Organizations create cocktail of policies when dealing with alcohol
Wide rangeOrganizations set their own rules within the law

Organizations create cocktail of policies when dealing with alcohol

'We like to put an emphasis on the Jewish content as opposed to the alcohol'

Wineglass painting, hosted by Hadassah’s Zohar group, seems to agree with these young women. 

Photo provided by Hadassah Greater Pittsburgh
Wineglass painting, hosted by Hadassah’s Zohar group, seems to agree with these young women. Photo provided by Hadassah Greater Pittsburgh

For some, it is a sip; yet for others, not even a drink. The dizzying range of policies held by local Jewish organizations regarding the use of alcohol reflects a conventional attitude with a blend of exceptions.

“In general, we do not serve any alcohol at student events, even for religious events,” said Danielle Kranjec, senior Jewish educator at the Hillel Jewish University Center in Oakland.

So whether the organization is hosting a Friday night Kiddush, a Saturday evening Havdalah service or even the Pesach Seder, guests can find bottles of grape juice everywhere but not a drop of wine to drink. Reason being that “it’s not central to what we’re trying to do,” Kranjec explained. “In dealing with the nearly 5,000 Jewish university students in Pittsburgh, our focus is to convene communities for meaningful experiences,” and unlike providing “good kosher food,” which “plays a central role in what we do,” alcohol just is not that important.

Although its upcoming Simchat Torah celebration will be completely dry, Hillel JUC is not a bastion of prohibition, as, at times, the organization has provided alcohol to members of its “21-plus” affiliate group. But these have been “in very controlled situations in the past, where we have sponsored a bottle of wine among 20 students” for Kiddush, Kranjec said.

Having a general rule is common practice in Oakland when it comes to university students.

“Obviously, we have a no alcohol policy,” said Sara Weinstein, co-director of Chabad House on Campus.

But again, “no” does not necessarily mean nilch.

“For Kiddush, we do serve wine in small amounts,” explained Weinstein. “We would not serve alcohol to minors other than in small amounts for that religious purpose.”

In Pennsylvania, those under the age of 21 years are generally restricted from using alcohol. For those above 21, it is a misdemeanor to “intentionally and knowingly” sell or furnish alcohol to someone under the age of 21. An exception, as stated in Title 18 of the Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes, applies to “any religious service or ceremony which may be conducted in a private home or a place of worship, where the amount of wine served does not exceed the amount reasonably, customarily and traditionally required as an integral part of the service or ceremony.”

Even apart from the legal issues surrounding the distribution of alcohol to those under 21 years of age, the problem with mixing alcohol and events is that one typically eclipses the other, explained local Jewish professionals.
“Particularly with undergrads, alcohol can end up being the focus,” said Kranjec.

“We like to put an emphasis on the Jewish content as opposed to the alcohol,” agreed Carolyn Slayton, Shalom Pittsburgh associate for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.

With that said, “there are times when we will have wine [such as] at most Shabbat dinners, but it is more as a traditional thing, not necessarily the selling point.”

For those within Shalom Pittsburgh’s target demographic, which is young adults ages 22 to 45, “they can go to a happy hour anywhere,” said Slayton. “What we try to offer is a little something more — not just wine tasting, but wine tasting and Torah study or wine tasting and ritual.”

An upcoming example includes “Wine and Wisdom,” a collaboration between Shalom Pittsburgh, J’Burgh, Moishe House and Congregation Beth Shalom in which guests are invited to gather in the synagogue’s sukkah for Havdalah, desserts, wine and a discussion with Rabbi Seth Adelson and Rabbi Jeremy Markiz.

Although Shalom Pittsburgh does promote beer and wine tastings, cocktail hours and its annual Vodka Latke celebration, “we try to stray away from alcohol-based events when possible,” said Slayton.

At Moishe House Pittsburgh, 20 percent of the organization’s $500 monthly budget may be allocated to alcohol, explained Ben Varhula, Midwest regional manager for Moishe House, a self-described “network of peer-based Jewish communities for young adults ages 22 to 30.”

Because Moishe House’s vision is “peer driven, we leave it up to our residents on what’s best to build that community, and sometimes it’s alcohol,” said Varhula, adding that while events may encompass the distribution of alcohol, “we stress adhering to federal laws.”

With so many organizations shying away from openly embracing alcohol at events, Scotch in the Sukkah may come as a bit of a surprise.

Scheduled for Monday, Oct. 9, following the 7 p.m. minyan, the annual Beth Shalom men’s club event, which is open to adults 21 and older, is a “way to get people into the sukkah,” said Rob Menes, executive director. It is also a chance to learn proper drink-mixing techniques from a professional bartender and to hear several, perhaps unfamiliar, tunes.

“I’ll actually be singing some Scottish songs,” said Menes, a trained cantor who has performed “Loch Lomond,” in the sukkah.

But as these things go, lest people think that this event has the seeds for some type of religious-cloaked drinking party, Menes offered clarification.

“It’s not about drinking a lot of alcohol; it’s about going into the sukkah and celebrating Sukkot.”

Scotch in the Sukkah is a “fun way to celebrate the holiday,” added the synagogue’s executive director. “We try to do so many things here that are family oriented, and sometimes it’s appropriate to have adult-oriented programs as well.”

Certain programs will employ alcohol as a mechanism for participants to “connect Jewishly,” said Slayton. But our mission is always to “connect young adults to each other and to the Jewish community and to the Jewish people as a whole.” pjc

Adam Reinherz can be reached at

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