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Cheers And Fears: The Debate Over Kiddush Clubs

Cheers And Fears: The Debate Over Kiddush Clubs

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

A recent opinion piece in The Jewish Week by three doctors expressing alarm about so-called kiddush clubs, a phenomenon mostly found in Modern Orthodox shuls, was bound to generate some controversy.

Check next week’s letters page for some pro and con responses.

Whether or not rabbis should allow shul members to step out of services, usually during the Torah reading, to enjoy a private kiddush of mostly liquor and some snacks is a question that probably dates back through generations.

But it came to a head four years ago when the Orthodox Union’s board of directors adopted a resolution urging its member shuls to put an end to this practice. One concern is that it may contribute to alcohol abuse among adults or plant the seeds of it in the adolescents to whom those adults are role models.

Another is the disrespect such a practice shows to the congregation, arguably to the Torah itself, the person reading it and the rabbi, whose sermon will often go unheard by club members.

The definition of kiddush, after all, is the creation of holiness.

Some would argue that kiddush clubs are only one part of a general apathy toward health and good habits at shul. We ply our kids with candy to reward them for attendance. The typical shul kiddush or lunch is a textbook study of bad menu choices, laden with fatty beef, artery-blocking kugel, salty fish and processed sugar-rich cakes, all washed down by sugary soft-drinks and liquor. These meals are often followed by long afternoon naps rather than a brisk walk to burn some calories.

But the kiddush club is a particularly telling social phenomenon that deserves to be studied under its own microscope.

In doing so, any sociologist would see that their popularity is a result of the stress regularly endured by Orthodox men who, even with the increasing frequency of dual income homes, still bear primary responsibility for the costs associated with the religious life of large families. Those costs include yeshiva tuition, shul dues, the purchase of ritual items, charitable obligations and the cost of celebrating milestones.

Anyone who struggles with these burdens knows that middle class is lower class in this environment while upper class often means just staying afloat.

Most Orthodox Jews would not feel comfortable going to bars after hours to blow off steam. And so for many, the kiddush club becomes the place “where everyone knows your name,” to quote the theme of the popular 80s sitcom “Cheers.” The founders and key members of these clubs are often people who run businesses or work long hours at legal, medical or financial practices.

While everyone inside the shul sanctuary can identify with their burdens, disruptive talking is prohibited and so the prayer service for some becomes another formal, rigid environment that echoes the work week.

The environment at a kiddush club closely mirrors that of a tavern, with talk of sports or politics, the telling of jokes (often off-color) and laughter as abundant as the supply of single-malt Scotch.

But despite their attractive nature, it’s hard to argue with critics of kiddush clubs. Some overindulge (a bottle of Scotch rarely makes two appearances at a Kiddush club, unless it’s domestic). The majority of participants will not go back into services when the tap runs dry. Children come into shul looking to sit with their fathers, and know exactly where they’ve gone when the seat is empty.

While socializing with peers can be an acceptable answer to stress, drinking surely is not.

“People who react to stress by drinking are on their way to becoming alcoholics,” says Rabbi Abraham Twerski, who is also a doctor and addiction counselor. “Especially when they leave davening and have a few shots downstairs, then come up and finish davening, and have a few more shots afterward [at the main Kiddush].”

Rabbi Twerski is in favor of an all out ban on Kiddush clubs.

“First of all, Kiddush should not be made until after davening,” he says. “It’s an insult to the shul and a terrible example for kids, who have to be taught to have respect for the shul.”

Jewish alcoholism, he says, is on the rise.

“It is much more prevalent than when I was a kid,” he says. “In those years, a country club would not accept a Jewish wedding or a bar mitzvah because they couldn’t make money on the alcohol. These days, they are scrambling for our business. We’ve picked up drinking as a way of life and it is having a horrendous effect on kids.”

But prohibition is no simple matter. Rabbis know that if they seek a ban, and the club continues anyway, the rabbi’s authority is diminished, and often they would face a battle with prominent shul members, major donors or officers who can’t be threatened with expulsion. It takes a well-entrenched rabbi to put his foot down.

But even those who fit that bill should avoid looking at kiddush clubs as a problem unto itself, rather than a byproduct of a lifestyle that, while not without substantial rewards, has a potential toll.

“Sure, the financial burdens create stress,” said Rabbi Twerski. “But drinking or drugs is not a solution. There are hundreds of programs for stress management, but you have to want to do it.”

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