Tipplers in Exile After Refusenik’s Synagogue Visit

By Gabriel Sanders

Published December 31, 2004, issue of December 31, 2004.
  • Print
  • Share Share

In a story bringing together dissidents of all stripes — rabbinic, refusenik and sybaritic — a spirited band of synagogue-goers finds itself out of favor, following a recent visit by Natan Sharansky.

A onetime Soviet dissident and the current Israeli Minister of Jerusalem Affairs, Sharansky spent the Sabbath beginning December 3 at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, an Orthodox congregation in the Bronx that led the way in taking up his cause more than two decades ago. He was the personal guest of the synagogue’s longtime religious leader, Rabbi Avi Weiss, himself a dissident voice and activist who frequently finds himself at odds with prominent Jewish organizations.

The Israeli minister was greeted warmly not only by Weiss and the congregation as a whole, but also by one of its unofficial welcoming committees.

At one point during the Saturday morning services, Sharansky slipped away to have a shot of Scotch with the congregation’s Kiddush Club.

Not an uncommon institution at synagogues the world over, the Kiddush Club — a small, self-selected group that feasts on food and drink during the weekly Haftorah reading from the Prophets or during the rabbi’s speech — offers a break for those weary from prayer and a respite for those exhausted by the spiritual demands of the Sabbath. It is, in short, a way to get a buzz in the middle of services with the accompaniment of some choice victuals.

And Sharansky seems to have been a fan.

At a post-Sabbath book signing held at the synagogue, according to witnesses, Sharansky announced, to the delight of the assembled, that the time he’d spent with the Kiddush Club was the high point of his visit.

Though Weiss laughed along, sources said, he was not pleased — before the Kiddush Club had a chance to convene again, a number of its members were asked by congregation President Daniel Perla not to meet anymore.

“The predominant issue was the alcohol,” Perla said, in an interview with the Forward. “The group I think understood the sensitivity there, and at the end of the day they were very respectful of the rabbi’s wishes.”

In weeks since, the club has met at the homes of members living nearby.

Gaining as many detractors as it has adherents, the growth of the Kiddush Club has become a divisive force in Orthodox communities, with many using religious arguments to buttress their cases for or against the consumption of alcohol during services. The Web page of one New Jersey club cites a 16th-century rabbinic authority, Rabbi Yitzhak Mazie, as saying that drinking before prayers are over is all right, as long as one doesn’t make a meal out of it. On the other hand, a recent letter to The Jewish Press, a right-wing Brooklyn-based Orthodox newspaper, argued that “not only is a kiddush club a blight on a shul’s kedusha [holiness], it actually makes a mockery of the tefilla [prayers].”

But in Riverdale, the issue is less one of drink and more a question of control, some members of the Hebrew Institute say. Though himself a renegade — who has frequently bucked directives from Jewish organizational officials and spearheaded the creation of a new rabbinical seminary to take on Yeshiva University — Weiss, according to some members of the congregation, has trouble countenancing breakaway movements springing from within his own ranks.

In Weiss’s defense, supporters insist that the issue isn’t about ego: The rabbi simply opposes the creation of smaller groups that would draw away from the main sanctuary and divide the congregation.

Attempts to reach Weiss before press time were unsuccessful.

As for Sharansky, the onetime dissident, in this instance, played the consummate diplomat.

“It’s well known that the rabbi is a very close friend of the minister,” said Sharansky’s spokeswoman, Rivka Kanarek.

“The people who went out for the kiddish,” she added, “are also his friends.”

As far as the rabbi’s speech is concerned, the spokeswoman insisted that Sharansky “heard all of it, and enjoyed every word.”

Find us on Facebook!
  • "Aren’t you shvitzing in that?" http://jd.fo/b49Cq To the non-Orthodox, Hasidic clothing looks unbearably hot. But does focusing on someone else’s discomfort reflect our own discomfort with religious dress?
  • An Israel diplomat responds to J.J. Goldberg's stunning revelations about what sparked Gaza was. Is it really 'naive' to report that Hamas was not to blame for teens' kidnappings — or that Israel's own lies forced it to launch onslaught?
  • The origins of Yiddish, part tsvey: Did Yiddish start in the Rhine Valley? http://jd.fo/g4J3F
  • Josh Nathan-Kazis' epic tale of family ambition and failure in Maine is the first in our project to cover 50 states in 50 weeks. What Jewish stories should we cover in your state?
  • “And why should there be Hebrew? I’m not Jewish, I’m a Subbotnitsa.” In 2006, 13 of the 30,000 inhabitants of Sevan, Armenia, were Subbotniks. Now, there are only 10 left: thttp://jd.fo/b4BPI
  • Sigal Samuel started their Dixie road trip in Birmingham, Alabama, where the cab driver has a Bible on his seat and tells them his daddy taught him to respect the Jews. They're sure 'nuff feeling 'chosen' http://blogs.forward.com/forward-thinking/201953/feeling-chosen-in-alabama/?
  • Why Jewish artists continue to be inspired by the Bible: http://jd.fo/q4PRh
  • When filmmaker Nasya Kamrat sought for a way to commemorate the story of her grandfather, a Polish Holocaust survivor, she had an unusual idea: use his paintings for an animated Holocaust documentary. http://jd.fo/p4RGf
  • As part of the Forward's 50-state project, Anne Cohen and Sigal Samuel are setting out on a journey through Dixie. To get you in the mood, here’s a brief history of Jewish road trips: http://jd.fo/q4RYl
  • "1. Sex. She had it. She liked it. She didn’t make a big deal of it." What were your favorite Elaine moments on Seinfeld?
  • "Mamie Eisenhower had one, and if you came of age during the 1950s, chances are you had one, too. I’m referring to the charm bracelet, that metallic cluster of miniaturized icons that hung from, and often strained, the wrist of every self-respecting, well-dressed woman in postwar America." Do you have charm bracelet memories? Share them with us!
  • How the Gaza War started — and how it can end:
  • This could be the first ancient synagogue mosaic to feature a non-biblical narrative.
  • "Suddenly we heard a siren, but it was very faint. We pulled the kids out of the pool, and then we heard a big boom."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.