By Larry Gordon
“It’s like no one is going to do anything until something awful happens, like someone dying,” says Captain Danny Gluck, commanding officer for the Nassau County Auxiliary Police unit in the Five Towns. Captain Gluck is referring to the Simchas Torah celebrations and the problems they create out here in the Five Towns.
The season is noted for its celebratory joyfulness and giddiness, but not exactly the type that it has dumbed its way down to over the years. Today, for many, Simchas Torah has become simcha sans any semblance of Torah, with drinking alcoholic beverages being both the high point and the subsequent low point of the day.
Shuls here and around the country have slapped restrictions on the consumption of alcohol because the free-flowing liquor has found its way into the hands of teenagers—who, according to the law, are not supposed to be drinking—and those who drink irresponsibly. This leads to public disturbances and trouble, amongst other things.
In the Village of Lawrence, there is an area between the larger community and an area referred to as Back Lawrence that is noted for its oversized properties and opulent, lavish homes. At one spot, there is an area called “The Triangle” that borders these two upscale areas. This is where hundreds of young people from yeshiva high schools throughout the New York area congregate to drink and drink some more over the holiday. According to Captain Gluck and Lawrence resident Dr. Marc Sicklick, the liaison between the village and the Nassau County Office of Emergency Management, what takes place at The Triangle year after year is a recipe for a disaster waiting to happen. Both say that there is enough time between one Simchas Torah and the next that the life-and-death emergencies that are dealt with are forgotten.
“The only way to deal with this situation,” Dr. Sicklick says, “is to keep it out there in the public so that next time around we can avert tragedy and disaster.” Dr. Sicklick says that he became aware of the underage drinking problem about 20 years ago, when alcohol was readily available in shuls just about everywhere.
“Back in 2001, I hired two off-duty Nassau County police officers to monitor the situation on Simchas Torah in our shul,” he says, and adds that the next morning they showed him water bottles that had been filled with vodka, which they confiscated from teenagers in and around the shul. Today, the water bottle is still a signature accessory for the young people. Routinely, he says, the bottles are filled with vodka.
The report from the street from past years was that hundreds of kids were out there with the main objective to get drunk or at least high on alcohol. There is a law on the books in Nassau County—the social host law—that holds adult homeowners responsible if alcohol originating or taken from their homes is used by underage drinkers. That should have applied, but the law has not been enforced; while law enforcement is out patrolling the streets, they tend to look the other way as long as things remain peaceful.
Captain Gluck, who has visited the Triangle on Simchas Torah night, says that there have been young teens passed out on the street at 4 a.m. There were others who were so sick as a result of binge drinking that Hatzalah had to be called to cart the kids off to the hospital, where they were treated and sobered up. The issue is so urgent that in the past, several local rabbis allowed the auxiliary cops—many of whom are Orthodox themselves—to drive on the holiday so as to maintain safety and order.
“These are our kids and I don’t want to see anything really bad happening,” says Dr. Sicklick. He says with resignation and exasperation that things have changed dramatically for the worse over the last few years. He does not understand what the kids are looking for and he certainly does not understand what he feels is a lack of parental interest in a debilitating scourge.
Asked if all the teens were from local families and local schools, Dr. Sicklick, who is an allergist with a longtime practice in Cedarhurst, says that he is at a loss to understand how parents just allow their children to have anyone over to their home without knowing who they are and, more importantly, what their interests and motivations are to be here over the yom tov.
Obviously, he says, this idea of coming here to celebrate Simchas Torah almost exclusively for the purpose of getting drunk is something that has been going on for way too long and is something that has to be confronted by the community and halted. Dr. Sicklick says that village officials have conferred on the matter several times over the last few years, but have yet to develop a definitive plan for dealing with the situation. There has been discussion about a curfew in the village on those nights for those under 18 years of age, but that plan has also been consistently set aside. Lawrence Mayor Martin Oliner has stated that at this point there is no plan for any kind of curfew, but he is calling for greater supervision of the young people on these nights.*
Dr. Sicklick referred me to an e-mail that was sent out and widely circulated by Rabbi Yaakov Bender of Yeshiva Darchei Torah on the subject. In the communication, Rabbi Bender addressed the matter of whether the proclivity for consuming alcoholic beverages is something that is learned in yeshiva or at home.
