What message do young people get about alcohol when they see adults raise a glass on Shabbat, bless four cups of wine on Passover and imbibe at most Jewish holidays and celebrations? And what is a parent’s role in shaping children’s relations with alcohol?
Such questions were raised again this month after Wootton High School Acting Principal Kimberly Boldon criticized a spring break trip to Mexico being marketed to students at the Rockville school as permitting alcohol consumption among those 18 and over, when the drinking age is 21 in Maryland. The high school has no affiliation with the trip.
One of the two Mexico trip organizers is Tracie Saltzman, whose husband, Kenneth Saltzman of North Potomac, pleaded guilty in December to two criminal counts of furnishing alcohol to minors in connection with a party at the couple’s home that involved underage drinking on the same night that two Wootton High School teens were killed in a car accident.
“Our community has suffered tremendous losses, and I am disappointed that anyone would imply that drinking by our students who are not yet of legal drinking age is acceptable — even if it may be allowed in a different country,” Boldon wrote.
The agreement parents must sign for their child to join the trip states the legal drinking age in Mexico is 18. Then, in all capital letters, it states, “All travelers who choose to drink alcohol agree to do so responsibly and in accordance with applicable law.”
Hand in hand with the Wootton controversy comes the Jewish festival Purim. A holiday known for sanctioned drinking beyond limits, Purim begins at sundown March 23.
Judaism has a complicated relationship with alcohol. While no Jewish institution would want members to become alcoholics, synagogues often create a social life that involves alcohol, said Rabbi Paul Steinberg, educator at Beit T’Shuvah, a Los Angeles residential addiction treatment center that also is a synagogue.
Let’s face it, “Jews are Americans — they drink,” he said.
Skim a synagogue’s calendar to easily find gatherings called “Kiddush Club,” “Torah and Tequila” and “L’chaim and Learning.” In April, Beth Sholom Congregation and Talmud Torah in Potomac is planning its sixth annual barbeque, Scotch and Passover event.
Rabbi Sholom Raichik of Chabad of Upper Montgomery County believes that Jewish customs do not send conflicting messages to children.
“I am not a believer if my kid sees me drink wine” that the message sent is that drinking to excess is OK, Raichik said.
“The Torah and the Prophets are full of references to wine, so wine obviously played a major role in Judaism. You can’t dismiss that,” he said. “At the same time, when it was abused, it was considered to be sinful.”
Raichik acknowledged that drinking more than usual will take place in Jewish communities during Purim. However, he said, “If someone wants to take a couple of extra drinks on Purim, he has that responsibility to do it in an appropriate way.”
One of the central practices on Purim, according to some interpretations of a passage in the Talmud, is to imbibe until one cannot tell the difference between the blessings of Mordechai and the curses of Haman, two central characters in the Megilla of Esther.
There’s no kiddush club — a predominantly male group that exits a service around the time of the Haftarah reading in order to make kiddush and shmooze —at Raichik’s Gaithersburg synagogue, but not because of the alcohol. “There is a time and place for everything,” he said, and a Shabbat service is no time to step away for a l’chaim.
There is a kiddush club at Silver Spring Jewish Community Center, but Rabbi Herzel Kranz is no fan for the same reason. “It’s frowned upon” to leave the service, he said, adding only a few people participate in the practice at his synagogue.
“In this country, drinking is part of the culture,” he said. However, drinking too much “is not something to be admired. You never want to lose control of your faculties.”
At Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac, Rabbi Adam Raskin believes that “in the context of religious celebrations and with family and parents present, certain limited drinking of wine is not a problem.” That does not send a message that it’s ok to drink inappropriately, he said.
But he realizes teen drinking, and drinking while driving, are problems in society.
“I think it behooves the Jewish community to speak about it,” he said, calling it delusional to say Jews aren’t involved in alcohol abuse.
Pointing to Purim, Raskin said, “There is this idea that one should drink more than usual. That little fragment has gotten out and become popular.”
But that’s not the whole story, he explained. “If you drink too much, you can’t hear the Megillah.
“What you really need is to be happy; overly joyful. The essence is more joy, not more drinking. To be in the spirit of Purim, one doesn’t have to be inebriated.”
Raskin wants his congregants to understand that. That is why he invited Rabbi Paul Steinberg to speak to his congregation the weekend of March 19.
Steinberg, author of Recovery, The 12 Steps and Jewish Spirituality, understands that while synagogue board members realize that alcohol can be abused, often they are afraid to eliminate the use of wine and other spirits for fear of losing members.
“They are trying to get people to show up and be involved,” he said. And college students, singles and young adults tend to interact socially around alcohol, he added. However, teens may also turn to alcohol to fit in or when they feel stressed.
Parents may tell their children not to worry about getting into Harvard, but the discussion quickly turns to what grades they got. The students get the message that to please their parents and to make a lot of money, they must get into a top college, Steinberg said.
Dealing with this stress, along with all the other pressures that come with being a teenager, can cause someone to act out or binge drink, he explained.
When students get to college, they quickly learn where the alcohol is, and that often is at a synagogue, Steinberg said. But he doesn’t lay all the blame on Judaism.
“Tradition says, ‘Wine gladdens the heart,’ and it does,” he said. “On the other hand, the tradition realizes that taken to extreme, people will begin to act inappropriately.”
That is why Steinberg places tremendous importance on the role of parents. “As parents, as teachers, we have an obligation to have these conversations.” Even more important, he said, is for adults to be role models.
In her letter, Boldon of Wootton High School wrote, “I am deeply saddened and frustrated to see that some of the promotional/informational materials associated with this trip do not strongly discourage the consumption of alcoholic beverages by our students.”
Still, there’s nothing new about high school students drinking.
“I’m on Facebook, and I see pictures of people with drinks in their hand,” said Raskin, whose Potomac synagogue is where the Saltzmans’ daughter became a bat mitzvah in 2011.
Last week, 14 Walt Whitman High School students were cited for underage drinking, following a Feb. 20 dance and fundraiser, according to the school’s online newspaper, The Black and White.
Obviously, said Raskin, drinking too much is “something we need to work harder on.”