Although most yeshiva high school students go to their own shuls on Simchat Torah, do not drink, and go home safely after the dancing has ended, as the letter from six of their school leaders makes clear, some of them do not.
Where do those students go for their evening of drunken revelry?
No doubt to many places, but one great glittering magnet for them seems to be Congregation Bnai Jeshurun on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, just a bridge-span away.
Simchat Torah services at BJ, as the shul is called, are unusual, combining reverence, exuberance, and expertly performed and sung music into a potent, fervent, pulsing mix. The sanctuary, with its stained glass and gilded arabesques, has a flat floor. The folding chairs that usually cover it are removed; once the first part of the service has finished, the Torah scrolls are taken out, and the dancing begins. Each Torah is surrounded by a ring of dancers, each hakafah continues for at least half an hour, and joy and solemnity join with an intensity that is the culmination of the season that began with Slichot so very many weeks ago.
BJ welcomes everyone.
“The most compelling thing at BJ is that it has become a place of celebration for klal Yisrael,” for all Jews, Rabbi Rolando Matalon, one of its senior rabbis, said, just before Simchat Torah. (This newspaper goes to press before the holiday.) “Many different types of people come. People from liberal congregations, people from Orthodox congregations, people who are not regular synagogue attendees, people who don’t know how to put on a kippah, people who live with kippot on; men and women, and so many young people. Everyone comes to dance with a Torah.”
Or at any rate, that’s the way that it used to be. Now it seems that some people – young people – come to get drunk or to be drunk. The sifrei Torah are just a backdrop, almost as if they were nightclub decorations.
“There is a lot of singing, music, and excitement at BJ, and sometimes people lose a sense of their boundaries,” Rabbi Matalon said. “They forget that they are in a sacred place, dancing with a Torah.
“Simchat Torah is known in certain adult circles as a night for drinking. It’s like Purim – people start taking shots, saying l’chaims. It’s the end of the holidays, and the beginning of a new year.
“But sometimes people go over their boundaries.
“I have experienced this in chasidic shuls. At the end, you may see men lying down on benches, completely drunk. It is a chillul hashem.” A desecration of God’s name.
“And now this has been transmitted to a younger generation. A lot of young men and women come here drunk, some have smoked pot, some have done drugs. It’s mostly alcohol, but not limited to alcohol,” he said.
“It is a shame.”
When people are falling-down drunk, they get sick, and it is dangerous. “Twice last year we had to call Hatzolah” – the emergency medical service whose ambulances serve mainly Jews – Rabbi Matalon said. “In both cases, the kids were from frum families.
“Both passed out, and they feel ashamed when they figure out what happened to them. They don’t know where they are, and Hatzolah has to take them to a hospital.
“There was a case last year of a young man from Long Island, who indicated to us that he was staying with a friend,” Rabbi Matalon continued. “He got drunk and vomited in the shul. The friends he came with left; he was completely alone and drunk and we felt for him, and we wanted to figure out how to help, but Hatzolah said, ‘You cannot take responsibility for him. You have to take him to the hospital.’ And the guy was all alone. So what do we do? We send somebody to accompany him and sit with him in the hospital, and ruin their holiday?”
“They’re on their own,” Rabbi Matalon said. “Their parents aren’t around. Their teachers aren’t around. There is no adult supervision – there are many adults around, but no one is supervising them.
“They feel like they can play at being mature, but really can’t control themselves.”
BJ’s leaders are trying to figure out what to do. They do not want to curtail the celebration, but they don’t want an emotionally and spiritually potent celebration to be turned into a bacchanalia for drunken teenagers and twentysomethings. “We are trying to figure out a way,” Rabbi Matalon said.
He hopes that the letter the principals sent to families will deter some students. “On our end, we now have EMT people here all evening. We know that many of the visitors drink inside the building, so now we have posted people near the bathrooms, and people who go inside to make sure that they’re not drinking there.” They also are trying to keep an eye on the sanctuary. “But many come in drunk from the outside,” he added.
If it seems that someone is more drunk than is safe, someone at BJ will call Hatzolah, and an ambulance will carry him or her to the hospital. If someone who is very drunk at BJ does not want his parents to know either his condition or his whereabouts, it will be up to him to figure out how to keep that information from them.
Diversity and pluralism are at BJ’s core, part of its DNA, but drunken revelers are not. As this new year starts, as the Torah was turned and begun again, its rabbis join with the principals of yeshiva high schools in hoping that it began with joyous, playful, intense, high-spirited sobriety.