“We are living in perhaps the most difficult tekufah, in terms of raising children, in Jewish history. The street is beckoning, technology is very tempting, the yetzer ha’ra is all around us, and for young children and teenagers, there are so many obstacles to overcome. Yet we, the parents and grandparents of our precious children and grandchildren, are compounding the problem to a great degree. I refer here to the burgeoning problem of alcohol abuse.
“In my nearly 35 years of work in the world of chinuch, I have never seen the absolute hefkerus and total disregard for norms when it comes to alcohol. This is particularly rampant in the Orthodox Jewish community. As parents, we become nearly hysterical before Purim as to what will happen to our dear children over this yom tov.
“We call the yeshivos, we scream, we demand, we insist, we cry out for help and beg our institutions to control the consumption of alcohol by our children. We have every right to worry and we have every right to care. Our children’s lives are at stake.
“We must remember, however, the old adage that children ‘follow what we do, not what we tell them.’ Children will always follow the example of their parents.
“I vividly remember a commercial that used to play on radio many years ago, where a deep voice would ask a number of children: ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ The children would invariably answer: ‘I want to be a policeman just like daddy.’ ‘I want to be a doctor just like daddy.’ ‘I want to be a lawyer just like daddy.’ And finally, ‘I want to be a fireman just like daddy.’ And then the deep voice would resonate with one question addressed to all of us out there, listening to the commercial: ‘Daddy, do you smoke?’ End of advertisement.”
Both Dr. Sicklick and Captain Gluck of the Auxiliary Police agree with the rabbi’s assessment of the situation. According to Captain Gluck, while there were several instances of youngsters sprawled or passed out on the streets, sometimes because of police and community pressure, several of the parties are moved indoors, into private homes.
“These are our kids’ lives,” Dr. Sicklick said. “What is it that people, that parents, are failing to understand?” He said that this obsessiveness in teenagers when it comes to imbibing liquor is “a plague that is devastating.”
Lawrence-based pediatrician Dr. Deborah Dienstag says she sees a lot of cases of kids addicted to alcohol, cigarettes, and sometimes more. She says that shuls are making an effort to limit or even eliminate the use of hard liquor at their functions but greater efforts need to be made in these kids’ homes. “Parents tell me all the time that they cannot control their child. I tell them that they are wrong. They can control them but they just do not make the proper effort to do so.”
Dr. Dienstag adds that it is her belief that too much onus is being placed on the yeshivas. “Schools educate, homes need to raise the child.” As for the catalyst, she says that children, largely teens, are looking for happiness and that it continuously amazes her how unfulfilled a 14- or 15-year-old can feel about life. “We may all be more frum on the outside, but something is not getting through to the inside of those kids,” she says.
Just about everyone we spoke to agreed that this is not only a problem on Shavuos, Simchas Torah, or Purim, but one that is present in varying degrees the entire year. It is just that on this one day of the year—Simchas Torah—the matter bursts to the forefront in all its painful and troubling glory.
So where do we go from here? There seems to be a combination of indecision, denial, and uncertainty about the best way to proceed. I suppose that is where editorial comment from newspapers like this can come into the picture and hopefully play a productive role. Parents from within and without the community need to be involved in their children’s plans. Just because a child is away at a friend’s home for the chag does not mean that he is in the right place or doing the right thing. A parent/civilian patrol should be organized in tandem with the police force to be vigilant about this type of abuse. Let’s not have to wake up when’s it too late and the unthinkable has occurred.
*Quotations were taken when this article was last published, in 2013.
Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Larry Gordon