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Back Off On The Bacchanalia

And lay off the booze-for-young-Jews outreach model.

Wed, 03/30/2011
Editor And Publisher
Gary Rosenblatt
Gary Rosenblatt

One of the dirty little secrets of Jewish outreach efforts to young people — particularly to college students and those in their 20s — is the use of alcohol to entice them.

The most recent case in point was TribeFest, a five-day gathering sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America to attract people in the 22-to-45 age range.

Two years in the planning, it was held last month in Las Vegas and featured discussions, musical entertainment and networking. And lots and lots of liquor.

Participants and observers described how the Vegas setting was a key ingredient in bringing some 1,200 participants to the conference, featuring nine open bars each evening.

For decades, the JFNA National Young Leadership Cabinet, sponsor of the program, had a tradition of holding its major conference in Washington every other year, focusing on politics and top speakers on the Middle East. But with federation affiliation seen as old school by increasing numbers of young people, the cabinet tried a new approach this year, dropping the pretense that TribeFest was anything other than a free-flowing party. 

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 Steven Scheck, co-chair of the cabinet, was quoted in the Chronicle of Philanthropy last week as stating: “For every reason you can think of to not have it in Vegas  —the strip, the gambling and the shows — for all those reasons, I can make the argument why that was the best reason to have it in Vegas.”

The Chronicle article described an atmosphere of revelry, and cited one young man who estimated his vodka tab was $2,000, and a young woman who said she had to “take off my drunk hat” before talking to a reporter amid the free-flowing liquor.

Perhaps JFNA is merely emulating the success of programs like the popular Shabbat dinners and other events held at Chabad Houses on college campuses around the country where a major feature is alcohol, along with home-cooked meals.  [See Clarification at the end of this article.]

Some Hillel supporters speak of the inroads Chabad has made on campus with a mixture of admiration, envy and anger. They note that Chabad campus rabbis and their wives tend to be warm, caring and nonjudgmental, but also focused on targeting students from Hillels, a charge that is difficult to assess.

Hillel’s policy is not to allow alcohol at events where undergraduates are present (other than Kiddush wine on Shabbat). But the Hillel at the University of Florida recently had a series of Friday night “Parsha and Pitchers” events for students over 21 at a local bar, where beer and Torah study were on tap. Keith Dvorchik, the Hillel executive director there, said the experiment was ended after a few weeks. “We’re looking to create a long-term commitment to Jewish life,” he said.

Surely the pressure to draw students to events is strong at a time when American campuses are said to be undergoing a dramatic and dangerous increase in binge drinking among undergraduates.

Beyond the campus, at the General Assembly of JFNA last November, Jewlicious, a popular website for young people, sponsored an evening “salon” that, according to the GA program, offered a “whiskey appreciation and public toasting sponsored by Johnny Walker.”

In the Orthodox community, informal Kiddush clubs are popular in some congregations where men take a break from Shabbat morning services to enjoy their own l’chaims on the synagogue premises. Rabbis frown on the practice, saying it disrupts the service and sets a bad example for youngsters.

And then there is Birthright, the granddaddy of Jewish outreach programs that combines the educational experience of a 10-day visit to Israel with a social component winkingly acknowledged as fueled by alcohol and sex.

Officials insist that restrictions have grown tighter and supervision closer in recent years. But they also know that the image among young people of Birthright offering the prospect of a good-time, sometimes sexually active experience — including four days with macho Israeli soldiers — helps make the program so popular.

I am not suggesting that alcohol has no place in Jewish social events for young people of drinking age. But I do worry that it has become too prominent a part of “the sell,” spoken or unspoken, and a cheap replacement for imaginative programming and substantive content.

One theory of why Jews had less of an alcohol problem historically than other groups is that spirits were incorporated into religious ceremonies — Kiddush on Shabbat and holidays, four cups of wine at the seder — as a natural rather than prohibited part of life. Moderation was the key, though it may no longer be true. After all, we have lost much of our cultural distinctiveness over the years.

