One of the dirty little secrets of Jewish outreach efforts to young people — particularly to college students and those in their 20s — is the use of alcohol to entice them.

The most recent case in point was TribeFest, a five-day gathering sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America to attract people in the 22-to-45 age range.

Two years in the planning, it was held last month in Las Vegas and featured discussions, musical entertainment and networking. And lots and lots of liquor.

Participants and observers described how the Vegas setting was a key ingredient in bringing some 1,200 participants to the conference, featuring nine open bars each evening.

For decades, the JFNA National Young Leadership Cabinet, sponsor of the program, had a tradition of holding its major conference in Washington every other year, focusing on politics and top speakers on the Middle East. But with federation affiliation seen as old school by increasing numbers of young people, the cabinet tried a new approach this year, dropping the pretense that TribeFest was anything other than a free-flowing party. 

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 Steven Scheck, co-chair of the cabinet, was quoted in the Chronicle of Philanthropy last week as stating: “For every reason you can think of to not have it in Vegas  —the strip, the gambling and the shows — for all those reasons, I can make the argument why that was the best reason to have it in Vegas.”

The Chronicle article described an atmosphere of revelry, and cited one young man who estimated his vodka tab was $2,000, and a young woman who said she had to “take off my drunk hat” before talking to a reporter amid the free-flowing liquor.

Perhaps JFNA is merely emulating the success of programs like the popular Shabbat dinners and other events held at Chabad Houses on college campuses around the country where a major feature is alcohol, along with home-cooked meals.  [See Clarification at the end of this article.]

Some Hillel supporters speak of the inroads Chabad has made on campus with a mixture of admiration, envy and anger. They note that Chabad campus rabbis and their wives tend to be warm, caring and nonjudgmental, but also focused on targeting students from Hillels, a charge that is difficult to assess.

Hillel’s policy is not to allow alcohol at events where undergraduates are present (other than Kiddush wine on Shabbat). But the Hillel at the University of Florida recently had a series of Friday night “Parsha and Pitchers” events for students over 21 at a local bar, where beer and Torah study were on tap. Keith Dvorchik, the Hillel executive director there, said the experiment was ended after a few weeks. “We’re looking to create a long-term commitment to Jewish life,” he said.

Surely the pressure to draw students to events is strong at a time when American campuses are said to be undergoing a dramatic and dangerous increase in binge drinking among undergraduates.

Beyond the campus, at the General Assembly of JFNA last November, Jewlicious, a popular website for young people, sponsored an evening “salon” that, according to the GA program, offered a “whiskey appreciation and public toasting sponsored by Johnny Walker.”

In the Orthodox community, informal Kiddush clubs are popular in some congregations where men take a break from Shabbat morning services to enjoy their own l’chaims on the synagogue premises. Rabbis frown on the practice, saying it disrupts the service and sets a bad example for youngsters.

And then there is Birthright, the granddaddy of Jewish outreach programs that combines the educational experience of a 10-day visit to Israel with a social component winkingly acknowledged as fueled by alcohol and sex.

Officials insist that restrictions have grown tighter and supervision closer in recent years. But they also know that the image among young people of Birthright offering the prospect of a good-time, sometimes sexually active experience — including four days with macho Israeli soldiers — helps make the program so popular.

I am not suggesting that alcohol has no place in Jewish social events for young people of drinking age. But I do worry that it has become too prominent a part of “the sell,” spoken or unspoken, and a cheap replacement for imaginative programming and substantive content.

One theory of why Jews had less of an alcohol problem historically than other groups is that spirits were incorporated into religious ceremonies — Kiddush on Shabbat and holidays, four cups of wine at the seder — as a natural rather than prohibited part of life. Moderation was the key, though it may no longer be true. After all, we have lost much of our cultural distinctiveness over the years.

Most worrisome is that Jewish groups, in their desperation to attract young people to their programs and organizations, are aiming for the lowest common denominator. No doubt TribeFest can create a buzz, literally, with its Vegas partying, and campus groups can attract more people with a night of free beer and a discussion on Charlie Sheen’s Jewishness than a lecture on Maimonides’ 13 principles of faith.

But there are plenty of creative ways to capitalize on young peoples’ search for meaning and sense of community in their lives — something they yearn for, consciously or not, and which our Jewish tradition has addressed with great wisdom for centuries.

It’s time to scale back on the bacchanalia, and put the kadosh (holiness) back in Kiddush.

 Clarification:

Chabad Lubavitch policy is not to serve or permit alcohol at campus events for those under the legal drinking age other than sacramental wine for Kiddush. At least one university Chabad House that serves liquor is not recognized by the national Chabad movement.