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When L'chayim Can Be a Death Sentence - Drinking in our Community
by Rav Aryeh Zev Ginzberg

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About five years ago, I was invited to participate in a roundtable discussion with a group of educators, community leaders, rabbanim, and authors to discuss the most pressing issues that would affect the Torah community in the next few years and to search for methods of meeting those challenges. During this fascinating event, which was sponsored by a prominent philanthropic foundation, there was a discussion on the shidduch crisis, the tuition crisis, kids at risk, and painful divisions in the community.

Interestingly enough, no one raised the “financial meltdown” issue and how it would totally transform our community—and that’s because no one predicted what would happen to the world financial markets and the terrible toll it would take on our community.

There was one presentation made by a prominent educator that I found way off the mark. He focused his entire presentation on a large and growing problem in our community—our fascination with alcohol. When I heard him, I thought, “What a strange thing to speak about, when our community has no visible significant problem with alcohol abuse.” After all, I don’t know of any Orthodox community (big or small) that has a local tavern for frum people to go to. There is not one frum person in the workforce that I am familiar with who spends a “happy hour” at a local bar to wind down from a day’s work. At the time, I really didn’t follow his presentation or share his concern.

For some, the alcohol abuse in our community has been a growing problem for years. Only in the last few months have I begun to see the terrible and disastrous effects it has had on our family life, our children, and our community.

While we don’t frequent bars or taverns, our access to alcohol at simchas, whether shalom zachors, vorts, weddings, or other public gatherings such as kiddushim, sports events, etc. is out of control. At so many chasunos, we see many of the friends of the chasan, including many yeshiva bachurim (of all ages) become inebriated—just plain drunk. The boys help themselves to the drinks at the bar or at the chasan’s tisch without regard to the harm that they bring upon themselves, and more often than not also the chillul Hashem that they inadvertently cause.

Recently at a chasunah, I took the liberty of going into a side room after the chuppah to use the “dead time” of picture-taking to prepare my daf yomi shiur for the next day. While sitting there, three yeshiva boys came in, all of them 19 or 20 years old. One of them carried a small shopping bag, from which he pulled out a bottle of scotch (and an expensive one, at that) and three cups. Each of the boys poured himself a cupful of scotch. They guzzled it down and poured themselves a second cup.

I approached them to ask what they were doing, and they responded, “We’re getting ready to be mesameiach chasan v’kallah.” I told them that while I may not look it now, I was once young like them, and thoroughly enjoyed the chasunos of my chaveirim, and we also danced without stop. However, we didn’t need to drink alcohol to do so. They just brushed me off and said, “Everybody drinks today.”

After speaking to different people from various communities, I found out that they were right: Everybody drinks today. How did this happen? Where did today’s youth get this from? The answer is simple. They learned from us, their parents.

Today’s teenagers have grown up watching their fathers and their fathers’ friends drinking cup after cup of schnapps at every Shabbos kiddush—the more expensive the bottle, the better. Some shuls in the community have banned alcohol completely from their premises in concern for the effect that the excessive drinking has upon the teenagers. One rav told me he banned it after he had walked into one of the rooms downstairs and saw four teenagers, aged 14 and 15, imitating their fathers and drinking one cup of schnapps after the other. Now, while an outright ban may be viewed as a little extreme, if it saves one Jewish child from becoming an alcoholic, isn’t it worth it?

Now, please understand, I have no problem with people enjoying alcohol on Shabbos at a kiddush or l’chaim; our people have been doing it for thousands of years. But many would claim that today, in large part, we have become alcohol dependent. Can anyone honestly say that someone who has to walk out of shul on a Shabbos morning in the middle of davening for a few shots of whiskey is not, to some extent, alcohol dependent? When our young boys see their fathers doing this week after week, is it possible for them not to become fascinated with alcohol as they get older?

I would like to share an incident that happened this past summer. Every August, my family spends time upstate, and I am home on Shabbos so I can participate in shiurim in shul. It was late Friday night and I was returning from being a guest at a neighbor’s house for the seudah. I noticed from afar a person sitting on the stairs leading up to my house. At first I was a little apprehensive to see a person sitting on my stoop on a quiet street late at night, and I approached slowly. As I got closer, I recognized the person as someone who was from the community, though I had never actually met him before.

