Purim is here – the one holiday destined to remain with us at the end of days. Yet for Jews of all ages, it has become an opportunity to engage in, and normalize, binge drinking.
Our sages tell us, in the words of the Hafetz Hayim, that “we are not commanded to reduce ourselves to drunkenness” but to use alcohol responsibly (specifically wine, as in other Jewish ritual observance) in order to enhance our experience of this holy day.
Here we are again, at that point in the calendar year where good kids have carte blanche to make catastrophic decisions. Although the problem of binge drinking extends year-round, Purim gives us the opportunity to speak out against its normalization, particularly among students who spend a gap year in Israel.
The Jerusalem Post wrote last year about the problem of binge drinking among students in American yeshiva high schools (“Yeshiva high school students have a binge drinking problem,” February 24, 2021). Eleven percent of 10th- to 12th-grade American yeshiva students reported having more than five drinks in a sitting, in the month preceding the survey.
Now remove these kids from their homes and make the alcohol legal to purchase in any corner shop or bar, and see what happens. We’ve seen the results of this social experiment for decades.
The dangers of binge drinking include “blackouts,” depression, impaired cognitive functioning and their resulting impulsive behaviors. These are behaviors that can leave life-long scars. Adolescent binge drinkers (and yes, the children you’re sending to Israel are adolescents, not adults) are more likely to attempt suicide, to suffer from mental illness, to engage in unsafe sex.
Females are more likely to be affected by alcohol: the same amount of alcohol ingested will result in a higher concentration of blood alcohol, earlier addiction and may result in victimization to violence or sexual assault.
A 2016 survey showed that among 15-year-old Israelis, 15% of the boys and 5% of the girls were drunk on two or more occasions. The problem is country-wide. But Israelis grow up in a society that on the one hand legalizes consumption of alcohol at 18 and on the other hand imposes tremendous responsibility at the age of 18. That is not true of 18- to-21-year-old Americans spending a gap year in Israel.
Americans on a gap year have no real responsibility, are thousands of miles from family, have easy access to legal alcohol and provide a steady source of income to Jerusalem bars on Thursday and Saturdays nights. In Jerusalem, establishments that advertise themselves as “family friendly” cater to American yeshiva boys in an English-speaking environment.
In too many cases, attendance at yeshiva or other structured Jewish programs, most of which are located in Jerusalem, is not protective. Jewish children grow up with weekly rituals that involve alcohol. Religious service attendance was shown in one study to have an inverse relationship with heavy alcohol use in Christian but not Jewish college students. Good kids have made irreversible decisions under the influence of alcohol in Jerusalem. Good kids have used alcohol as a gateway to worse.
In 2010, the government issued a national program for the reduction of harmful drinking. According to Yair Geller, then the director-general of the National Anti-Drug and Alcohol Authority, a law was passed prohibiting the sale of alcohol after 11 p.m. The main idea, Geller noted, was to cut off the supply and demand of alcohol at the peak hours of consumption – on the way to a party or to meet friends and when coming back.
There is no exception for Purim.
BEN-YEHUDA Street has undergone a makeover since I was in yeshiva almost 30 years ago, but this one aspect has not changed. The year away from home becomes a year of weekend drunkenness for too many Americans in Jerusalem, with alcohol more easily available here than on many American college campuses. This problem is at our doorstep and has been for some time.
Alcohol is a component of Jewish ritual year-round, but is meant to be consumed in the company of family, in an atmosphere of mitzvah observance. This year, let’s speak out against “the drunkards of Ephraim… who are overcome with wine.”
This year, let’s make a change that restores the sanctity of Jerusalem, that restores the safety of our children, and that makes Jerusalem family-friendly to residents and tourists alike.
Let’s raise the legal age for alcohol in the municipality of Jerusalem from 18 to 21 and close the bars of Jerusalem to our kids.
The author is a pediatric emergency physician in Israel. He immigrated to Israel from the US in 2008.