Whiskey Rebellion


If you want to make a l’chaim at some major Orthodox synagogues around New York, you’ll have to wait until after services for kiddush.

The shuls have banned kiddush clubs.

This comes following the recent decision of the Orthodox Union’s board of directors to encourage its member congregations to discontinue the informal drinking clubs that draw congregants from Saturday morning during services.

Basing his information on “anecdotal evidence,” Rabbi Adam Mintz, president of the New York Board of Rabbis, says kiddush clubs “are not happening anymore” at a half-dozen prominent local Modern Orthodox congregations that he declined to name.

Their spiritual leaders stopped the practice, he said, after Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, the OU’s executive vice president, urged rabbis in OU-affiliated synagogues to preach against the abuse of kiddush clubs during Shabbat sermons two weeks ago.

“This is something they had wanted to do for a long time,” Rabbi Mintz said.

The OU issued its declaration, Rabbi Weinreb wrote in an essay, “Why Kiddush Clubs Must Go,” from a concern over “two problematic areas of contemporary Orthodox Jewish life in the United States. The first … is the synagogue environment and the oft-bemoaned dearth of spirituality there.”

Congregants who leave services for the invitation-only social events, usually during the haftarah reading that follows the Torah reading, are often disruptive to other worshipers.

This criticism was highlighted when Natan Sharansky, former Soviet dissident and current Israeli cabinet member, was quoted as saying that his participation in the kiddush club at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in December was the high point of his Shabbat there.

“The second area, perhaps more troublesome,” Rabbi Weinreb wrote, “is the growth of delinquent and self-destructive behaviors in our community, primarily with adolescents but persisting into young adulthood, of substance abuse and related misbehaviors.”

In recent weeks the Israeli press has reported on the death of yeshiva student from a heroin overdose and the drug arrests of other yeshiva students from the United States.

“They brought their habits from America,” Haaretz reported.

Some in the American Orthodox community for years have criticized the amount of alcohol consumed at synagogue kiddushes both as an entry point into substance abuse for youngsters who see their elders imbibing and as tacit approval of drinking.

“At a recent convention of the Orthodox mental health organization Nefesh International, therapist after therapist indicated that almost invariably the youngsters they see who struggle with alcoholic tendencies trace their introduction to experiences they had in shul or at [events] such as weddings and bar mitzvahs,” Rabbi Weinreb wrote.

“I think there’s a correlation,” said Rabbi Abraham Twerski, a physician and medical director emeritus of the Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Pittsburgh, who has specialized in treating substance abuse. “A drug is a drug is a drug.

“Kids learn from what they see,” said Rabbi Twerski, who has taken a “very strong stand” against kiddush clubs. “Where a single l’chaim is acceptable, excessive drinking is forbidden.”

Rabbi Daniel Korobkin of Kehillat Yavneh in Los Angeles, in that city’s Jewish Journal, wrote that “Parents sauntering into shul with Scotch on their breath are not positive role models.”

In his essay, Rabbi Weinreb wrote: “This increasingly common practice [of kiddush clubs] consists of a large group of congregants, almost invariably men, who leave the main sanctuary at a key point in the middle of the service …and withdraw to a side room where they partake in hard and expensive liquor, commonly fine single malt scotch whiskey. The kiddush club … serves as a setting within which adults drink immoderate amounts of alcohol and often return to synagogue more than mildly intoxicated.

“Many rabbis told us of their struggles to put an end to the disgrace of the kiddush clubs but felt they alone did not command sufficient authority to eliminate it.”

The rabbis who decided to end their congregations’ kiddush clubs “relied on Rabbi Weinreb’s proclamation,” Rabbi Mintz said. “What’s important here is that it draws attention to the issue. He was far more successful than most people would have imagined. Had you asked someone six months ago whether Rabbi Weinreb would be successful, there would have been a real cynicism.”

The OU directive was the subject of discussion “all over the place” in Modern Orthodox circles, Rabbi Mintz said, noting that “The abuse of alcohol has become a very serious problem.”

As one sign of the diminishing support for synagogues’ kiddush clubs, none of the congregations that have kiddush clubs, nor Web sites devoted to kiddush clubs, responded to requests by The Jewish Week to comment on the topic.For some congregants who enjoy kiddush clubs, “it’s a control issue,” Rabbi Mintz said. “They don’t want anyone, including a rabbi, dictating what they can do.

Rabbi Mintz said he heard that a member of “one prominent shul” whose rabbi had spoken against kiddush clubs distributed a letter in favor of the practice as a form of protest to other members.

Neither Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun nor Lincoln Square Synagogue, Manhattan congregations where Rabbi Mintz has served, or Kehilat Rayim Ahuvim, a new congregation on the Upper West Side where the rabbi is an “active participant,” has sponsored kiddush clubs, he said.

Kiddush clubs are most common at synagogues where there is only one Saturday morning service, Rabbi Mintz said. In large congregations with a variety of Shabbat morning services, a separate kiddush usually follows each service.

“In shuls where you have multiple minyans,” he said, “you don’t need kiddush clubs.”