OU Calls for Immediate Ban on Shul Candymen

By Harris S. Judah

The Orthodox Union is continuing to take a serious look at the social implications of some ever-popular shul practices now indigenous in many modern orthodox synagogues and elsewhere, and calling on all member congregations nationwide to wake-up and institute immediate changes for the betterment of the broader Jewish community.

Coming less than 24 hours after a lengthy full-day meeting at the OU’s offices last Tuesday, the organization’s newly formed Synagogues-are-Only-for-Services (S.O.S.) advisory panel issued a carefully worded but clearly outright condemnation of the long held practice of the shul candyman.

For some the ban was no surprise. “This is something they had wanted to do for a long time,” said Rabbi David Sherbert, whose Five Towns synagogue has already taken steps to outlaw the practice. “We understand that he’s upset that his talis bag is missing, but the shul’s bought him a new one – which he’ll receive right after shabbos – and frankly it’s a lot nicer than the one he had before.”

For many years, Orthodox rabbinical and lay leaders have bemoaned the fact that the shul candyman’s allocations have hardly promoted the well-being of our youth. Kids, as it is, they point out, don’t eat enough vegetables and fruits to start with, and the problem simply persists right into adulthood. “I have 25, 26, 27-year olds, even 32-year olds who are still coming to me each shabbos for candy,” confided Shlomo Roberts the candyman at a large Upper West Side congregation, now quite popular with singles in their twenties and thirties. “Some tell me it’s for their sister, who didn’t get one yet, but I can tell it’s really for them… And people wonder why these singles are having trouble getting married!”

“What are we really saying to our children?” asked Donna Siegelblocher, a New Jersey mother of four (very cute kids) who co-chairs the S.O.S advisory panel. “I have enough trouble putting wholesome meals on the table and trying to get the avocados to ripen properly. The last thing I want to do is compete with red and yellow and purple and blue and aqua and mauve and olive and orange… in shul every shabbos. My husband Joseph – and we’ve discussed this many times – feels exactly as I do, except for the aqua and mauve, which he doesn’t see as the real issues.”

It’s too early to tell how the vast majority of congregants and their kids will take to the new guidelines, but some are already questioning the need for an outright ban on shul candymen. They suggest instead that a more responsible approach for the OU and member shuls would be to apply pressure, just as they are now, and at the same time provide financial incentive for the shul candeymen to “change their crop.”

“It’s an idea that has worked to some degree in Central American countries, and we think it can work here,” said Yisroel Yerek, Director of Marketing for Bodek Produce, LLC. “We’re developing a plan to present to the OU where they’ll be able to offer their shuls a booklet of 52 buy-one-get-one-free coupons on each and every product we carry,” he said in a phone interview. And, as if anticipating possible confusion, he quickly added, “Understandably, our proposed line of tractors, will not be included in this offer.”

Now old news, Bodek surprised many last month, when a profile of the company in a major business magazine reported on a new line of mid-size farm tractors that will be manufactured by Caterpillar, but feature the highly trusted Bodek name. “We are thrilled to have licensed the Bodek name,” said John B. Walton, Director of New Business for Caterpillar, in a released statement. “We have wanted to reach the Orthodox Jewish market for decades. We strongly believe that if the Jews of Vineland, NJ had more of our fine products available to them decades ago, they might still be farming and raising chickens today. I can’t say how excited we are that finally we can bring this opportunity to the Jewish consumer and proud homeowner.”

The released statement is a lengthy one by all corporate standards, but basically Mr . Walton goes on to assure regular shul-goers that their lives will not be inconvenienced by the new Bodek tractors. “It’s our understanding that many synagogues will be able to combine the ‘Parking for Rabbi’ spot with the ‘Parking for Cantor’ or ‘Parking for President’ spots to comfortably accommodate our vehicles. We’ve spent thousands of dollars on researching the adjustment issue.” He continues: “I can also honestly say that under no circumstance will there be a need to utilize the regular spot that Mr. Manny Grunweld likes to park in on Sunday and weekday mornings. He can return the 12 orange cones to Home Depot. There will be no need for them.”

The newly appointed OU spokesman, Ari Fleisherman, would not comment on the merits of Bodek’s coupon offer but did acknowledge that the organization was hoping to very soon release a list of fruits and vegetables that would be appropriate for in-shul distribution. When asked by a reporter (properly credentialed) about the possibilities of a name change, from shul “candy man” to shul “fruits and vegetable man,” he stressed that the OU had seriously considered the idea, but concluded that it just wasn’t feasible at this time. “That won’t really work; there’s too much connotation involved. We’re worried that the kids won’t respond, and more worried that the women will. The last thing we want during davening is to draw people from the other side of the mechitzah to see what’s good that day. It could become quite disruptive. Each congregation should say to itself ‘We’re not a supermarket, we’re a synagogue.’ It’s important to keep that in mind.”

While candy concerns have been a known topic of conversation for the last few years, the problem was brought to the forefront three months ago when a visiting Israeli politician was quoted as saying that the highlight of his shabbat experience at a NYC-area shul was in fact the candyman. He mentioned specifically the two sticks of borscht-flavored licorice (not available in Israel) that he enjoyed while listening to the haftorah reading.

