A number of years ago I attended a “Kiddush Club” gathering in the basement of a synagogue. Right when the haftarah reading began, several 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.
I remember thinking at the time, “Isn’t it only fair for people to enjoy a nice drink on their weekend?”
Since then, I’ve learned how destructive this cultural phenomenon has become in shuls across the country.
To be sure, I’m not the first to raise this concern. A few years back the Orthodox Union launched a campaign to eradicate the Kiddush Club from our midst, and a number of rabbis courageously succeeded in eliminating or reducing the size of these gatherings in their shuls.
These rabbis understood it was disrespectful to the congregation and a terrible influence on the children. This drinking, though it seems harmless to many, can serve as a gateway to drugs, drunk driving, and fatal decision-making.
One rabbi told me that many women begged him to end Kiddush Clubs because their husbands were coming home from shul so drunk they couldn’t even sit at the Shabbat table, and as a result would spend the entire day drunk in bed.
Is this the holy day of rest? What kind of values are we promoting in shul?
Alcoholism, contrary to what many of us choose to believe, is a pervasive problem in the community, one that JACS, a Jewish organization supporting alcoholics and those who are chemically dependent, works diligently to address.
Some studies have shown that 10-15 percent of Jews are alcoholics; contrary to public opinion, it is not the lowest socio-economic groups that predominantly struggle with this problem.
Rabbi Abraham Twerski, who is affiliated with JACS, noted that “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 Kiddush Clubs 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 in his teachings on life ethics the shevil zahav, the golden mean, in order that one emulate the ways of God.
Yet, a reader is sure to ask, aren’t there Jewish festivities that might allow or even encourage a little overindulgence?
The Beit Yosef, author of the Shulchan Aruch, went so far as to rule that “the mitzvah 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 10:45a.m.!
Advocates of Kiddush Clubs argue that “it’s not about getting drunk but just about making a littlel’chaim”.
It is rarely manifested this way, however, 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 who deliberately ignore and disrespect Jewish communal life in effect 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 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 in Jewish life.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is founder and president of Uri L’Tzedek; senior Jewish educator at UCLA; and a 5th-year Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University in moral psychology & epistemology.