October 17, 2019

Wanna drink? Think again!

This Purim will be the first test of a new teen anti-drinking campaign adopted by Los Angeles’ Orthodox rabbis after a Simchat Torah debacle in which more than 100 teens were seen drinking publicly or intoxicated.

The plan was adopted Nov. 14 at a meeting convened by Jewish Family Service’s Aleinu Family Resource Center, which was attended by, among others, heads of school of Shalhevet, YULA and Valley Torah — all Orthodox high schools — and rabbis of synagogues in the Pico-Robertson area, Hancock Park and the Valley.

“There were around 100 to 150 teens drinking [on Simchat Torah], so we were concerned about the fact of adults giving that kind of alcohol to kids,” said Debbie Fox, director of Aleinu, which provides counseling and educational services to the Orthodox community.

Rabbis at the November meeting agreed to ask the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC), an Orthodox umbrella organization, to ask its members to designate shuls as “dry” — meaning alcohol-free — or “monitored,” meaning the shul would assign someone to make sure that no minors were served. They also reached a consensus to promote more knowledge about the dangers of teen drinking and addiction.

Recognizing alcohol’s long-standing presence in Jewish custom, tradition and culture — especially on Purim, when drinking is a mitzvah — and hearing from some rabbis that it would be impossible to have shuls go completely dry, Aleinu has tried to work directly with the shuls and parents to take responsibility for their teens.

While Aleinu and the RCC did not publish a list of dry and monitored shuls in time for Purim, last month Fox, with RCC cooperation, sent a letter and informational brochure to 85 rabbis, asking each shul to decide what its status would be on Purim, and to speak to their congregations about staying sober.

The Orthodox Union also sent out a letter urging rabbis to ask parents to carefully monitor their children, since drinks in shul are often cited as starting points for kids who later become addicts.

Many rabbis spoke to their congregations on Aleinu’s Feb. 3 “Shabbat of Awareness.” Two days before that event, about 45 rabbis came to The Jewish Federation to listen to an addiction specialist and watch a video in which recovering Orthodox teens explained factors that influenced their drinking and drug habits.

The same video was shown to the 130 parents who attended similar presentations Feb. 18 at Shaare Tefila and Beth Jacob. Also, in recent weeks flyers, posters and e-mails have circulated pleading: “This Purim, Don’t Get Carried Away.”

“These programs should help parents communicate with kids about the impact of drinking,” Fox said. “Our previous experience shows there are hardly ever conversations between parents and children about drinking.”

Shalhevet students who were out last erev Simchat Torah said that students from many different schools — including some from out of the area — were seen in the Pico area under the influence of alcohol. Two had to be taken to the hospital by paramedics, one of whom had her stomach pumped, witnesses said.

“This has been a problem every year,” said Rabbi Avi Greene, Shalhevet’s head of Judaic studies. “This year, certain events just made it impossible to keep the problem quiet.”

According to several witnesses, including students and rabbis from various schools interviewed by The Boiling Point, Shalhevet’s newspaper, teens were able to obtain drinks at several shuls in the Pico-Robertson area. They said alcohol might also have come from the teenagers’ homes.

“Walking down Pico Boulevard, I could barely take a few steps without hearing someone say or do something stupid because they were under the influence of alcohol,” Shalhevet junior Gaby Grossman said.

Perhaps the annual Purim party of the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY) will be able to distract teenagers from their alcoholic inclination. This year’s party, at Congregation Mogen David on Pico Boulevard, advertises itself as “alcohol-free” and includes all-night security, responsible staff and a packed schedule of activities. NCSY will also keep the Rubin Teen Drop-in Center on Pico near Roxbury Drive open all night as an alcohol-free safe zone.

“We definitely emphasized the absence of alcohol from this year’s event more than usual,” NCSY Vice President of Outreach Stephanie Aziz, a Shalhevet junior, said. “We recognized the goal to keep incidents like this from happening, and we’re going to do whatever it takes to make sure teens have a fun, safe event on these holidays.”

Some students thought Aleinu’s outreach effort represented a stepping-stone toward overall progress.

“I’m in favor of educational programs because they help develop a sense of what’s right and what’s wrong,” Shalhevet junior Jennifer Reiz said. “At the same time, teenagers tend to learn more from their own mistakes and experiences.”

Others questioned whether the plans would succeed.

Educational programs “probably won’t help,” junior Meir Chodakiewitz said, “because when we see adults drink, it seems more OK for us. We drink to feel older.”

Sophomore Jonathan Cohen, who said he saw alcohol being served at as many as five synagogues Simchat Torah night, said designating shuls dry or monitored might slow kids’ drinking a little, “but most kids will still find a way around it.”

Still, most realized that something must be changed, because the current problem is, as one student put it, “intolerable.”

“It’s about time for change,” Shalhevet senior Jonah Braun said. “The debacle of Simchat Torah was a shame to the Jewish community as a whole.”

Louis Keene is a junior at Shalhevet and Torah editor of The Boiling Point, where a version of this article first appeared.

Speak Up!

Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the April issue is March 15; Deadline for the May issue is April 15. Send submissions to julief@jewishjournal.com.