“This is ridiculous and has to be stopped,” said Dr. Aaron Helpue, a noted child psychologist and author of the classic “Helping Your Kids with Homework”. “I mean, who likes borscht-licorice?!”

In his essay, “Why Candymen Must Go,” and in his follow-up piece, “Now!,” the OU’s Executive Director, a greatly respected nutritionist with years of experience dealing with adolescent and post-adolescent eating issues, conveyed that the OU’s concerns are really two-fold: the overall nutritional health of the Orthodox Jewish community, and the over-abundance of observant Jews entering the field of Dentistry. “For too long, it’s been ‘Eat candy, support your local dentist,’ ” he writes passionately. “We have to acknowledge the correlation. We have too many dentists because we have too many candymen. Maybe we don’t have the means to prove a direct link, but the relationship is understood.”

Dr. Simeon Lomensky, age 14, agreed. “My dad’s also a dentist and he told me that it used to be that you’d graduate college, go to dental school, work for another dentist and maybe then open your practice. Now there’s such a demand that the feeling among many of my friends is why should we wait?”

Dr. Lomensky says he understands that there are educational foundations that he and his peers may have missed out on by following the quicker route, but insists that the infirmary at Camp Tzadikim, where he worked for three consecutive summers, was well stocked. “In our bunk alone, seven of the guys are now dentists. Even Moishe, who forgot to bring a toothbrush to camp one summer, now has a small practice. And I know personally of two girls from Camp Tzadikos whose summer experience inspired them to go into the same field.” “It’s hard for me to say it,” he shares in a distinctly lower voice – and only after assuring himself that no one was overhearing the conversation – “but I think the OU has a point. Other career options need to be stressed. Not all of us need to be dentists; some of us should just be going to them.”

The OU has urged rabbis at affiliated synagogues to preach against the candyman phenomenon, suggesting they tailor their sermons and stress points they feel are most relevant to their individual constituencies. Rabbi Larry Shwartz from the Riverview Torah Center said that he devoted the first 10 minutes of his talk this past shabbos to the shul’s ongoing efforts to provide an actual river view for the congregants. (The delay is due to zoning requirements, coupled with the fact that the nearest body of water is more than 20 miles away). The rest of his drasha dealt with fiber intake.

“He explored all the relevant sources,” said Blima Mordechai. “He was very forceful and very feeling. I think people sensed that he was sincere.” Another congregant, who preferred his name not be used, was also complimentary: “It was one of his best talks, and fiber’s an important topic. I just wish I’d caught more of what he said. It’s sometimes hard to hear him where I sit, and at certain points in his talk he was emotionally overcome a bit and started chewing a carrot stick and then a leafy vegetable. It muffled things, but it did, for me at least, reinforce the message… We’re lucky to have him as a rabbi.”

In all likelihood, the overwhelming majority of congregations and their members will fully support the OU’s forceful stand on issues that concern the social and physical welfare of both the youth and their parents. Adults seem especially accepting of the fact that they as role models need to provide kids much better examples about eating fruits and vegetables.

But the concern now, is “Just how far is the OU prepared to go?” There’s been no formal statement yet, but there are reports, from sources close to the organization, that the OU is considering banning shukling during synagogue services, mornings, afternoons and evenings. An almost universal activity that has never before raised eyebrows, shukling is the repeated back-and-forth, or side-to-side swaying motion of the upper half, sometimes along with the lower half of the body. And there lies the problem…

“There is strong research, both clinical and anecdotal, that repetitive shuckling throws the body off balance,” said Leon Tellmanovsky, who moved to NY from Toronto last year with his family and is a licensed Feldenkrais practitioner. “I come home after a long davening all morning and invariably I spill the wine while making kiddush. Just ask my wife. And I’m not the only one whose family consistently uses purple tablecloths on Shabbat and holidays – and that’s underneath the plastic! Many even learned people think this color cloth is some custom dating back to the Gaonic period, but it’s much more recent. Shukling has not always been a practice in the Jewish community, why do we make like it is? Where are the courageous Roshei Yeshiva who are willing to speak about this topic?”

If the OU does in fact take a stand on the shukling issue, it would not be the first organization to express concern. In an unrelated interview last week, a spokesman from the New York City MTA confirmed the magnitude of the problem. “We have a tremendous amount of devout riders from Brooklyn who pray on the subway during the morning commute. We’ve often noticed a swaying of our trains on the D and F lines. It’s small but it’s there.” Speaking candidly, he added: “Honestly, we’re worried. Our tracks can only handle so much… They weren’t built for this.”

When asked how the MTA feels about their religious riders in general, he responded that they’re exemplary in many ways, “always courteous and well dressed. We’ve never had any issues besides the pervasive swaying on the AM runs. Except – and this is just since last week- some conductors have also mentioned small groups of men in their 40s, 50s, and 60s – even a few in their 70s and 80s – who’ve been walking through all the cars giving out candy. Our passengers might love it, but some of our newsstand concessions are uptight. It’s not like these men are selling Kit Kats or M&Ms to raise money to buy uniforms for their school basketball team.”

“We don’t understand it…” conceded the spokesman. “We just can’t figure out where they all came from.”

Harris S. Judah is a photographer, filmmaker, speaker and writer who enjoys occasional Godiva chocolate. He has performed stand up comedy in the past, though never in shul. His work can be seen at www.judahsharris.com