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The Kiddush clubs are all right (wait, are they?)

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It’s precisely 10 a.m. on Shabbat at Toronto’s Beth David B’nai Israel Beth Am synagogue, and it’s time to take out the Torah scrolls. As the Ark is opened, about 30 worshippers – mostly men, but some women – rise, leave the sanctuary and make their way to a boardroom in the basement. Awaiting them is a long table covered with paper plates full of gefilte fish, three kinds of herring, sponge cake and cookies.

But attention is focused on several bottles at the end of the table. There’s Havana Club white rum, Crown Royal Canadian whisky, Sabra liqueur and a single malt scotch from Islay. These are soon joined by a frosted bottle of vodka from the freezer.

In a scene repeated at other Canadian synagogues that have kiddush clubs (as opposed to a Kiddush for the whole congregation at the end of services), alcohol is poured into one-ounce plastic cups, a blessing is recited and the drinks are downed. Some members have another. An announcement or two is made and small talk ensues, until everyone makes his or her way back to the sanctuary within 30 minutes.

Proponents of kiddush clubs like this one say it is a harmless activity that breaks up the service with a little l’chaim and some camaraderie. They also point out that the clubs raise a lot of money for charities and the synagogues themselves.

But detractors note a dark side: that worshippers leaving mid-service for a belt is profoundly disrespectful to the synagogue and the sanctity of the proceedings (not to mention the clergy); that the clubs promote, and even glorify, the consumption of alcohol; and that they set a poor example for children, who may notice that some adults have booze on their breath and may act a bit loopy.

Some rabbis have dubbed congregants who come to synagogue solely for the drinks and food “JFKs” – Just For the Kiddush.

There’s no question this is a sensitive subject. One Toronto rabbi queried for this article said his synagogue has a kiddush club, “but I’d rather not comment. It would be politically toxic for me.”

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Another rabbi who tried, unsuccessfully, to rid his synagogue of its several kiddush clubs agreed to be interviewed, but later changed his mind, saying this is “not a topic I’m comfortable discussing.”

“There have been kiddush clubs in shuls for as long as there have been shuls,” states the website of the International Kiddush Club (IKC), formed in North America in the early 2000s, as part of the International Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs.

‘In a sharply worded statement, the Vaad said kiddush clubs should be a cause for concern throughout the entire Jewish community’

Kiddush clubs meet “any time after Shacharit, after the Torah reading, before the Haftorah, after the Haftorah, before the sermon, after the sermon,” the IKC explains. “There is no fixed time, just custom in each shul. A quick l’chaim, a little schmaltz herring on a (cracker), maybe some smoked fish or more. Then back to the service and Musaf, refreshed, well-fed and ready.”

That rosy description was not shared by Toronto’s Vaad Harabanim, which represents Orthodox rabbis. In a sharply worded statement issued last spring, the Vaad said kiddush clubs “should be a cause for concern throughout the entire Jewish community.”

Beyond the halachic considerations of showing “blatant” disrespect to the synagogue and a bad example for kids, the clubs contribute “in a very real way to the growing crisis of alcoholism in the Jewish community,” the Vaad said. They should take place after prayers, in a public area and be open to all, the rabbis stated.

Stan Greenspan of Toronto, far left, with fellow members of the International Kiddush Club

The Vaad’s statement came in response to the steps one large Toronto synagogue took to address the situation with its kiddush club. The shul’s rabbi published an article decrying alcohol abuse in the community and the difficulties rabbis face countering “the contemporary sense of entitlement that underpins the kiddush club mentality.”

At Montreal’s Beth Zion Congregation, there are three kiddush clubs, noted synagogue president Shlomo Benarroch.

The one he’s in provides a chance “for the guys to schmooze a bit and get a little break in the middle of davening.”

Congregants, he said, tend to get antsy during a long service. “People can’t sit in davening for three hours any more. People need a break. Davening needs to be broken up a bit.” Besides, the kiddush club “adds a certain camaraderie,” and raises money for the synagogue.

As for the alcohol, “when you have a mature group of people and they’re acting like responsible adults, it doesn’t get out of hand. I can’t remember the last time we had an issue with somebody who had too much. It doesn’t happen,” Benarroch said.

Allen Richman, head of the kiddush club at Beth David synagogue, points out that the club has raised money for a variety of projects at the shul.