Most worrisome is that Jewish groups, in their desperation to attract young people to their programs and organizations, are aiming for the lowest common denominator. No doubt TribeFest can create a buzz, literally, with its Vegas partying, and campus groups can attract more people with a night of free beer and a discussion on Charlie Sheen’s Jewishness than a lecture on Maimonides’ 13 principles of faith.

But there are plenty of creative ways to capitalize on young peoples’ search for meaning and sense of community in their lives — something they yearn for, consciously or not, and which our Jewish tradition has addressed with great wisdom for centuries.

It’s time to scale back on the bacchanalia, and put the kadosh (holiness) back in Kiddush.


Chabad Lubavitch policy is not to serve or permit alcohol at campus events for those under the legal drinking age other than sacramental wine for Kiddush. At least one university Chabad House that serves liquor is not recognized by the national Chabad movement.

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To all you detractors and Rosenblatt-bashers here, let me point out that Mr. Rosenblatt's point stands: Jewish organizations should not be trying to attract the next generation to get involved in their Jewishness by offering them shallow material pleasures. As someone whose own son married a Chabad girl, not to mention an ostensibly iprofessionally journalist, Mr. Rosenblatt should have been more careful before making an indefensiblen and unprovable and irresponsible statement like "alcohol is a major factor at Chabad campus programs." However, I think the far bigger slap in the face is the one this article gives to the Birthright program, saying that it is (or at least was) a sordid venue for the young and restless.

"Shabbat dinners and other events held at Chabad Houses on college campuses around the country where a major feature is alcohol, along with home-cooked meals."

Dear Sir,
I do not know where you get your misinformation from. After college I started atending Chabad events near college. Alcohol was never a "major feature" there. There were no alcohol tasting parties, no junkets to Vegas, not event wine and cheese parties. On Purim there were bottles of coke on the table [there was some alcohol off to the side, but it was watched]. The Rabbi's house I went to for Shabbos meals only had grape juice on the table.

To say that Chabad only exists to snipe away people from Hillel and to get young people drunk is a disgraceful statement to a movement that has been around for 250 years. Considering that every year the President of the United States signs a proclamation for "Education and Sharing Day" on the birthday of the Lubavitcher Rebbe says a lot. I do not see him doing that for anyone else.

As a University of Florida student, I don't think this is a fair article. Yes, there are Hillel events at local bars and restaurants where alcohol is served but all of these places check IDs. Alcohol is never served at Shabbat dinner. I have also been to Chabbad and watch as 2 bottles of vodka were consumed in 20 minutes. I also know that a lot of students go to Hillel services because they prefer the services and then head to the Chabad house for alcohol before going out to the clubs. This may not be something that is advertised, but is well known within the student community.

I am slightly offended by the statement that Birthright is "fueled by alcohol and sex." I went on Birthright during winter 2009-2010 and that was not at all the purpose of the trip. There were strick rules about when we could buy/drink alcohol and these rules were followed. I am not trying to say that there wasn't drinking, there was a lot of drinking but it wasn't an integral part of the trip. Honestly, what do you expect 40 college students to do at night when they are in a country where they can legally drink? Our programming went until around 8pm every evening. After that we were allowed to do what we wanted. Most nights that meant sitting around smoking hookah and drinking while talking. The alcohol was not necessary but didn't hurt anyone either. I am still very good friends with some of the people that I got to know in this way.

We did have two nights out in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem that were part of the program. You can argue that Birthright should not include events like this, but it showed us what it was like to actually live there and not just the turist/education things. These events also gave everyone an opportunity to unwind and relax.

The implication that the Israeli soldiers are there for eye candy and sexual activity is obsurd. Eight soldiers join Birthright trips halfway through the 10 days, four females and four males. They aren't there to look pretty but to help the students learn more about growing up in Israel. It also gives both sides a chance to ask questions and see things from someone else's point of view.

