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Facing addiction, and looking to tradition
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Facing addiction, and looking to tradition

In my final year of rabbinical school in 1985, I was dating and later married a young woman named Jeannie who was studying for her master’s in social work at Columbia University. She had an assignment to attend an open meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous and she invited me to come along. Like many 12-step meetings, this one was held in a church basement. There we heard of the painful experiences that these alcoholics had faced, as well as tremendous stories of courageously overcoming this terrible addiction. I remember that after I scanned the large crowd, I turned to Jeannie and said, “Wow, there are other Jews with kipot here studying alcoholism!”

Who knew that there were Jews with an addiction problem? Surely not I, after spending years in rabbinical school in the 1980s. In those days, we newly minted rabbis thought substance abuse was something that happened to “other people.” Boy, were we surprised and unprepared for the challenges our average congregational families were facing.

In the United States, illegal drug use, alcoholism, sex addiction, eating disorders, and pathological gambling cost society billions of dollars in lost productivity, law enforcement, treatment, incarceration, regulation, violence, and crime.

The emotional toll on families, their physical and mental health, is incalculable.

Governments and not-for-profits address this crisis on the societal level and local level, by incarcerating individuals and providing foster care, educational support, temporary housing, and job counseling for families torn up by addiction. Addiction often leads to pathological behaviors over generations.

According to a 2012 survey by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, an estimated 22.2 million persons ages 12 or older were classified with substance dependence or abuse in the previous year.

Jews are not exempt from these challenges. Although there are no specific scientific studies within the Jewish community, anecdotal evidence from clinicians who serve Jews shows that addiction rates among Jews are as serious as they are among their similarly situated neighbors.

As a U.S. Navy Reserve chaplain for six years, I was offered the most extensive training in coping with addiction and recovery offered to clergy. We chaplains responded to sailors and Marines who were alcoholics and/or illegal drug users. When I returned home and began to address what I had learned in the service in sermons and presentations to my congregation, I was at first met with stony silence. It wasn’t long, however, before I began to hear stories in the privacy of my study from my congregants about family members and friends who were suffering with addictions and needed help. Thanks to my chaplaincy training, I knew what to say and do but, in those days, few of my rabbinic colleagues had ever heard about this problem.

Very few synagogues and Jewish community centers host 12-step programs and other groups dedicated to recovery. Much of the Jewish community continues to be in denial about addictions.

Our addictions problem is not unique but our response to this terrible challenge could be. Four thousand years of Jewish teachings emphasize concern for our bodies and souls, spiritual insights to address moral challenges, and rituals that access these truths and create resilient families. Experts like Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski and Rabbi Dr. Kerry Olitzky have written excellent books that address the spiritual challenges facing Jews in recovery.

There are some helpful — but, due to a lack of funding, very limited — local Jewish efforts, including a small number of treatment and rehabilitation facilities, individual clinicians, and recovery groups. Many of these programs have been influenced by JACS (Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons and Significant Others), which was created by UJA-Federation of New York. JACS provides programs in New York and consultation and training for communities and clinicians outside the area.

Some local Jewish family services offer clinical services to those who are addicted and in recovery. Here in Middlesex County, a group of volunteers is creating JRecovery, a self-help program complementary to 12-step groups. Sponsored by Jewish Family and Vocational Service of Middlesex County, JRecovery will meet every Monday, beginning April 28, at the JFVS office in Milltown.

Although this group has been embraced by JVFS, a partnership agency of the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County, there are no national programs or financial resources to aid our weekly program.

Some Jews seek out help from general community resources, often offered in church basements. They recognize that it is literally either “recovery or death” and find important resources outside the Jewish community. They miss the exposure to and integration of Jewish spiritual insights and the helping hand of other Jews in the community, key tools to prevent recidivism.

Addictions in the Jewish community are a serious problem. When will Jewish leaders and philanthropists take it seriously?

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