Orthodox Union workbook combats teen drinking

NEW YORK — Hoping to discourage Jewish alcoholism, the Orthodox Union has created a workbook that deals with drinking from a biblical standpoint.

Originally conceived as part of the O.U.'s Pardes Project, an adult Torah education series, the workbook is being distributed to more than 100 Jewish high schools across the country regardless of their affiliation.

"Having been a counselor and a synagogue rabbi, I realized there is a growing misunderstanding about alcohol consumption among Jewish teenagers," said Rabbi Yaacov Haber, national director of Jewish education at the O.U.

"Thirty or 40 years ago it wasn't a problem," but now we "have to deal with it," Haber said.

While no statistics exist on alcohol and substance abuse in Jewish homes, a New York state survey of 6,000 homes found that the incidence of abuse was the same in both Jewish and non-Jewish homes, said Maxine Uttal. She is the director of Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent People and Their Significant Others, a New York group that provides support for Jews recovering from substance abuse.

The O.U. workbook asks readers to respond to various situations, including one in which parents smell alcohol on the breath of their 16-year-old and, when confronted, the teen-ager asks them to explain the difference between drinking a couple of beers with friends and drinking wine on Shabbat.

The booklet also features passages from biblical and talmudic texts. Among the talmudic passages is one that says the tree Adam ate from before he was kicked out of the garden of Eden was a grapevine because "there is nothing that brings lamentation into the world like wine."

Haber said he hopes teachers will sit down with their students and discuss the issue as well as the texts quoted in the pamphlet.

The booklet was sent out "in honor of Purim," a time when Jews traditionally drink until they are unable to tell the difference between Haman and Mordechai, two of the central figures in the story of Esther.

"It's obviously a tradition to drink on Purim, but that tradition took place in an extremely safe and protected environment," Haber said.

But if one wants to take the tradition out of that situation and drive a car or go outside, he says, then one has to "re-examine that tradition and think about another tradition," the one that says a person cannot do anything that is life-threatening.