Saying there is "a serious problem" in the Orthodox community with "weekend alcoholics," the president of the Orthodox movement’s Rabbinical Council of America plans to ask colleagues to consider restricting hard liquor in their synagogues for any and all occasions.
Rabbi Hershel Billet of the Young Israel of Woodmere, L.I., an 800-member congregation that instituted its own ban on hard liquor for the first time last weekend, said he planned to issue the call at the groupís annual national convention at the Rye Town Hilton at the end of this month.
Some sociologists have suggested that Jews have a lower incidence of drinking problems than the rest of society because they incorporate wine into their lives through rituals like the Shabbat kiddush and the Passover seder’s four cups. But recent studies have found that 10 to 15 percent of Jews are alcoholics.
A growing trend in some Orthodox synagogues has been "the kiddush club," an informal term for groups of men who take a break from services on Shabbat morning, often after the Torah reading, to have refreshments that includes hard liquor. Some rabbis, including Rabbi Billet, have banned such activities, asserting that they detract from the main service and provide a poor example for youngsters.
"I’m hoping there will be some real change in the Jewish community," the rabbi said in explaining his planned proposal to the RCA members. "I understand those who say it’s an intrusion on people’s privacy to impose that restriction on someone who rents a synagogue for a private Shabbos lunch, that you are treating responsible adults like children. But I think that in facing reality, we have to face some of the problems that are out there. There are times when extreme action has to be taken."
At the Young Israel of Woodmere, there was no discernible reaction to the ban among bar mitzvah guests, according to the synagogue’s president, George Wertheimer.
"I can only surmise that the ones who like to drink hard liquor noticed it, but nothing was said to me," he said.
The hard liquor ban followed a recent incident in which a teenager became sick after drinking too much hard liquor at a kiddush, according to Allen Ganz, a former president of the congregation.
"A lot of adults don’t realize it, but teen drinking is a serious problem," he said. "We’ve had situations in the last five or six years where some teenagers were drinking heavily on Simchat Torah and had to be taken to the hospital. It has happened in our shul and others in the Five Towns area."
A similar ban on all hard liquor in the synagogue was instituted days later at Congregation Aish Kodesh, another Orthodox synagogue in Woodmere. It came after young people in their teens and early 20s smuggled hard liquor into a music concert the congregation sponsored April 4. About 30 to 50 of those in the crowd of more than 500 became intoxicated and ill.
Arnie Goldfein, president of JACS (Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons and Significant Others), applauded the bans.
"This is the first time I’m hearing that someone has done something to this extent," he said. "It’s wonderful."
Goldfein said he was particularly pleased because of an incident two years ago when an Orthodox synagogue in Queens sought to stop the kiddush club and congregants refused to go along. But he stressed that alcoholism can strike all members of the Jewish community equally.
"Even though a part of drinking is ritualized, a lot is not," he said, adding that some Jews are using rituals as a cover for drinking.
The president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, Rabbi Reuven Hammer, said by phone from his home in Jerusalem that he did not know if there is a drinking problem at Conservative synagogues here but added: "I think we should look into it and if there is a problem, deal with it appropriately."
The president of the Reform movementís Central Conference of American Rabbis, Rabbi Janet Marder, did not return several phone calls.
Rabbi Allen Kaplan, a Reform rabbi and a founder of JACS, noted that a JACS study about 20 years ago found that "the highest incidence of denial [of alcoholism] came out of the Orthodox community."
"There are alcoholics who go to shul on Shabbat to get their fix," he said.
Rabbi Kaplan pointed out that "you can get as drunk on [some] wine as you can on hard liquor. … If they are going to do it, they should go all the way [and ban wine, too]."
But he said he disagreed with the ban because "alcohol is a disease …and it can be controlled. Banning alcohol will not solve [anything because] you have to deal with the problem. Should you ban a Viennese table because getting obese" is unhealthy?
The prohibition against hard liquor at the Young Israel of Woodmere came shortly before Passover when the synagogue’s trustees voted 18-10 in favor of the action.
"We heard comments from both sides," Wertheimer, the synagogue president, recalled. "Some said why are you even allowing wine, we would be happy with grape juice. Others asked why we had to go so such an extreme."
Those caught violating the ban will be given two written warnings. A third violation will mean a three-year suspension of membership.
Similar action by Congregation Aish Kodesh came after Azriel Ganz, the synagogue’s board chairman (and Allen’s brother), sent an e-mail to Rabbi Billet congratulating him on the vote and Rabbi Billet sent a reply saying it would be "helpful and a show of community solidarity if you would adopt a similar policy."
"I then called our president and rabbi [Moshe Weinberger], and we decided to have a similar policy that we announced the next Shabbat," Azriel Ganz said. "Rabbi Billet was courageous for pushing it. We wouldnít have done it [alone]."
He said the incident at the music concert a few days earlier had also played a role in the decision.
"They came with water bottles full of vodka and Coke bottles full of rum, as well as bottles of Chivas and cans of beer," Ganz said of some of the young concert goers.
He said he and other adult supervisors "had never seen anything like this. We were not prepared for this." He said some of the boys were rowdy, out of control and visibly drunk.
"It was not a pretty scene," Ganz said. "We were shocked and maybe naive. … We have held musical events for five years, about eight each year, and this never happened before."
For the next musical event on May 20, the synagogue has hired four off-duty police officers to serve as security guards.
"I don’t expect any problem, but we have adopted an alcohol-free policy at all future events," Ganz said of the 225-member congregation, consisting primarily of young families. "There will be zero tolerance."
Ira Scharaga, a past president of the Young Israel of Woodmere, said he was not aware of a problem with teenage drinking at his synagogue but said he favored the ban "if it makes a statement to teenagers that adults are moving away from alcohol and tobacco."
"In the past two or three years, the rabbi has asked people who made luncheons on Saturday to voluntarily not serve anything other than wine," he noted, adding that signs were put up explaining that the policy was instituted out of respect for the rabbi’s wishes.
Elly Lubin, a member of the Young Israel of Woodmere who has a teenage son, said he welcomed the decision because it eliminates the pressure on some teens who are encouraged by others to drink.
"There is no reason why you can’t make a l’chaim [toast] on wine," Lubin added. "There is no extra mitzvah to drink anything harder than wine in shul."
Rabbi Billet said he hopes his synagogue’s action will send a message to young people who ì"think it’s cool" to drink.
"For the most part, people control [their drinking]," he said. "But drinking is a … gateway to drugs, and kids have gotten into cars and have lost their lives in [traffic] accidents. I fully recognize that this is the exception and not the rule. But for the one kid who gets messed up because of [hard liquor], for the one life that is saved, [the ban] is worth it."