Saturday night begins the Jewish holiday of Purim. Purim commemorates the deliverance of the Jewish people from the sinister plot of annihilation at the hands of the powerful anti-Semite, Haman. Spiritually, the suggested message of Purim is that while at times God seems hidden, God is always watching over and protecting the Jewish people. However, while never the intention, Purim has also become a holiday marred with underage drinking and alcohol related injuries and deaths. This is an issue that is repairable if the Jewish community would just take a collective stand and prevent young people from having easy access to alcohol on Purim. It is time we stop expecting only the Shul to not serve alcohol to kids, the parents to better educate or lock up the booze, the Rabbi not to give out shots or the friends to be better influences. It is time we expect, or better yet demand, that as a Jewish community we work together or the ramifications will be deadly.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services:
- Teens who begin drinking before age 15 are five times more likely to develop alcohol dependence than those who begin drinking at age 21.
- An early age of drinking onset is also associated with alcohol-related violence not only among persons under age 21 but among adults as well.
- It has been estimated that over three million teenagers are out-and-out alcoholics. Several million more have a serious drinking problem that they cannot manage on their own.
- Annually, more than 5,000 deaths of people under age 21 are linked to underage drinking.
- The three leading causes of death for 15- to 24-year-olds are automobile crashes, homicides and suicides — alcohol is a leading factor in all three.
One may read these statistics and say it does not apply to teens who drink for religious reasons, or they are only drinking for Purim and no other time. You might say, “not me” or “not my child.” Maybe, but is it a risk you’re willing to take as a parent or as a young person? While it is possible that alcohol used responsibly has a role in Jewish life and ritual, when it comes to children ask yourself, are a few drinks on Purim, Simchat Torah, Shabbos, other holidays or Jewish celebrations worth the risk of a future drinking problem or alcohol related injury? Your call. However, on a community level, things will only change if we work together to shift the false perception that this is not an issue and deal with it from every level in the community.
I commend Jewish organizations like the YU School Partnership, whom I proudly work for, who hosted a webinar by Dr. David Pelcovitz on “Preparing Your Teen for Purim.” I also commend the Orthodox Union and NCSY for taking strong stands on this issue and providing safe, alcohol free events for Jewish teens. I also commend the local schools who provide safe and fun events for their students and the Shuls that do the same. For example, the Shul I attend, Shaarey Zedek, runs an amazing community Purim event and there is not one drop of alcohol to be found. Other Jewish organizations have also addressed the issue, but more must follow.
Parents also need to talk to their children about drinking and what their Purim plans are. Schools must educate their students as well and, like many, provide safe Purim parties. Shuls that do have alcohol must be careful that alcohol is given out responsibly and never to teens or children. Kids must choose carefully what kind of Purim they want; safe or not. Kids must also step up and be a good friend by either not encouraging drinking, never pressuring others and if a friend drinks, letting a responsible adult know they need help. I have seen too many kids left by their friends on the side of a Synagogue in their own sick. Those are no friends I would want. It takes all of us to have a safe, fun and meaningful Purim. Happy Purim!
P.S. If you are a teen and you find yourself or a friend in an unsafe situation, call your or your friends parents, get to a responsible adult ASAP or call 911. It is not betraying your friend to save their life and your parents would rather you call them than get hurt.