. Creating more inclusive spiritual communities that are sensitive to issues of consumption will not only help to eradicate unhealthy dynamics from our community but will ultimately encourage more people to attend and to participate.
(Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the founder and president of Uri L’Tzedek, the senior Jewish educator at UCLA and a fifth-year doctoral candidate at Columbia University in moral psychology and epistemology.)