Shabbat libations cause for concern

When a group of men can be so drunk that one of them knocks over a toddler into the middle of a busy street and falls flat on his face, it’s time to reassess the impact excessive alcohol consumption is having on our communities. 

Every year, in preparation for the Purim holiday, a festival when drinking alcohol is not just condoned but encouraged, rabbis and Jewish organizations issue warnings about the dangers of binge drinking. Unfortunately, as anyone who has come into contact with the “Kiddush clubs” that exist in many Modern Orthodox synagogues knows too well, the problem isn’t confined to one raucous holiday. 

These groups of congregants — almost all of them men — typically leave a Shabbat service before its end and retreat to some other location where they drink hard liquor, all too often to excess. 

My community is no exception. Leaving shul a few weeks ago, my family and I walked past a group of about eight men and their children. One of the men, clearly inebriated, swayed uncontrollably and fell on top of my 3-year-old daughter, pushing her into the street as he landed face-first in the middle of the heavily trafficked boulevard.  I quickly swept my daughter up and looked back to see this grown man splayed on the asphalt like a chalk-outlined corpse. 

Neither he nor his equally drunk buddy, who was reaching down to help him up off the ground, seemed embarrassed by the scene they had just made. Instead, laughing, they patted each other on the back, each holding the other up as they clumsily shuffled down the busy thoroughfare. The rest of their Kiddush pals had already continued on in the other direction, never realizing what had just happened.

Community leaders and organizations have tried to restrict the growth of Kiddush clubs, with little success. In 2005, when the Orthodox Union (OU) called on synagogues to eliminate the groups, it described its action as the beginning of “a long and complex battle, which will entail the use of community resources, parent education, special programs in schools and a change in the cultural climate of our synagogues and homes.” My synagogue, Young Israel of Century City, which is a member of the OU, heeded the call, eliminating Kiddush clubs and prohibiting any alcohol from being served on the premises.  

Fast-forward nine years, and instead of correcting the issue, this “prohibition” has given rise to the mobile Kiddush club, gatherings that can take place anywhere from a nearby private home to the alley behind the synagogue. 

It was just such a gathering that my children and I encountered. Ushering them away from the scene, I could sense their uneasiness and confusion at what had transpired. Their questions — Why had this man collapsed? Shouldn’t we stop to help him? — hung in the air, and I felt the need to clarify. 

“That man wasn’t tripped,” I told them. “He didn’t collapse because he was hurt. His friend needed to lift him up off the street because he drank too much alcohol and didn’t act responsibly as an adult.”

My 3-year-old calmed down, and the others accepted my explanation, but when I recounted the story to some of my friends later that day, they chuckled as they imagined the pitiful scene. I was advised not to get involved in other people’s decisions, to “live and let live.”

I could not agree less. The Kiddush club, whether at shul or home, makes a mockery out of Shabbat and shows the children of our community that a shot of scotch with friends is more valued than a heartfelt Shabbat experience. A wife should be able to tell her drunken husband that he is not welcome at the family Shabbat table without being labeled prudish. We must compel those who define Shabbat by their liquor quota to question their conduct and call them out for what they are doing: endangering our youth. 

The unique nature of our tight-knit community is meant to afford me the protection of raising my children among those with like-minded values. But how can we, as a community, even ask why our children are at risk when we ourselves laugh off such risky behavior?  

I wonder about the drunken men who stumbled down the main street that Shabbat. What will it take to wake them up? Does the community, God forbid, need a major accident or a fatal overdose to recognize that we have let this go on too long? Would meals need to be prepared for the shivah house of this or that man’s wife and children in order for people to acknowledge that alcohol consumption in our community oftentimes goes beyond acceptable recreational levels? 

Almost a decade has passed since the OU first waged war on Kiddush clubs, and, in many communities, the problem has only grown. The reality is that change will not come to our shuls and schools simply because a large organization decides it is time.  Change in our community will only happen when we collectively refuse to accept drunken excess as tolerable behavior.  

The consequences for continuing to ignore this conduct will be great. Impressionable children look on — they watch, they learn and are at higher risk for replicating this behavior. For the sake of our future health and prosperity together, let us hope that we are sober enough to hear this wake-up call.

Alison Steinlauf Anziska is a website product manager, the mother of four children, and a native of Los Angeles.