Are Kiddush Clubs Just Harmless Fun?

It’s 10 a.m. on Shabbos morning, and the congregation at Ohel Yitzchak (fictitious name) stands as the ark is opened. It is time to take out the Torahs. Voices join together in song, and approximately 30 congregants (mostly men and a few teenage boys) discreetly slip out the back door.

 

The sizable breakaway group leaves the sanctuary and quickly makes its way to the synagogue’s basement, where an assortment of herring, crackers, and hard liquor covers a long table. One of the older men recites kiddush, and everyone reaches for the collection of bottles at the end of the table – helping themselves to white rum, whiskey, and scotch. The “kiddush club” begins.

 

After a few short announcements – and more than a few drinks – the group returns to the synagogue for the end of the prayer service.

 

Image result for kiddush club

 

Sounds like harmless fun, right?

Participants of kiddush clubs point out that these gatherings build camaraderie and even help raise donations for the synagogue. Kiddush clubs usually form as a way to let off some steam in the middle of a long davening and have a good time. People get antsy sitting for three hours in shul and sometimes just need a break. As for the alcohol, proponents argue that the group usually consists of mature, responsible adults who come down for a quick shot and then go back up to rejoin the service.

 

Social activities within a synagogue can be beneficial for fostering community, and sure, these clubs are fun, but at what cost? Many kiddush clubs cross the line to irresponsible and sometimes dangerous.

 

Aside from the issue of disrespecting the Torah service, kiddush clubs glorify the consumption of alcohol and set a negative example for children who are smart enough to notice the smell of booze on their father’s breath. Moreover, many kiddush clubs do not prevent teenagers from joining the l’chaims (a common phrase said before drinking in Judaism, sometimes in celebration) and do not stop them from drinking in excess.

 

At kiddush clubs, excessive drinking is the norm. Some kiddush clubs have the “policy” of not dismissing the group until the bottle is finished. While chanting “finish the bottle” may be harmless when shared among a group of 50, a smaller kiddush club of 12 may be at risk of alcohol poisoning.

 

Some Rabbis have tried to put a stop to Kiddush clubs, but many are reluctant to speak out because they fear it would be politically detrimental to their career.

 

 

A Gateway to Addiction

Alcohol abuse is a pervasive problem in the Jewish community and the youth are certainly not excluded. A 2017 study done by the Israel National Council for the Child revealed that in 2014, 27% of boys (and 14% of girls) in 10th grade reported that at least once in the previous month, they had drunk 5 or more alcohol servings in a short span. Additionally, 12% of boys (and 5% of girls) in 10th grade reported having used marijuana at least once. Regularly engaging in excessive drinking can become a gateway to experimenting with drugs, driving under the influence, and other life-threatening decisions.

 

As an addictions counselor at Retorno, the largest Jewish organization in the world for the prevention and treatment of addictions, I have seen numerous young adults struggling with alcohol addiction. Alcohol dependence leads to serious problems with family relationships, loss of employment, and trouble with the law. Often, participants in our rehab programs tell us that their drinking problem did not begin as an addiction, but rather, as a way to have fun socially or to relieve stress. In many cases, lack of resilience and low self-esteem also play a role in developing addiction. (Our expert staff works to address the underlying issues of addiction in order to achieve long-term recovery.)

 

As the Torah ark closes at Ohel Yitzchak, congregants take their seats and the kiddush club attendees file back into the sanctuary. A few tipsy men continue their jovial banter, and it takes a few moments for everyone to settle down. A group of teenagers opts to remain in the shul basement to continue the drinking games instead of returning to the service. Should we be concerned? By condoning or even encouraging kiddush clubs, are we enabling youth drinking? And at what point does this “harmless fun” turn into a dangerous activity that could later open the door to addiction?

 

 

 

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Shoshana Schwartz

Shoshana Schwartz

Shoshana Schwartz is a therapeutic horseback riding instructor and addictions counselor at Retorno. She is the author of four books and a regular contributor to Mishpacha magazine.
Shoshana Schwartz

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