The principals of six Jewish high schools serving northern New Jersey sent a joint letter to parents urging vigilance in the face of teenage drinking on Simchat Torah, “to guarantee that this special time of holiness will not degenerate into the opposite kind of experience for anyone.”
Nobody is sure how alcohol consumption became a tradition of this holiday, which celebrates the completion of the yearly Torah-reading cycle.
“There are rabbinic sources about drinking wine in the context of the Purim seudah,” or meal, says Teaneck’s Rabbi Michael Taubes, head of school for the Yeshiva University High School for Boys, and one of the six signatories. (The school, in northern Manhattan, draws many students from across the George Washington Bridge.) “In terms of Simchat Torah, I’m not familiar with any halachic source for drinking, but it appears that it became a tradition in some shuls that after you get an aliyah to the Torah you make a l’chaim, and that got carried away.” The practice is already decried by Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan in his legal work, the Mishnah Berurah, from pre-World War II Poland, Rabbi Taubes added.
This “tradition” continues to be a concern for communities worldwide. Los Angeles and Long Island Jewish high schools are among those that issue a joint cautionary letter each year, and a 2008 letter in London’s Jewish Chronicle said: “If one thing is certain about Simchat Torah, it is that, by late afternoon, at least one youngster from an Orthodox neighbourhood will be having his stomach pumped.”
Rabbi Taubes says the local principals were not responding to specific incidents, but instead to the general phenomenon. But he notes that a contributing factor is the prevalence of unofficial camp “reunions” over Simchat Torah in large Orthodox communities such as Teaneck over the past few years.
“These were organized by the kids themselves, and there were a lot of unsupervised activities,” he said. “Throw into the mix that unfortunately many adults use Simchat Torah as an opportunity to drink, and it’s not a good situation.”
Rabbi Taubes also sends out a similar letter to parents each year before Purim.
“I try to remind parents of their responsibility regarding drinking,” he said. “We’re not trying to be Draconian but to be alert. Adolescents need guidance. Parents have to realize when they have kids over, the liquor cabinet should be locked and an adult should be around, because even well-meaning kids can get in trouble.”
The Simchat Torah letter advises parents who host their child’s friends for the holiday to accept no more than six guests, lock the liquor cabinet, and provide close supervision and clear expectations for behavior. If their children are going elsewhere, parents are urged to ascertain that any gatherings they attend will be adequately supervised and alcohol-free, and that at least one parent will take the responsibility of remaining awake until all guests are home in bed at the end of the evening.
Arthur Poleyeff, principal of Torah Academy of Bergen County, said that a parent of an SAR Academy high school student suggested the joint letter last year. (SAR is right across the Hudson in Riverdale, N.Y., and counts many Bergen County teenagers among its student body.)The parent spoke to SAR’s principal, Rabbi Tully Harcsztark. He, in turn, proposed that the letter go out to all parents of children in local yeshiva high schools. The other signatories include Rabbi Eli Ciner, principal of the Frisch School in Paramus; Rivka Kahan, principal of Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck; and Ira Miller, dean of Manhattan’s Ramaz School’s upper school (which also attracts many students from Bergen County).
“Over the course of many years, the drinking that happens on Simchat Torah is simply out of control, among adults as well,” Mr. Poleyeff, who lives in Englewood, said. “For kids who are really heavy drinkers, this letter is not going to do anything for them. For kids who’d never think of drinking, this is not aimed at them either, though it may make them feel more empowered. We’re hoping it will save kids who are on the fence. If it saves five or 10 kids in each school from getting really, really drunk, that is a success for us.”
He got positive feedback from parents who received the letter last year. “Parents are always happy that we send this out; this way they can kind of hide behind a school directive, and we’re happy to provide that for them.”
Mr. Poleyeff also suggested that synagogues that have not already addressed the problem take a proactive role in providing supervised, alcohol-free activities for teens on the night of Simchat Torah.
“We must be very careful about the message we send our teens and children on this holiday both by serving as appropriate role models ourselves and by setting clear and firm guidelines for our children and any of their guests who may be visiting,” the joint letter reads.
“Let us, therefore, work together as a community of parents to do all we can to make this year’s Simchat Torah celebration truly meaningful, safe and alcohol and drug free for our teenagers.”