Tipplers in Exile After Refusenik’s Synagogue Visit

By Gabriel Sanders

Published December 31, 2004, issue of December 31, 2004.
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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.”






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