The biggest flaw with this article is the assumption that if alcohol was not provided young people would not take part in drinking. College students will do what they want and will find a way if they really want to.

As a parent of two teens (one a junior at college and the other a senior in high school) I find this article uninformed and incorrect. In my experience no organization has done as much as Chabad in bringing students closer to Judaism.Chabad offers a warm spiritual environment to any Jewish person without regard for their religious affiliation. Alcohol has never been an issue or even offered at any of the CHabad events.

Please, Gary....were you at Tribefest? As an older Jewish professional involved in outreach, and who WAS at tribefest, and who has children who have gone on excellent Birthright trips, I applauded and still applaud JFNA's choice of Vegas and their attempt to attract a different crowd. Do you have any clue how hard it is to attract young Jewish adults in my small town to ANYTHING, and how successful I was at getting people to tribefest, where I enjoyed responsible drinking myself? I grew up with my father, uncles, grandfathers, etc. boozing it up at the seder table, and myself sneaking alcohol at family bar and bat mitzvah's at too young an young age. I don't see times as any different, in fact perhaps better because we acknowledge our legitimate drinking more openly and address the pitful they may lead to. Of course, we need to preach responsible drinking but honestly, I didn't see a whole lot of out of line partying at Tribefest. I saw 1500 young, Jewish adults engaging in thoughtful Jewish topics. If the allure of Vegas got them there, terrific. And by the way, what I accompanied to Tribefest was far from the "lowest common denominator", rather a group of young, just starting to get active Jews (and a non jewish spouse) who probably wouldn't have come had we not been in Vegas.


Apart from the alcohol issue, it seems there is a big piece of Jewish programming that you are not getting. What is Judaism? Is it a religious experience, 40 minutes a week at best with a yarmulke on? Or is it life.

If judaism is a "religious" experience. Then you are right. Alcohol has no part. Let's serve ice cream and cookies to our 20 and 30 somethings. But, if we do, we promulgate the myth that Judaism is merely for children. Adults need not apply.

If you have children, join a synagogue. Carry the flag around on Simchas Torah. Once your kids are B Mitzvahed though, drop the membership and get back to adult life.

For many in the Jewish world, however, Judaism is not a religion. It is their life. For these people, there is no enticing people with alcohol. Enticing them to what? For some Jewish professionals, they will have ice cream at an event and once they are off duty, they will crack open a beer or have a martini.

Alcohol is part of some people's lives in the same way that Judaism is a part of life. Both are shared.

The only time that I could see alcohol being a disingenuous enticement is if a person pulled out the booze just to achieve a goal and personally never used the stuff.

There is a legal issue that one has to deal with on a college campus. Alcohol cannot be served to minors. But, to imply that alcohol should not be present at an event for adults, or, that work arounds such as Jewish sponsored bar parties, where a licensed server takes responsibility, is somehow philosophically wrong is just misguided.

Young people drink socially. To take the alcohol out of young Jewish events would be cater the message to an age group that is not being served.

Kind of ridiculous article. You think free alcohol enticed me to buy a 400 $ plane ticket to go to TribeFest? um I don't think so.

Get with it.

My experience with Chabad in College, in the early 1980s, was unlimited vodka on Simchas Torah, but the Chabad was off campus and not particularly targeting college students (not at all - we went to them). Fabregens (possibly sic) are a part of life with them.

I think there is truth to the concern that Jewish outreach uses hooks like alcohol, open bar parties etc as a hook to get people in the door, but I don’t think Gary is accurate to the extent that Chabad and Federation are sex and booze driven experiences.

HOWEVER, I do think the “sizzle” of drawing people into the room is missing the “steak"; the substance to keep people there. Chabad, is the envy of others because they don’t walk on religious eggshells, and are proudly Orthodox, and that authenticity is appreciated by Jewish students of all backgrounds. Hillel tries to be everything to everyone, and that is why people go to Chabad. They feel like they are getting that intimate and real experience there.

