The Disgrace of Shul-Sponsored Poker Games, “Las Vegas Nights,” “Casino Nights,” “Casino Evenings,” and Similar Games of Chance

It long has been my halakhic position that all synagogues should not – and many synagogues may not – sponsor, conduct, participate in, or otherwise associate with poker games, “Las Vegas Nights,” “Casino Evening” events, or other such events. As I have gotten to know Jewish communities outside main Torah centers, my position has solidified further that, at such places and at such times in Shuls’ and Jewish communities’ evolutions, such an halakhic position prohibiting these events is mandated. In reaching my opinion, grounded in several authoritative halakhicsources, I note a policy statement written for the benefit of both the laity and the rabbinate and adopted four years ago by the convened membership of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA). The RCA resolution is not singularly determinative of those deeply grounded views. Rather, it is comparatively understated when compared to positions taken by other authoritative halakhic sources. But I do share it, hopeful that it helps shed an aspect of light on this issue of national significance:
RCA Calls Upon Communal Institutions to Desist from

Using High-Stakes Gambling to Raise Funds

 

(Newark, NJ) May 17, 2005 — Whereas gambling in general, and card games involving significant wagering such as poker in particular, have received tremendous public attention as a result of numerous depictions in the media of both gaming professionals as well as popular celebrities engaging in high-stakes games of chance; and,

Whereas certain Jewish communal institutions – e.g., synagogues, day schools, federations, and other Jewish fraternal organizations – have recently placed an increased emphasis upon offering “Las Vegas” nights and poker games as a new way to raise significant funds; and,

Whereas it is readily apparent that high stakes gambling runs counter to Jewish values; and,

Whereas Jewish communal organizations must always model appropriate ethical and moral standards not only as they carry out their mandates, but also as they promote themselves, especially when encouraging Jews to participate in specific activities for fundraising purposes; and,

Whereas the Orthodox community recognizes that the alarming, “at-risk” behavior of many adolescents, including excessive gambling, is in part fostered by the well-publicized activities of their adult role-models and of the Jewish institutions of their communities:

Therefore, the Rabbinical Council of America hereby calls upon all Jewish communal institutions not to use gambling as a fundraising vehicle and to seek alternative fundraising methods instead, even if they thereby raise less money.
A synagogue is a House of G-d, and even outside its sanctuary walls it is bidden institutionally to stand as role-model for spirituality.  All synagogues need to raise funds, and funds often are difficult to come by.  Even so, there are limits — real spiritual and public-policy limits — to what synagogues and temples may do in pursuit of funds.

For example, the National Council of Young Israel bars its shuls from honoring at their banquets individuals who — but for their money — are not honorable.  At its most recent national convention, in May 2009, the Rabbinical Council of America adopted this forthright and unequivocal stand:
Communal and Synagogue Honors
Must Be Given Only to Those with
Reputations for Ethical Behavior

 

May 12, 2009 — Our Torah commands sanctity in the marketplace and workplace as in the home and synagogue. From Biblical times to the present, Jews have been summoned to a life of ethical behavior and social responsibility, of respect for both ritual practice and the rule of civil law. This tradition acknowledges the legitimacy of property rights as well as business profit, but simultaneously challenges us to fulfill principles of just conduct, even when faced with serious financial challenges.

It is naturally the responsibility of synagogues as central Jewish institutions of assembly, and of Jewish day schools as centers for teaching Jewish knowledge and imbuing Jewish values, to implement and practice exemplary public policies that demonstrate and promote the centrality of these values.

Recently the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) has begun issuing a series of guidelines delineating ethical business practices for employer and employee, market and consumer, in an effort to educate and inspire sanctity in earning a livelihood, as in the entirety of our religious lives.

This effort to educate and inspire recognizes that a person’s past impropriety does not irrevocably define his path. Consequently, we fervently hope that individuals who have become associated with questionable activities will find ways to rehabilitate themselves and engage in the sorts of meaningful acts of teshuvah that will demonstrate to the community’s satisfaction that they have put these activities behind them. However, until such acts of honest contrition take place, other courses of action, symbolic as well as substantive, are required.

