Choose Life, Not Kiddush Clubs


It is now widely acknowledged, after years of denial, that alcoholism is increasingly prevalent in the Jewish community. In suburban Baltimore, two centers are already dedicated to the treatment of recovering Jewish drug addicts and alcoholics. It is estimated that approximately 10 percent of Jewish men have problems with excessive alcohol intake and dependence. Although this figure is less than other religious groups where the incidence may reach 30 percent, the number is still unacceptably high. 

The extent of the problem among Orthodox versus less observant Jews is open to debate but many professionals have expressed concern that the Orthodox lifestyle may provide opportunities for alcohol abuse and that religious practices may provide justification for and mask excessive alcohol ingestion.  The most disturbing fact is that young Jews seem to be more vulnerable to alcohol abuse than their parents.
This is reason enough for Jewish parents to set a good example and avoid behaviors that promote inappropriate alcohol consumption.

As pediatricians, we are troubled by the prevalence of Kiddush Clubs in Orthodox shuls and the availability of hard liquor for the congregation at Kiddush after services. The habit of having a drink during prayer services arose in the small shtetls of Europe before the full impact and adverse effects of alcohol on health were appreciated. We think that the practice of drinking hard alcohol on shul premises promotes and sanctions behavior that can have deleterious effects on younger members of the community. 

Regular meetings of Kiddush Clubs provide an implicit sanction for a form of covert drinking. It provides a veneer of respectability and exclusivity, suggesting a “coolness” about those individuals who are part of this private, select drinking group. These adults become the enablers of youth drinking. This is well described by Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union: “It’s not only drinking, it’s idealized drinking which is a very, very bad message for the kids.” 

What validation and sanction for this behavior does a child or adolescent need more than “I saw it in shul?” The Orthodox Union voted in 2005 to recommend that affiliated synagogues end Kiddush Clubs. Although many congregations objected that this was an excessive response to isolated incidents of alcohol abuse, other enlightened shuls have curtailed their Kiddush Clubs. Other denominations, such as Reform temples, have never established this practice.

There are numerous publications in the pediatric literature detailing the adverse effects of alcohol exposure on susceptible children and adolescents. An extreme example of the physical danger of alcohol is illustrated in a recent article in Newsweek by Lisa Miller that describes a young “orthodox” man who became so drunk on Shabbat that he drove his car into the oncoming traffic lane, rolled his car and crashed into a cottage. It is our contention that there are vulnerable children in our communities whose latent propensity to excessive alcohol intake may be triggered by Kiddush Clubs and the drinking of hard liquor on shul premises. 

Pediatricians have advocated for bans on smoking and fought against advertising campaigns directed at adolescents. These efforts have achieved a substantial reduction in smoking among young people. They have convinced pediatricians that they can change unhealthy practices and combat long-standing, condoned behaviors. As pediatricians and members of Orthodox shuls, we believe that banning Kiddush Clubs would help protect vulnerable children and adolescents.

In discussing this matter with local synagogue leadership, the common justification for continuing the practice of drinking in shul is that there have been no adverse consequences in their particular locale. In addition, they feel that it is a custom that they cannot easily challenge because it is too deeply rooted and the participants are frequently senior and otherwise respected congregants. Drinking hard liquor in shul is a prevalent practice that has ardent followers but serves no constructive purpose in Jewish communal life.

We do not want to address issues regarding the impact of Kiddush Clubs on decorum in synagogues, the inappropriateness of interrupting services, or disrespect for prayer engendered by participation in Kiddush Clubs. We do not even touch upon the potential liability that synagogues may face through property or personal damages to congregants or others that might occur following alcohol ingestion on shul premises.

A laissez-faire attitude towards Kiddush Clubs in general, an inexplicable timidity in confronting club members, and a misguided attempt to minimize the problem by asserting the involvement of only a small group of outliers are all unacceptable strategies. They evade parental and congregational responsibility to ensure that children are not exposed to unhealthy habits especially within the confines of the synagogue. Kiddush Clubs are a phenomenon unique to Orthodox Jews. Rather than choosing to hide behind the banner of tradition, we encourage confronting this potential health problem in a straightforward manner. 

In an effort to foster the protection of the younger members of the Jewish community from the potential development of abnormal drinking behavior as adults, we strongly urge that the drinking of alcohol (other than Kiddush wine) be prohibited on the synagogue premises. We call upon like-minded medical professionals and other individuals to assert their influence in their communities to once and for all put an end to social practices that foster abnormal consumption of alcohol in shuls.

Philip Lanzkowsky and Howard Trachtman are professors of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of YeshivaUniversity, and Irving Zoltan is assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at Einstein.