‘Richard” immigrated to North Jersey as a child from Latin America, struggling with compulsive eating, gambling, drinking, and cocaine use.
“Baruch” began drinking even before his bar mitzvah and continued his alcohol dependency into his 40s.
“Eileen” rescued her physician husband from injecting the narcotics he obtained from the hospital where he worked.
All three members of the New Jersey Jewish community talked about their struggles with addiction and sobriety, and credited their religious convictions as vital in their recovery. Speaking on condition of anonymity, each of them said they overcame their problems with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and JACS, an acronym that stands for Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons and Significant Others, a program operated nationally by the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services.
In 2015, the most recent year for which statistics are available, nearly 70,000 New Jerseyans sought treatment for drug and alcohol addiction, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. Although the state does not categorize addiction rates by ethnic groups, Jonathan Katz, director of Jewish Community Services at the Jewish Board’s national office in New York, said the rate of drug and alcohol abuse in the Jewish community is “pretty similar” to that in other communities.
“They say ‘a shicker is a goy,’” meaning a drunk is a Christian. “That is completely a myth,” Katz told NJJN. “It is a very destructive myth. There are many Jewish alcoholics and many Jewish drug addicts.”
Richard’s troubles began when he was 5 years old. He spoke only Spanish when his family moved from Latin America to New Jersey and they enrolled him in a yeshiva.
“I was scared. People were moving their mouths and words were coming out and I had no idea of what was going on,” he said.
He was also conflicted about religion.
“It was very confusing. I learned Judaism in school, but in my house we didn’t practice anything,” he said. “We ate non-kosher food. In school I was learning brachas (blessings), then going home and eating shrimp and lobster.”
First he started eating compulsively, then turned to liquor. “My dad was a drinker and there was always alcohol around,” he said.
Making matters worse, both of his parents were gamblers who would take him to the Meadowlands Racetrack on a nightly basis, and he, too, eventually began betting. When Richard spent his junior year of college abroad in Israel, he hooked up with fellow drug users. At that point, “I was addicted to drugs, specifically cocaine,” he said.
Some 20 years later, while he was driving with his young son, he realized he had an open bottle of Scotch and a large amount of drugs for sale in the trunk of his car. “It seemed OK, but now it gives me chills,” he said. “How can something like that be normal?” So he turned to a friend who told him he had a drug problem.
“I believe God placed her in my life,” said Richard, now in his 50s. “I did not believe in God previously, but I do now.” Seven years ago, at his friend’s urging, he joined AA and found a sponsor who was not Jewish.
“He made me get down on my knees and we prayed,” he said. The sponsor urged Richard to join him at church, but he wasn’t comfortable. “So I ended up going to a shul, and I go to shul every Saturday now. It is an Orthodox shul, but I am not Orthodox and I drive there.”
Richard said he “loves that Judaism is involved in the 12 steps. I like to hear the Jewish twist” to the notion that recovery from addiction is dependent on belief in a higher power.
JACS serves as a support network for approximately 300 to 500 people in New York and New Jersey who have substance abuse issues. More than a quarter of JACS clients live in New Jersey.
According to the federal government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration, upward of 27 million Americans are addicted to drugs or alcohol. In a report published in November 2016, the U.S. Surgeon General estimated that one in seven people in the United States is expected to develop a substance abuse problem at some point in his or her life, but just one in 10 will receive treatment.
Baruch grew up in a Modern Orthodox family in North Jersey, with parents utterly devoted to him and his siblings. Still, he said, a year or two before his bar mitzvah he “took a liking to alcohol, which I can’t explain.”
At first his drinking was “incidental, but it took off when I was in high school, and I went to a Jewish day school.”
From his preteen years until his early 40s Baruch described himself as “a little bit of a troublemaker,” a high executive who was a “functional alcoholic,” so much so, he said, that no one at his office suspected Baruch had a drinking problem. “We all went out together after work, but they would go home and I would stick around at the bar,” he said. “I wasn’t ready to go home.”
After he was stopped for drunken driving, but not arrested, on the New Jersey Turnpike 10 years ago, Baruch sought help from JACS, which sent him to AA. He has been sober ever since.
“JACS is not a replacement for AA,” said JACS counselor Vickie Griffiths. “We are not a daily or weekly support group. We are a network of Jews in recovery helping to create a network of Jews in recovery.”
She said, “AA works for a lot of people,” but because many of its meetings are held in churches, “some Jews feel they can’t go into churches.”
AA’s 12-step program includes acknowledging one’s addictions, making amends with people the addict has harmed, and recognizing that dependence on a “higher power” is needed for recovery. Baruch said the steps “parallel directly with Jewish tradition. You lean on God to see you through the day and you put your drinking problem in God’s hands. You don’t try to fix your own problems.”
Many Jews are caught up in the current opioid addiction epidemic, said Katz. In 2015 some 1,600 people in New Jersey died of drug overdoses — a 22 percent increase from 2014. To cope with the skyrocketing numbers, Gov. Chris Christie signed a bill into law in February that limits a patient’s use of prescription opioids to five days and requires insurance companies to cover drug and alcohol treatments.
“We think it is of critical importance to mandate insurance coverage for alcohol and other drug misuse treatment,” said Katz. “In general, it is also essential to have tighter controls on the prescription of opioids. Certainly, there are instances when opioid prescription is indicated, but too many physicians are lax in their consideration of the risk of opioid dependency.”
After 10 years of marriage, Eileen’s husband confessed that he had a drug problem. As a doctor with access to narcotics, he had developed an addiction to anesthetics, and was forced to seek help after being confronted by nurses at the hospital when they spotted symptoms neither he nor his wife can recall.
“At first I started running in circles and crying,” she said of her reaction to finding out he was an addict. But soon she realized it helped her understand who he was. “It put together the pieces of the puzzle of this person I thought was in a depression whose personality I no longer liked. He was not the man I married.”
They connected with JACS. “Being Jewish had a big influence on his recovery by going to 12 steps at JACS and believing in a higher power,” she said, and at semi-annual weekend retreats they met a wide spectrum of Jewish addicts. “There were Jews with tattoos, Jews with streimels, and Jews with both. All of them hold hands for the Sh’ma and the Serenity Prayer (‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…’). It is pretty amazing.”
Unlike many couples with a member who struggles with addiction, Eileen and her husband have stayed together for 32 years. They have six children who have attended Jewish day schools and they attend services at a Chabad Center.
Eileen is a volunteer for JACS who brings fellow Chabad congregants to meetings if they or their children have substance abuse issues.
“Being a Jew, there is no shame in having a family member who is a drug addict or an alcoholic,” she said. “The most important thing is to ask for help.”