“We don’t drink a lot,” he said. “We’re older people. Some people just come down for a minute, have a shot, or half a shot, and go back up.”

Much of the criticism of kiddush clubs has come from the Orthodox community in the United States. It has been harsh and much more open than in Canada.

In 2005, the New York-based Orthodox Union (OU) called for an end to kiddush clubs, in response, it said, to a request from 65 pulpit rabbis and yeshiva principals. 

It claims that missing the Haftorah reading leaves a void in the service for kiddush club participants. “The Haftorah,” said the OU’s then-executive vice president, Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, “is the one opportunity during the Sabbath prayers to encounter the message of the prophets.”

Besides “denigrating” the Sabbath prayer service, the clubs idealize alcohol consumption, Rabbi Weinreb went on. “This is particularly disturbing because it is emblematic of the larger dangers of alcohol consumption and substance abuse in our community.”

He conceded that kiddush clubs are in a minority of Orthodox synagogues and their members are a minority of congregants. Still, in an article in OU’s magazine, Jewish Action, titled, “Why Kiddish Clubs Must Go,” Rabbi Weinreb warned that “we are at war against substance abuse and we are fighting for the koved beit haknesset (the honour of our shuls).”

The OU didn’t keep track of the impact of its directive, “but it definitely raised people’s awareness of the problem and there were quite a few rabbis and shul presidents who thanked us for our effort,” Rabbi Weinreb told The CJN.

‘Synagogue services are more inviting when there’s a bit of a recess at half-time’

In a 2009 article in the New York Jewish Week entitled, “Choose Life, not Kiddush Clubs,” three professors of pediatrics at Yeshiva University’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine blasted kiddush clubs for providing “an implicit sanction for a form of covert drinking” and “a veneer of respectability and exclusivity, suggesting a ‘coolness’ about those individuals who are part of this private, select drinking group. These adults become the enablers of youth drinking.”

And in 2011, Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, an influential leader in the Open Orthodox movement, called kiddush clubs “destructive,” “disrespectful” and “a terrible influence on children.”

The Toronto Board of Rabbis has no position on kiddush clubs, said TBR president Rabbi Adam Cutler.

Kiddush clubs are “not the type of thing the Montreal Board of Rabbis would have a policy on,” said MBR co-president Rabbi Mark Fishman. “Each shul decides its own, some in favour, some against, and grey in the middle.”

Montreal synagogues have “shared strategies” around “sensitivity to alcoholism and addiction,” said the MBR’s other co-president, Rabbi Lisa Grushcow.

Synagogue services are “more inviting when there’s a bit of a recess at half-time,” said Stan Greenspan, the Toronto-based president of the International Kiddush Club.

But the IKC’s “real purpose,” Greenspan stressed, is to raise money for the group’s Tefillin Fund, which provides tfillin and mezuzot to those outside Canada and the United States who cannot afford them. To date, more than $70,000 has been raised for the Tefillin Fund.

The group recently sponsored a mission to Cuba, in which mezuzot were delivered to more than 200 Jewish families. The IKC has also sent tfillin to Argentina, France, Spain and Hungary, Greenspan noted.

The IKC’s annual convention in Washington, D.C., in July drew 600 people and fundraising topped US$80,000 ($99,950), he said.

“The smart rabbis found out long ago that (kiddush clubs are) the prime location for any special fundraising drives for special projects or regular synagogue events,” said Greenspan.

But one rabbi interviewed for this story called the money raised by kiddush clubs “debased.”

Greenspan said the IKC treats alcohol consumption “seriously,” but “in all my years of kiddush club attendance, I have rarely, if ever, seen someone become intoxicated, and any instances took place long ago, before societal changes in how we understand alcohol.”

While it’s hard to say kiddush clubs cause addiction, “to say they contribute to the problem is clearly a possibility,” said David Kaufman, director of outreach and education at Toronto’s Jewish Addiction Community Services (JACS).

“We have lots of young people who started out at kiddush clubs drinking more than their fair share and got hooked that way,” Kaufman said. “To say that was the cause … it’s complicated. The cause of addiction is complicated. But it certainly didn’t help.”

Kaufman said “numerous” rabbis have called him to discuss the issue over the years. “We do see it as a problem,” he said.

Jewish values are “not supposed to be celebrating the whisky, but life,” said Kaufman. “By saying a l’chaim, you don’t reduce the risk of addiction. A l’chaim doesn’t make it holy.”