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Creating a conversation around addiction
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Creating a conversation around addiction

West Orange shul says no community is free from substance abuse

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Just before Purim, the message went out to an entire synagogue community via e-mail:

“Purim should not be used as an excuse to drink irresponsibly,” it read. “As Torah Jews we do not believe in such a concept. In addition, all parents should be aware of where their children are and who they are with during the course of Purim. Celebrations without appropriate adult supervision are dangerous and should be avoided at all costs.”

The cautionary message, from the Orthodox Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob & David in West Orange, came on the eve of a holiday in which tipsy revelry is not just encouraged but, according to some sources, even required.

But the message is also six months in the making — part of a “Substance Sensitive Community” program to promote a conversation about the sometimes hush-hush toll of drug and alcohol abuse among observant Jews.

“Sometimes, there’s a no-talk rule that is one of the biggest poisons in dealing with prevention and substance abuse,” said Lew Abrams of West Orange, a member of AABJ&D and an expert on Jewish addiction who has been cochairing the initiative with Deena Altman. “People don’t sit around and say, ‘We’re not going to talk about this,’ but often we grow up in a culture where it is too uncomfortable to talk about something, and so the only time people talk about it is when they are in a crisis.”

It’s no secret that Jews — from the most observant to the least — are as susceptible to addiction as anyone else. It’s now 35 years since the first task force on Jews and addiction created JACS, Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons, and Significant Others. A program of the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services in New York, it has chapters meeting locally, including a group at Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn.

Explaining what led to the initiative at AABJ&D, the shul’s Rabbi Eliezer Zwickler said, “Historically, there have been parties that have taken place at times where irresponsible behavior took place among teens.”

There have been parties that have made the news when they involved police and yeshiva students, and there have been other incidents managed more quietly.

With a task force of about 10 people, AABJ&D is planning to meet with parents of teens and tweens in small groups to provide education about substance abuse, start a conversation, and offer tips on prevention.

“We are trying to hit the entire parent population with kids ages 11-18,” said Abrams. He expects to hold about 10 different rounds of meetings. “I want the parents to learn to network with each other to discuss what’s going on,” he said.

“I hope that we create a sense of awareness,” said Zwickler. “We want people to understand that we are all human and that our community is not immune from the dangers of substance abuse.”

Every week the synagogue’s Shabbat bulletin includes a section with facts about drugs and alcohol. “I know people have been reading it because they come up to me with their reactions,” said Abrams. “It’s a way to promote the conversation with each other and with our kids. We want this to become part of the culture of our shul.”

Zwickler added, “Being part of a Jewish community means that we look out for and care for one another. We celebrate together in good times, while we also face challenges together as well. When you are a member of our community, you are not alone, and so awareness is critical.”

As for drinking on Purim, Abrams said, “Purim is a huge holiday where there is often abuse of alcohol. It’s like Simchas Torah and Pesach with four glasses of wine. But it isn’t true that you have to drink four glasses of wine. There’s no mitzva in the drink; it’s a myth.”

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