As for Tribefest and the Federation Young Leadership, I think they are very smart to engage other trendy orgs and groups to bring the new fresh faces into the Federation event and Vegas parties definitely help draw folks out, but I think they still need to define what actually makes it Young Leadership. My desire it to see them redefine themselves to be high level training for young leaders without being elitist.

Whether reality or not, the publicity of Tribefest in major news outlets as a big party of booze etc will ultimately draw the lower common denominator, which is what Federation does not want. Even if high level conversations occur in the halls, the Jewish dialogue doesn’t make the papers.

I urge JFNA to look at the Christian world at how they run their young leadership programs, and even attend their major conferences. There you will feel the energy, not from the music and drinks, but from an audience with a singular drive and electricity to be leaders in their local churches, ministries, charities and communities. We can do the same.

Jonah Halper

As a federation executive who was in Vegas at the same time as Tribefest, met up with my attendees there and attended a portion of Tribefest - I did not at all hear or see of a bacchanalian adventure that was not worthwhile. Rather, the conference embolden my staff person and a great board member to increase young leadership in our community, increase philanthropy, and double the numbers of tribefest from our area for next year. I think the purpose of Vegas was to show that an informative, engaged group of young people can have a meaningful, thoughtful conference, and have a great social life. I also thought it was genius because NO ONE HAD TO DRIVE ANYWHERE. Young people who want to drink will drink, and it won't matter if they are in NY, DC or Vegas.

As a 26 year old Jewish grad student on a campus with a large Hillel and Chabad presence, I see the proliferation of alcohol strongly. It's fine, I guess, but half the people at the Purim Party with the open bar aren't even Jews--they just want the free alcohol. So, meh. I think it's a lot of wasted money that could be better spent funding community service projects or other interesting engagement work.
The people at the parties usually aren't the people I see at services, and I get the need to appeal to a different crowd. But I don't think serving people hamentaschen and alcohol, or latkes and chocolate and alcohol, is the best use of SO much money.

you are spot on here and this is an issue that unites us all from Hassidic to reconstructionist. For the grownups shuls do it too. Ever been to a kiddush?

If any secular Jews wonder why alcohol is used to entice their kids to Judaism, the reason is simple. Their kids are SO ignorant about Judaism, it is depressing.

How many Jewish college kids have ever heard of Shavuot??? How many can actually read Hebrew???

As a campus rabbi at a top ten school I can attest that most Jewish parents, even from the better homes have done a terrible job on instilling Judaism into their children and most kids feel negatively about their own identity. So we need to entice them. And alcohol is one way (although I don't use it).

While Mr.Rosenblatt's main point may well be valid, his overview of Tribefest was not at all what I saw at the conference. As a Federation executive still (barely) in the target age group and as a speaker who attend the entire confernce, the underreported story of TribeFest was the “hall and lobby” conversations I witnessed over and over again between sessions and in the evening. Throughout the conference groups of young people would be gathered around a couple of the more involved people talking about getting active in their Jewish community and the positive atmosphere of the conference created a very receptive audience for this message.

The other thing I found extraordinary, (as someone who has attended over 30 major Jewish National conferences - I know I need to get out more!) was that the positive energy at TribeFest was far beyond anything I have seen at any Jewish conference. It was more like a Birthright MegaEvent or a Mega Mission to Israel.

While creating a social atmosphere was key to Tribefest, I did not see anyone acting like they were at a bachlor party or "getting hammered" as the Jewish content was clearly the main focus of the entire program.

Scott Kaufman
Chief Executive Officer
Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit

We at love alcohol. We love it more than life. But do we need it to entice us to Jewish events? No. I'm sure for a lot of college bros who want to party, this sounds enticing. But why would I want free alcohol if I'm not with all my friends, in a relaxed setting? I'd rather pay for alcohol and feel comfortable than to feel guilty for not becoming 'more Jewish' or more 'religious' or even more 'moral'.

