February 10, 2005
Herring and Haftarah
Single malt Scotch. Schmaltz herring. Cholent. Kugel. Marble sheet cake. What do all these delicacies have in common?
Yes, they all contribute to heart disease, but there's something more: They are all served at the Kiddush Club. A Kiddush Club is an exclusive group of shulgoers that meets somewhere outside the sanctuary during services -- usually during the chanting of the Haftorah -- to have a private "pre-Kiddush" Kiddush.
Kiddush Clubs are not new. They have been meeting in basements and back rooms of shuls ever since I was a child. In the past, Kiddush Clubs offered a stale piece of kichel and a shlug of Crown Royal to the diabetics or the elderly who simply couldn't go without some carbs for health reasons. But as of late they've evolved into something more, for many more people, not just the elderly. The stale kichel has been substituted with expensive éclairs, herring, cholent and kugel; and if you try offering anything less then 15-year-old single malt, you are shooed away with upturned noses. (Some wives have been heard complaining that by the time their husbands come home from shul, they're already full!)
The argument in favor of Kiddush Clubs goes something like this: Rabbis and other congregational leaders have been trying for years to innovate new formulas for increasing synagogue attendance. Food has always played prominently in attracting more people.
It seems to be working. Shuls with Kiddush Clubs do succeed in attracting more people. Moreover, there is a nice camaraderie that develops among these clubbers, which can generate more warmth throughout the shul.
Yet despite the benefits, there are some problems: For one thing, the whole purpose for congregating in the synagogue on Shabbat morning is to have some spiritual elevation on the holiest day of our week. Congregants are also supposed to hear the reading of the Torah portion, as well as the haftarah (when the Kiddush Clubs take place). Those who regularly miss out on the haftarah for a piece of herring are thus missing out on an integral component of the service.
But there's more. When exclusive cliques form within a congregation -- where some are part of the in group, while others are outside the inner circle -- this makes for an unhealthy social dynamic. The man who must debate with himself whether to be pious and stay in for the Haftorah or to go out and be part of the hip crowd is truly in a no-win situation.
The most human aspect of the problem can be illustrated by 85-year-old Moishe, who is called up to recite the haftarah, because he has yahrzeit, or anniversary of a death, for his beloved baby brother, Oizer, who was killed at the age of 9 in Auschwitz. Moishe may not even be a regular shulgoer, but he never misses this yahrzeit. Just as Moishe is about to begin the opening blessings, the mass exodus begins. Imagine how Moishe feels right about now as he glances over his shoulder.
Finally, alcohol is usually served at Kiddush Clubs, and different shuls have different standards of supervision over these club gatherings. Sometimes, the youth of the congregation slip out and imbibe with the rest of the gang. Even when the club is restricted to youth, parents sauntering into shul with Scotch on their breath are not positive role models. Unfortunately, the Orthodox world is not immune to the problems of drug and alcohol abuse; we can ill-afford to continue making alcohol available to our youth.
For these and other reasons, many Orthodox rabbis are pleased that the Orthodox Union, the parent organization of the largest coalition of Orthodox congregations in the country, released a statement calling for the abolition of Kiddush Clubs.
"Kiddush Clubs are an aberration from the atmosphere of kedusha [holiness] so prominent in our synagogues," the statement says.
But come now, what's a congregation to do? Services are so long, and people are hungry because Orthodox Jews don't eat before morning prayer.
Two points are in order here:
1. There are some reliable authorities -- among them Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liady, the founder of Chabad Chasidism -- who allow one to eat before services if he'll end up chalishing, or becoming faint, during services. Relying on these authorities and eating breakfast before services is far better than eating during services.
2. People are right: services are too long, especially for the MTV generation, whose attention span peters out after the length of a music video. We should take our cue from synagogues in Israel, where services are typically just two hours.
We can find a way to trim down services from the current three hours. If we can let people out of shul at 11 a.m., instead of noon, there will be less of a need to walk out in the middle of services for a midmorning snack.
Good herring and good friends. That's what Shabbat morning services are for -- after we've finished bonding with God inside the synagogue.
Rabbi Daniel N. Korobkin is spiritual leader of Kehillat Yavneh.