Come Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, the atmosphere at Rabbi Sholom Lipskar's synagogue near Bal Harbour, Fla., turns festive. The eating and drinking start early.
The synagogue, called The Shul, attracts anywhere from 500 to 800 people each week. Most attend services in the main sanctuary that start around 9 a.m. But some early birds show up for prayers that begin at 7:15 a.m. and conclude by 9:15. Then it is party time for the largely male crowd.
This elegant seaside place of worship is on the cutting edge of the Kiddush—a lavish repast that has helped transform the staid postservice fellowship hour to the kind of boozy, over-the-top spread synonymous with weddings.
Such affairs have become so de rigueur to luring congregants that Rabbi Lipskar has solicited donors for a special "Kiddush bank" to fund the pricey libations and epicurean fare that can cost anywhere from $1,800 to $3,600 per week.
"It is perfect," says Rabbi Lipskar, whose synagogue is part of the Hasidic Lubavitch movement. "God didn't make the delicious stuff only for non-Jews." Those who want a shot of hard liquor—they don't say "let's have a drink," but "let's have a L'chaim," he says, referring to the traditional Jewish toast "to life."
"This is not a drinking fest," he adds. "The drinks are in small cups."
In the face of dwindling attendance at religious services, many rabbis have become similarly creative. At the Bal Harbour shul and other synagogues, the sumptuous food, fine wines and liquors are a way to help draw congregants.
It's traditional for members of the congregation to get together after services for a blessing over wine and a small piece of sponge cake, and some pickled herring. But now the trend is to attract new members by offering a lavish spread.
It's not spiritual, it's just spirits.