Jonathan Muskat
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Alcohol in our synagogues: Should our shul go dry?

When the adults go bananas over a fancy bottle of Scotch for kiddush, our teens are watching and learning what we truly value

Why on earth would we invite someone from Amudim to meet with some members of our community? We don’t have an alcohol problem. We don’t have a drug problem. Amudim is an organization that deals with addiction, trauma, at risk teens and sexual abuse, so why are they coming to our community? Their representatives are typically sought to counsel families and communities after a tragedy has occurred.

In our case, thank God, we asked them to address us for a positive reason. Baruch Hashem, we have grown significantly over the past number of years and now have a healthy number of teens in our community. They add so much to our community, and out of an abundance of care and concern for them, we wanted to make sure that we are doing all we can to create an environment that is conducive to their growth. With regard to alcohol use in shul, we wanted to make sure that our shul’s policies reflect the values that we wish to pass on to our teens. And so, we reached out to Amudim proactively. We were hoping to include them in our discussion, so that our choices as a community could be informed by their knowledge and experience.

I have found that alcohol use in shul is one of the most debated issues in synagogues, and our synagogue is no exception. At present, our hashkama minyan serves alcohol at their kiddushim, and we occasionally serve liquor at some enhanced kiddushim after our main minyan. Sometimes someone brings in a fancy bottle of scotch and a few people may grab a drink in the kitchen at some point during davening, but fortunately we don’t have a “Kiddush Club” in our shul. To the best of my knowledge, we have been fortunate not to have experienced any devastating effects of alcohol abuse that we unfortunately read about in other communities.

Nonetheless, some of our members feel very strongly that our shul should go dry. They point to large shuls in Teaneck and the Five Towns that have done this, and urge us to follow suit. Others feel equally as strongly that having a drink helps create camaraderie in shul. They claim that it helps enhance their shul experience and is part of our tradition and religious culture. They concede that maybe in an extremely large shul it is almost impossible to monitor alcohol use effectively and therefore, they understand why certain shuls have gone dry. However, they argue that if a member does not drink responsibly in shul then that member should be addressed individually; the entire membership of a midsize shul like ours should not be asked to abstain because of the inappropriate behavior of one or two people.

It turns out that due to a miscommunication, the representative from Amudim did not attend our meeting, but we began to discuss the issue of alcohol use in our shul anyway. Some members in our community noted that when a fancy bottle of scotch is put out at a Kiddush, it generates a lot of excitement, which is undoubtedly noticed by our teens. Others mentioned that a new liquor store just opened up in the Five Towns and they were advertising bottles of scotch valued at over $200. I believe that when it comes to alcohol use, it’s more than simply a question of protecting our teens from addiction, drunkenness and dangerous behavior. It’s a question of teaching our teens what we, and in turn they, should value. What is central and what is ancillary in the eyes of the Torah? What should generate our greatest excitement, and where should we exercise moderation?

When our teens see that our excitement for a bottle of the latest scotch far exceeds our excitement for what shul is really supposed to be about, Torah and Tefillah, then they receive a twisted message about what are and what are not the central values of our synagogues. It is true that wine plays a significant role in Jewish ritual life, but it almost always is featured in an ancillary role, not in the central role. When we celebrate a marriage ceremony, we add significance to that ceremony by reciting a blessing over wine. When we celebrate a brit milah, we add significance to that ceremony by reciting a blessing over wine. When we sanctify the Shabbat, we add significance to that sanctification by reciting a blessing over wine. In all these instances, the wine is meant to enhance something which is worthy of our celebration, but it is not the central event. Certainly, in a synagogue setting, our communal holy space, we should clarify to our teens and to ourselves, frankly, what is central and what is not in our lives.

Additionally, we can share with our teens the message of “kedoshim tihyu” (be holy) according to the Ramban, who preaches that exercising moderation in that which is permitted is nothing short of holy. What a beautiful message to teach our teens and ourselves! To that end, I believe we should limit the timing of alcohol to those times when davening is not taking place in shul. I believe that we should limit the quality and quantity of alcohol that is brought into shul. I can understand that a person who appreciates a certain brand of scotch may want to take out a very expensive bottle in the privacy of his own home once in a while for a special occasion, just like someone may decide to go out to a very fancy restaurant once in a while. But I don’t think that shul, the center of our religious life, is the appropriate venue for this. I also believe that the amount of alcohol consumed in our shul should be limited to a few drinks per person, and that someone should oversee the way alcohol is dispensed and ensure that none is served to underage children. I am aware that a number of shuls currently have this policy in place. When we proactively take these steps, we teach our teens a powerful lesson about the value of moderation, which is so critical to their growth as Bnei Torah and as disciplined, responsible human beings.

I am fully aware that many children learn these values or the opposite of these values at home. But our shuls have a significant role to play in the education of our community’s children, as well. In a shul setting, we set the tone not just for community standards, but for community values. Regulation of alcohol use in shuls is not merely reactive policy making, or something that is done to minimize the potential for tragic consequences. Just the opposite. It can serve as a powerful educational tool to help model our values and mold the lives of our teens and ourselves.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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