Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Gladdening the Heart - or Alcohol Abuse?

I don’t know when it happened - or how - or why. But alcohol abuse among Orthodox young people is pretty common these days. I see it all the time at the many weddings I attend. It cuts across all segments of Orthodoxy. The real shock though is when I see the Lakewood type student imbibing. They are the keepers of the flame who claim the mantle of superiority in Torah lifestyle and observance - role models of Torah behavior. And I’m beginning to see it more among them than I do among Modern Orthodox youth.

It’s not that they are evil people. They want to be Mesameach the Chasan and Kallah. As good friends of the Chasan they want to do all they can to make him rejoice on his wedding day. But instead of a natural exuberance - they go immediately to the bottle.

That of course gives them the buzz they are looking for and eliminates any inhibitions. But the inhibitions are not just about being shy. They get so plastered that they forget everyone around them. When the dancing begins they become loud, rude, and muscle their way into an inner dance circle so they can dance with or impress the Chasan - without regard to who they hurt on the way in. Not that they hurt anyone on purpose. They are just too drunk to notice if or who they’ve pushed aside - or who they’ve hit with their flailing arms while they dance. They are oblivious to all but themselves.

To the casual observer from a distance it may not seem like there is anything wrong. They just see a group of exuberant friends dancing up a storm – if a bit wildly. But to those of us who are sober on the inside trying to dance with the Chasan as well (or as in my case trying to get a decent video when I work) we are kicked and hit and pushed aside - often with rude comments. Sometimes those pushed aside are elderly grandparents or older aunts and uncles.

There are of course still weddings where the friends who are dancing are not drunk and therefore aware of what’s around them. They dance very joyfully too but are not pushy and do not shove or strong arm others who are older. They are aware of others and are respectful of them. But that is becoming increasingly rare.

When someone is drunk it reveals his true personality. And often the personality that is revealed is that of a self centered holier than thou elitist who thinks the world revolves around him and his friends. Everyone else is just scenery to them.

Just to be clear, this seems to be a male problem. I never see women get drunk at weddings. But young men…? Increasingly so.

One of the most troubling aspects of this relatively new phenomenon is that the drunken friends at weddings are fellow students with the Chasan in the same Yeshiva. More often than not the Rosh HaYeshiva is the Mesdaer Kedushin – the officiating Rabbi - who witnesses his students acting like a bunch of wild animals. And they seem oblivious to it - caring little if at all. It’s almost as if they approve!

These young people pick up on that and see it as tacit approval. The thinking probably goes something like this. They are just putting themselves in the proper mood by proper means. The Talmud states: Yayin Mesamchin Es HaLev - wine gladdens the heart.

That’s it. It’s Kosher to get drunk. There is no Chilul HaShem. Anyone who suggests otherwise, get out of my way! What do you know?! It’s a Mitzvah to be Mesameach the Chasan and Kalla. What better way to do that then to follow the Gemara’s implied advice?

It can’t be emphasized enough that these are normally well behaved good kids – when they aren’t drunk. These are not kids at risk. For the most part they learn well in the Yeshivos they attend. But in recent years they have picked up a bad vice and have made it Kosher. And that has revealed their inner personality.

But what about the slippery slope? Once you have experienced the high of getting drunk at a wedding or any Kosher environment, it doesn’t stop there. People will seek that high in other places too - in Shul at a Kiddush, on Purim, and in pool halls in the Catskills. And once you’ve experimented successfully with alcohol, why not try some Marijuana or something stronger and quicker?

This is what happened last Sunday morning in Monticello New York:

A group of approximately nine individuals hailing from some of Brooklyn's Orthodox neighborhoods were arrested by the Sullivan County Sheriff's Department this weekend. The arrests mark at least the third time in the past several days that Jewish teens from Brooklyn have been charged by upstate New York law enforcement officers [see HERE and HERE].

In the early a.m. hours of Sunday morning, a group of teenage boys along with a couple of adults were hanging out in the parking lot of Wal-Mart at Anawana Lake Road in Monticello. The boys were behaving in a loud and rowdy manner. Several were openly consuming alcohol and it has been alleged - but not verified - that some were seen smoking marijuana.

When I was a student in Yeshiva back in the 60s and early 70s, these things were unheard of. Except for Purim, young people never drank to get high. I never saw any drunken behavior at a wedding by a Yeshiva student. I never heard of any young Orthodox Jews getting arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct. But now the problem is huge and it seems to be getting worse.

I think it’s time for the Roshei Yeshiva to tell their young people to stop drinking. Even at weddings - or anywhere else for that matter. Its time for these young people to learn that getting drunk in public is a Chilul HaShem. And that it endangers their health, too. It’s time for Roshei Yeshiva to pay more attention to this and get a handle on it instead of being oblivious to it.

In this day and age where Roshei Yeshiva have more power and influence on their Talmidim than at any time in history - it’s time they use that power for more than creating new Chumros.

I realize that the problems are greater than just alcohol abuse. That is probably more of a symptom than a cause. But tackling alcohol abuse will be a good start.