Therefore, be it resolved that we must vigorously educate and demonstrate to our laity and our day school students and parents, especially in our trying economic times, that the Torah mandate for ethical behavior and social responsibility is paramount.

We call upon synagogues to review longstanding policies and publicly reaffirm among their membership that ritual kibbudim, leadership positions and public honors and recognitions should be conferred only upon those whose reputations for honesty and ethical conduct comport with these values.

Ritual kibbudim include leading services, opening and closing the Aron Kodesh, ascending to the Torah, and raising the Torah and rolling it closed.

Leadership positions include serving as gabbai, synagogue officer or board member, or otherwise occupying a position of honor in the synagogue administration.

Public honors and recognition include receiving special mention at synagogue banquets and assemblies, and having names assigned to synagogue facilities or inscribed in places of honor.

It is understood that moral turpitude may come to light only long after it has been committed. In some cases, allegations of corruption may defy judicial clarification for months and years. In such circumstances, the synagogue should take all of these steps immediately upon its verification of past corruption.

We further call upon synagogues to place an enhanced premium on according meaningful honor – honor in synagogue ritual, honor in selection to serve in synagogue governance, and honor in other aspects of public synagogue recognition – to individuals whose financial standing may be modest but who, by their own exemplary conduct and noble deeds, bring honor to their synagogues, their communities, and to the Torah and G-d of Israel.

We call upon other Jewish institutions in our land to adopt and execute policies similar to those we urge above for synagogues and Jewish day schools.
Against this backdrop, it is clear that our community now stands at an important moment in its evolution, a spiritual crossroads.  Just as a shul would not publicly honor or accord a position of lay leadership to a social miscreant, or someone who perjures himself in sworn court declarations, or someone who commits financial fraud or otherwise perpetrates gross violations of business ethics, and just as it is inconceivable that a congregation would accord significant ritual or lay honors to someone who has sexually harassed someone or who acts as a bully assaulting someone or hurling a person’s papers or desk paraphernalia around his office, so it devolves on a spiritual congregation to stand forcefully, yet gracefully, as a beacon for spirituality.  Its halls should be filled with the sounds of Torah study, not the shuffling of a deck of cards. Its programs — even those conducted “off-site” — should be enlivened by the sights and sounds of kosher cooking and Israeli dancing, Torah classes and Judaism lectures, not the sounds of a spinning roulette wheel or stacking of betting chips.

In the past, it was understandable within the American Orthodoxy of the 1950s and 1960s that an immigrant generation and its first-generation-American children did not always “get it.”   They saw Catholic churches running Bingo games in America and figured “Why not?”  (After all, don’t we respect the traditions and teachings handed down to us from B-4?  Don’t so many of us assure our worried mothers: “Mom, I-8 already”?)  Their lay leaders had not attended yeshiva schools, never had studied real Jewish texts in the text, never had learned to read and study Rashi and Chumash, Mishnah, or Talmud.  Many had never even attended a Jewish day school, where — because all Jewish schools of any substance have daily davening — every child emerges by third or fourth grade with core Hebrew reading skills and the skills to navigate a siddur with ease.  So it was understandable that such a generation of parents reflected their own lack of access to Judaic learning by sponsoring such events.

But in this, the 21st century of the Common Era, where Orthodox congregations are led almost uniformly by lay leaders who can open and learn a Gemara sugya, who send their children to yeshiva day schools where Torah and Rashi are taught as basic subjects, and where davening Shacharit and Mincha every day are fundamental basics of the school curriculum they demand for their children and where their children (if sent to camp) are sent to Orthodox summer camping programs, we may expect more of ourselves, our lay leaders, and our institutions of religious and spiritual substance.  In such a world, such an environment, the virtually unanimous voice of Orthodox Jewish practice and deep-seated values is clear, as represented above in the resolutions so recently adopted by the Rabbinical Council of America: poker games, casino evenings, “Las Vegas Nights” — all these variations on “games of chance,” regardless of what individuals may do with certain of their friends in the privacy of their own homes, are absolutely outside the pale of acceptability for a shul’s or asynagogue’s fundraising or socializing program.

And for any shul that kids itself into believing that they will find favor in G-d’s eyes by trying to raise funds for their institution by sponsoring “Casino Evenings” — well, I wouldn’t bet on those odds.