Orthodox Union Sets Ban on Clubs For Scotch Tipplers

By Gabriel Sanders

Published January 28, 2005, issue of January 28, 2005.

The Orthodox Union has called on its member congregations to eliminate from their synagogues the informal drinking circles known as Kiddush Clubs.

In letters addressed to member rabbis, the O.U., which represents some 1,000 congregations, has encouraged synagogues to devote the Sabbath of February 5 to launching a Kiddush Club crackdown.

The move comes as part of a broader push that the O.U. has dubbed “Safe Homes, Safe Shuls, Safe Schools,” an effort to address the problem of teenage substance abuse in the Orthodox community. The issue was brought to the fore in November when police raided a beer-soaked house party hosted by an 18-year-old New Jersey yeshiva student, where 42 people, most of whom were students at Jewish day schools — some as young as 14 — were arrested.

Kiddush Clubs are small self-selected groups, usually of younger to middle-aged men, who will slip out of Saturday morning services, often during the Haftorah reading from the Prophets or during the rabbi’s sermon, to sip single-malt Scotch — sometimes accompanied by some food — and socialize.

The problem with the clubs is twofold, O.U. leaders said in a meeting with the Forward. They desecrate Saturday morning prayers and set a bad example for the community’s youth.

“Kiddush is a way to sanctify the day,” said Rabbi Moshe Krupka, the O.U.’s executive director of programming. “You’re not sanctifying the Sabbath by walking into the cloak room with a hip flask of single-malt Scotch.”

The decision to eliminate the Kiddush Clubs was an outgrowth of a meeting of rabbis and educators convened by the O.U. on December 21 to discuss questions of substance abuse, gambling, smoking and promiscuity among Orthodox teens. Two days later, in a conference call of O.U. board members, the move was approved by a 9-1 margin.

O.U. leaders stressed that the Kiddush Club initiative is not a silver bullet for the Orthodox world’s woes, but rather a dramatic first step.

“We don’t want for people to think that this resolution is the answer to what happened in Livingston,” Krupka said. “It is, rather, part of an unfolding educational process.”

News of the O.U. resolution already has begun to prompt reactions from the Orthodox community.

There is room within the framework of the Jewish tradition for responsible alcohol consumption, argued Rabbi Allen Schwartz of Congregation Ohab Zedek on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, but Kiddush Clubs have tested those boundaries.

“Once people start bringing cholent and having four or five shots, it’s just not responsible,” Rabbi Schwartz said.

Though Rabbi Schwartz applauds the O.U.’s effort, he remains skeptical about their recommendation’s prospects.

“If people are looking for a Kiddush Club, they’ll find one,” he said.

Instead of banning the clubs, Rabbi Schwartz pointed toward other means of lessening their appeal, such as encouraging broader congregational involvement in the services, especially the reading of the Haftorah, and preventing prayers from dragging on too long.

Defenders of the institution have argued that Kiddush Clubs have come to occupy a unique — and irreplaceable — refuge on the fringes of Orthodox life.

“There are people who didn’t grow up Orthodox for whom the Kiddush Club offers a means of entering into the life of the synagogue,” one follower of the Kiddush Club phenomenon said. Contrarily, there are those who did grow up Orthodox but have become disenchanted with it. For them, the follower said, the Kiddush Club offers a means of preserving a connection.

For its part, the O.U. expects some resistance. Indeed, they are practically hoping for it.

“Resistance is a term that can be used clinically,” said O.U. Executive Vice President Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, who is also a clinical psychologist. “You get resistance when you touch a sore spot. It’s a sign that you’re on to something.”



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