Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Sad Truth

The attached video has been making the rounds of the web during the past week, mostly because it's really funny.
Viewed from another perspective though, the video makes me sad - not because it features Hitler. That part's also funny. What's sad about the video is the subject matter itself: the very existence of the Kiddish club.
Full disclosure here: my former shul, the Young Israel of Oak Park, sported a kiddush club. To this day I consider my unwillingness to confront its existence one of my greatest failings. I simply didn't have the guts to confront the longtime members of my shul who were full and longtime members of the Club. They gave too much money; they were too powerful; it wasn't worth the effort. Baloney. I simply didn't want to put up the fight and expend the effort. I was lazy. And my former shul continues to pay a heavy, heavy price.
I know the arguments. Actually, they're all right there in the video. Don't guys deserve a break? It's about the camaraderie. It's not about the drinking or the food. What's the big deal? Sorry, but I have come to believe that these clubs are doing nothing less than destroying our movement.
"Come on rabbi, what's the big deal? You're making a big to-do about nothing."
No, I'm not. Let me count the ways:
  1. Kiddish Clubs as religious statements: First and foremost, KC's specifically take people out of davening during the davening. They extend through the rabbi's speech, intentionally. They make the obvious statement that davening is too long, boring, drawn out and irrelevant to be useful, and that one can obviously make better use of his time telling jokes over herring and booze. Is that really why people come to shul: To arrive an hour late, rush through a quick shemoneh esreh, and then run out for two fingers? Moreover, the mass exodus at the start of the haftorah isn't inconspicuous. Everyone sees the Kiddish Club members leave. Some do it proudly. Some members invite guests to join them as they leave. How important can the davening be if a good chunk of the attendees leave in the middle?
  2. Kiddish Clubs as social statements: Like it or not, we are social animals. Our neighbors' behavior affects us. So, if I'm a person trying to take davening seriously and watch a group of guys leave in the middle, how does that make me feel? Clearly, the cool guys get it. They've done their davening and now they've moved on. And in my former shul, the kiddish club members were the "cool" guys, leaving all the "losers" to stay in davening and suffer the rabbi's drashah. Did they ever say that? Of course not. They didn't have to.
  3. Kiddush clubs as educational tools: What better way to educate your children about the insignificance of prayer, the unimportance of hearing words of Torah from the rabbi, and the irrelevance of having an actual spiritual experience in shul on Shabbat? (I intentionally omit the booze/drinking aspect. That's been addressed before. And if you don't realize that you're an alcoholic, my blog post certainly won't help you.)
  4. Kiddish clubs as Kiruv tools: Imagine you're a seeking, searching soul looking for a place that will connect you to authentic Judaism. So your lawyer friend invites you to join him at his shul. After witnessing the Kiddish Club, is there any chance that Orthodoxy falls several notches in your eyes? Is it any wonder that our shuls are so bad at kiruv, and "outreach centers" do so much better than we do? Sure, Chabad loves to serve a good drink. But they do it after davening!
  5. Kiddish clubs as membership motivators: Sure, there are people attracted to the camaraderie of the Kiddish club. But what about the opposite effect: the masses of people running in droves away from larger shuls to the smaller shteibels. Do we really wonder why? I could never really get serious, religiously motivated people to daven at my shul on a regular basis, and while that doesn't fall totally on the back of the Kiddish Club, it certainly did not help.
The comments on the YouTube page of the video say it all:
"Shkoyach from one of the founding fathers of the BZKC in Montreal, the best kiddush club to ever exist! Now a proud member of the CHMKC in seattle."
"If my shul had a Kiddush Club, I'd say Skoyach. But everyone in my shul knows the 2 rules of Kiddush Club: Rule #1: There is no Kiddush Club. Rule #2: see rule #1"
This is the Kiddish Club MO: deflect any criticism with light-hearted banter and sarcasm. Tell people to chill out. Make a funny "Fight Club" reference. Enjoy the thrill of the Kiddish Club. Take it easy. It's not that big a deal.
It is a big deal, and the longer large shuls ignore them, the more membership they will lose, and the faster Modern Orthodoxy will continue to fade into irrelevance on the American scene.

Here's the truth: Kiddish Clubs represent the very worst aspects of Modern Orthodoxy. I would not daven regularly in a minyan that sported a Kiddish Club, and would seriously think twice before joining a shul that did. Kiddish clubs are no less than a cancer on our shuls and our entire movement. The people who frequent them should be embarrassed, and not emboldened. Every shul in North America should abolish its Kiddish Club, damn the consequences.
If you attend such a club, it's not funny. It's not okay. You should be embarrassed that you can't sit through shul once a week. You're a terrible example for your children, your fellow shul members, and your community. You make a mockery of what a shul is supposed to represent: communion with God, spirituality, and seriousness.
I don't care how much money you have. I don't care how long you've been a member of the shul. If you want to get together with the boys for a drink and some kugel, do it at home, and not during davening. Because by building your Kiddish Club into not just a diversion, but an ideology, you've succeeded in transforming Modern Orthodoxy into a sad, pathetic joke.