As I approached the house, he was equally startled. He stood up and apologized and said that he thought no one was home, as I usually am up in the mountains for Shabbos, and he would leave. I quickly noticed that he could not walk straight and realized that he was quite drunk. I asked him if I could escort him home, and he said he “can’t go home just yet.”

He then explained that he was at a shalom zachor at his shul and he drank too much. He explained that two weeks before, he had done the same thing, and when he returned home that Friday night, drunk, his wife was very upset by it. She warned him that if he did this again (apparently it was a frequent occurrence) she would take the children and leave. And so he explained, thinking that I was not home, he was taking the opportunity of sitting for a while until he would be able to return home in a sober fashion.

I invited him in and gave him some strong coffee, and after a while I escorted him home. I did not see this fellow again until several months later, when I was invited to be the keynote speaker at a yeshiva father–son melaveh malkah, where I saw this person sitting right next to his son and participating in the evening’s program.

I remember thinking to myself: Look how much effort this man puts into his young son—sending him to the right yeshiva and participating in all the yeshiva’s father-and-son programs. What does he think his son learns when he sees his father stumbling in drunk from a shalom zachor, getting shikur at a Shabbos kiddush, or—an activity that has become extremely popular in some communities—getting together with friends on erev Shabbos Kodesh for chulent, kugel, and drinks of the most expensive schnapps money can buy?

Our teenagers and yeshiva bachurim are drinking because they see their fathers drink together with their friends and express such enjoyment at their drinking together. I have gone to bungalow colonies for about two decades and often see that while everyone enjoys a nice kiddush after the davening (which creates a wonderful ruach of achdus), there are some who just can’t stop drinking until the bottles are empty. I found it both fascinating and sad that over the years you see their sons, in their teenage years, doing the very same thing. How many shuls are there in every community that have reputations as “drinking shuls,” where some people (even a small minority) drink too much at the kiddush, whether in shul or at an after-shul house party?

Even if there’s only one person who doesn’t know when or how to stop drinking and comes home intoxicated (whether Friday afternoon, Friday night, or Shabbos morning) and does so in front of his wife and children, isn’t that reason enough to put a stop to all of this?

Maybe it’s time to stop having alcohol (except for wine) at all our simchas where teenagers and yeshiva bachurim are present. One of the very dedicated mechanchim in our community who has been working exclusively with “kids at risk” for the last 20 years told me that in recent years, drinking has become a much more serious problem among the youth he deals with than drugs are. He explained that it’s because they have constant access to alcohol at every shalom zachor or kiddush in the community.

The concluding sessions at the Agudah convention this past November dealt exclusively with the painful subject of addictions in our community. A film was shown, titled “L’chaim?—Dangers of Alcohol,” which will surely remove the cynicism from anyone reading this column who doesn’t believe the seriousness of this issue.

It is a heart-wrenching brief film made by a very brave father from our frum community who lost his 19-year-old son to alcoholism. I found most compelling that his son’s close friend, and himself a recovering alcoholic, explained that their love of drinking didn’t come from visiting bars and clubs, but from sitting with fellow Yidden at shalom zachors and kiddushim. They began to go shul-hopping, looking for where the best opportunity for unrestricted and unlimited drinking was available. (How many of us from the older generation do the same?)

This film was made by Dr. Mond as both a z’chus for his son’s neshamah and as a wake-up call to the frum community as to the dangers of alcohol consumption by our teenagers, and to hopefully spare other families the pain that he and his family experienced with the loss of their son and brother at the young age of 19.

Several years ago I thought that when that educator spoke about the issue of alcohol as a future problem that we would have to deal with as a community, he was overstating the issue. Now, from what I have seen in our community over the last few years, I believe he had seriously understated this issue.

We as parents should think very carefully about whether our “L’chayim” has the potential to be a death sentence for our children. May we all celebrate our simchas in a truly Yiddishe fashion

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