So yeah, alcohol cheapens a religious atmosphere. But my generation wants alcohol at every function anyway. May as well give us what we want and feel good about attracting the same group of people to events, and maybe one or two of their friends. Numbers = funding, regardless of how or why the students are there.

And birthright? There are a lot of boring, depressing, overly-propaganda parts. No one goes on the trip for the possible sex or the alcohol. Everyone in college drinks. They go for the experience.

As a 2x cancer survivor who's last sip of alcohol was 7 years ago, I thought TribeFest was AMAZING!!!! Yep, I quit drinking years ago, after my chemotherapies, and I didn't miss a beat a TribeFest and had the BEST TIME!!
My experience at TribeFest, as a speaker and member, was all about meeting good, young Jewish adults from around the country and sharing ideas and stories. I met so many amazing people, and not ONE person had an attitude, or a chip on their shoulder. No drunken shenanigans. That is amazing. Good people meeting good people, bringing our Jewish young adult world together - that is what it was all about to me and I think the JUF staff delivered in a major way! I'll be back again at the next one - and I'll be sober then too! Ha!
Thanks JUF members for all your hard work and passion!!

It sounds like somebody has an inferiority complex when it comes to Chabad. I remember going to Chabad when I was in college, & I found the Rabbi, the rebbetzin & their family to be wonderful people who opened their home to all Jews who were interested in exploring their Judaism/Yiddushkeit.

On Friday night over a wonderful Shabbos dinner, did we make multiple L'chaim's in honor of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of course. Did that ever detract from the wonderful Shabbasdik atmosphere, never.

In short, Chabad is not "targeting" anybody. Rather, in my experience, Chabad attempts to help Jews return to the ways of the Torah. Is that such a bad thing?!

I believe that there needs to be a balance met between the party and Torah. Just judging from my own children both 19 and 22 respectively and their friends, they acknowledge they are Jews (both went to Day School) and love the family/holiday dinners etc...However, at this point in their lives (it was the same with my husband and myself at their age) they see no need to join groups to have Torah discussions, learning conclaves etc..or go to Shul (except for B'nai Mitzvah's and High Holidays when forced). Statistics printed in this very paper said that the majority high school seniors from NYC Solomon Schecter do not believe in G-d. That right there tells us so much. They are interested in meeting people and having fun. Hillel has to find a better way to engage students who were not USY leaders. Alcohol is an enticement, but Hillel itself needs an image change. This generation believes that their point of view counts for something. They will not be preached to. It is time to learn how to talk to them. You don't have to feed them alcohol to get their attention. Give them causes that mean something to them...not to their parents.

Thank you so much for writing this. In so many bulletins and on facebook invitations, I see alcohol as the hook to bring in young people. What kind of fish are they trying to catch? Martini mixers, etc have their place, but what does this have to do with Judaism? I hope that the organizers of these events will rethink their use of alcohol. We Jews have enough problems; we don't need to add alcoholism to the mix!

But why are we saying that Chabad is doing it and Hillel is not? who has this data? Hillel throws huge bar parties, not only for Purim... right our wrong, why are we assuming that it's chabad and not hillel, because hillel staff said so?

You have not done your research this time around. Chabad on campus is dry for undergrads or carded at a purim event. Just as Hillel Frferation. If you want to count the events, Hillels are holding more bar events than anyone else. If hillel is offering any Jewish education these daysthat is thanks on large part to chabad getting tem of their complacent behinds. Chabad helped make hillel do more and actually focus on, as lbeit, a bit of Judaism. Alcohol if just how one organization badges and discredits another. Send your secret shoppers and make a balanced and honest assessmen, rather than help perpetuate popular rumors.

I wish this was the case. Our Chabad was "dry," along with the campus. But that is simply not the reality. Bottles of alcohol were available at every Shabbat...the same was true for at least a dozen of my friends on other campuses. Never were we asked our age.

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