Sober Responses To My Column On Drinking
04/01/2011 - 08:47
Gary Rosenblatt

It seems my column this week hit a raw nerve in describing how some Jewish groups are using alcohol and partying as outreach tools to attract young people.

On the first day I've already received several dozen emails, in addition to online Comments, ranging from kudos for "telling like it is," to strong critiques for exaggerating, if not outright fabricating tales of overindulgence at organizational events.

The leadership of the Jewish Federations of North America, in a letter to the editor that will appear in our next issue, called the column's description of their recent five-day TribeFest in Las Vegas "shallow," "insulting," "inaccurate" and "terribly unfair."

A number of Chabad representatives on campus and students who attend Chabad programs insisted that liquor is strictly off limits. An official who works closely with Birthright Israel acknowledged that there is drinking and sexual activity on the 10-day trips, as I wrote. But he said it pales in comparison to what takes place on American college campuses on a regular basis. And that is a sobering thought. He pointed out that at least during Birthright trips, the participants are accompanied by counselors for 12 hours a day, unlike life at school.

Looking back, I agree that my phrasing was overstated when I said that Birthright's popularity is "fueled by alcohol and sex." But there's no denying that such activity is a reality.

I also received mails from people who work in the Jewish community or on campuses who thanked me for bringing the issue to light. Several described excessive drinking they have seen at Jewish events on campus. One sent me a recent message from the George Washington University Hillel in D.C. inviting members to "party with us Israeli style" at a top local club and offering "commemorative shot glasses" and free "Give Israel A Shot" buttons.

For the record, my intention was not to be a watchdog or "old fuddy-duddy," as one writer suggested, but to highlight an issue that deserves serious discussion. I'll keep you posted as the mail continues to (you should excuse the expression) pour in.

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Kudos to Gary Rosenblatt for exposing the over indulgence in alcohol under Jewish communal auspices. As he points out, universities are a place of particular concern because college life already has a drinking culture associated with it. The phenomenon of binge drinking continues to be a problem and many universities are frustrated at being unable to stop it. Stony Brook University, where I serve, has an ambitious educational program that teaches students about the dangers of binge drinking and the destructive effects that alcohol can have. We even have the Red Watchband Campaign, a peer “watchdog” program that trains students to assist others who appear to be in medical danger from alcohol consumption. It was founded, tragically, in memory of the son of a faculty member in our School of Medicine who died after an overdose of alcohol.
Yes, there are Jewish organizations that use alcohol to try to reach students, but providing alcohol to minors (which is most undergraduates) is not only unethical, but it’s illegal and also violates the conduct policies of most universities. There are some cases where Jewish organizations have been asked to leave a campus or otherwise run afoul of university administrations for violating alcohol policies or appearing to be contributing to the problem. Still, this behavior persists among some groups who believe that it will make them appear “cooler” or more acceptable among students.
There is yet a larger issue that should also concern us about these organizations, as well as those whose philanthropic dollars support them. If they believe strongly in what they are providing for our college students then they would not need alcohol to “sell” it. Some students are going to drink and experiment with less than productive behaviors, and they don’t need our help to do that. There are more than enough Jewish students who are seeking a meaningful and fulfilling way to learn, grow, and live Jewishly that we do not need to fuel the fire of alcohol abuse on campus to reach them. Hillel, Chabad, and a myriad of other Jewish movements and organizations all have something of value to offer these students and each in their own way. Drinking, which is rarely done in moderation in college settings, can pose a real danger to the lives and health of our college students. We must model behaviors that are ethical, legal, and most of all that honor and preserve the sanctity of life, one of Judaism’s highest values.

Rabbi Joseph Topek
Stony Brook, NY

(Director, Hillel Foundation for Jewish Life at Stony Brook University)