April 13, 2024
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April 13, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Do We Really Need Booze to Attract Jews to Jewish Events?

When we toast, we Jews like to say, “L’chaim,” which means, of course, “to life!” But maybe we should be saying, “L’mavet,” “to death,” to acknowledge the reality that far too many Jewish alcoholics and addicts are cutting their own lives short with alcohol and drugs.

One area synagogue offered a “Parents’ Night Out” evening with “mixologists” offering specialty drinks. Sponsorship was denominated in terms of alcohol: You could be a “Mojito” sponsor for $72, a “Cosmopolitan” sponsor for $120, and so on.

This would be funny, except that it isn’t. The same parents wobbling home from their shul’s mixologists will be trying to convince their teenage kids on Simchat Torah that drinking alcohol at synagogue is a bad idea. They’d better wait a few days to deliver that message, though, because they may be a little too loaded after Parents’ Night Out to avoid slurring their words.

Isn’t it time, given the level of misery and death created by alcohol, opioids and other drugs, to stop using alcohol as a tool of engagement in synagogues and temples?

What’s the message we’re sending our kids, other than the hypocritical lesson that “if standards are good, double standards are twice as good”?

There have to be other ways to get Jews to show up at Jewish events without the promise of getting loaded.

We have a tragically mistaken belief that Jews cannot be alcoholics or addicts. This stems from the rather ugly Eastern European saying, “Shikker iz a goy,” which is Yiddish for “Only Gentiles can be drunks.”

It’s just not true. I call it the “Star of David Syndrome”—the wrongheaded idea that Jewishness is a shield against alcohol and drug abuse. We flash the Star of David at a bottle of Scotch, and suddenly, all danger is removed. Wrong.

There is nothing about being Jewish, secular or religious, that stops or even slows the damage that alcohol and drugs do to individuals, families and communities. Jews suffer from and die of alcohol and drug addiction just like everyone else.

Most alcoholics and addicts drink or use to escape emotional pain. Most Jews living in the United States have it pretty good, certainly in comparison with the experiences of Jews in Europe or the Near East over the last thousand years.

And yet, our community still suffers from the often-untreated trauma of the Holocaust, lessons seared into our souls from early childhood on, when family members and schoolteachers hammer the lessons of the Shoah into our brains.

Many of us have family albums that relatives somehow brought from Europe when they escaped World War II, with photos of adults and children who met their end in Nazi death camps.

If it isn’t the Holocaust, the pain and loss could be from something much closer to home: an unhappy marriage or a messy divorce; an abusive parent in one’s family of origin; unemployment; financial issues; an addiction to painkillers; you name it.

So if you strip away the current affluence of the American Jewish community, there’s a huge hole in our soul. That emotional pain and loss are as much a part of our Jewish heritage as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur or, for secular Jews, bagels and lox.

Emotional pain triggers a need for relief and escape. If we don’t find that relief in a healthy manner, there’s always booze, drugs, food, sex, spending, lottery tickets, and 1,000 other ways to block out the misery.

Addiction comes with a hefty price tag. To paraphrase Hemingway, people often pay the price for alcoholism and addiction first gradually and then suddenly. The damage is inevitably severe, and it comes in the form of empty marriages, broken homes, devastated children, financial problems, criminal problems and worse.

Our rabbis are learning, one funeral at a time, that we Jews really have no exemption, no Star of David pass, that keeps us from paying the ultimate price for alcoholism and addiction.

So maybe this is the year that we stop pouring the mojitos, the Scotch, the wine and the vodka at our religious and communal events.

Let’s send the right message, not just to our kids but to ourselves, that while there’s a time and a place for alcohol, there have to be other ways to attract Jews to Jewish events.


New York Times bestselling author and publisher of JewishLeadersBooks.com, Michael Levin is the author of the upcoming book “Jews and Booze: Alcoholism, Addiction, and Denial in the Jewish World,” to be distributed by Simon & Schuster.

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