Play shines light on addiction, recovery in Jewish community

Play shines light on addiction, recovery in Jewish community

‘Freedom Song’ called a ‘life-changing experience’

Benjamin Litchman, on right, second from left, who recovered from a heroin addiction with the help of Beit T’Shuvah, performs in “Freedom Song.” Photo courtesy Beit T’Shuvah
Benjamin Litchman, on right, second from left, who recovered from a heroin addiction with the help of Beit T’Shuvah, performs in “Freedom Song.” Photo courtesy Beit T’Shuvah

Five years ago, Joyce and Marty Litchman attended a musical performance at Temple B’nai Or in Morristown that aimed to shatter the illusion that drug abuse has not infected the Jewish community. The presentation proved life-changing for the West Orange couple.

Their son Benjamin, then 28, had been fighting a heroin addiction for about three years, and had stints in rehab centers. Through “Freedom Song,” the show the Litchmans saw that day in 2012, they learned about Beit T’Shuvah in Los Angeles, believed to be the only Jewish-oriented rehabilitation facility in the country.

Ben became a resident at Beit T’Shuvah and now, celebrating a year of being drug-free, he will be part of the cast when “Freedom Song” returns to the area.

The show will be presented Thursday, Nov. 2, at JCC Metro-West’s Cooperman JCC in West Orange and on Sunday, Nov. 5, at Temple Emanu-El in Westfield.

Calling Beit T’Shuvah “an amazing place,” Joyce, who is on the committee organizing the play’s presentation, said “Freedom Song” is being offered “to get the message across that it exists if parents want something different for their kids” who are struggling with addiction. 

The show is being presented by a consortium of local synagogues, Jewish institutions, individual sponsors, and the Eric Eliezer Levenson Foundation for Hope, founded by Eta and Mark Levenson of West Orange in memory of their son. 

Underscoring the importance of the issue, Joyce noted that “it is a fallacy that there are no Jewish addicts; not only has this hit the Jewish community, but all segments of the community, even the chasidic community.”

According to the Beit T’Shuvah website, the play interweaves a Passover seder with personal stories of addiction and poses the pertinent question, “What are you a slave to?” 

The performers — all recovering from addictions to gambling, drugs, alcohol, and/or other destructive behaviors — share their experiences overcoming their addictions and are available to answer questions from the audience. The play has been staged for 12 years, some 400 shows, with a revolving cast that tours throughout the country, said production coordinator Jessica Fishel in a phone interview from Los Angeles. During that time, hundreds of residents and clients have been part of the cast.

“We always get positive reactions because it impacts so many people who have family members and friends struggling with addiction,” said Fishel, who is herself part of the cast. “It just opens doors for them. 

Although it’s only 50 minutes long, she said, “‘Freedom Song’ is a life-changing experience. People are blown away by its honesty and the transparency of the actors. They feel it’s something they were privileged to experience. 

“It doesn’t matter if you’re Jewish, not Jewish, adult or teenager — or not even affected by addiction; it will be an eye-opening experience.”

Ben spent close to a year at Beit T’Shuvah, leaving in November 2016. Now 33, he works for Rockasorri in Jersey City, which brings customized music programs to schools and day care centers, serving as its director for the Jersey City School District. He has a degree in music from the University of California at Santa Cruz.

In a phone call with NJJN, Ben Litchman said he had been to other rehab programs, but “they didn’t work for me.” At Beit T’Shuvah, he developed his “own sense of Judaism that works for me and that really helped me.”

Ben said a typical day began at 7 a.m. with Torah study for the approximately 140 residents. Every Friday before the start of Shabbat residents were asked to participate in a “making teshuva,” or repentance, exercise, in which they wrote down things they did in the last week that they could have done better.

“They teach you to have your own understanding of God,” Ben said. “We learned the way we approach God is a very open idea. Jews do not define God as a man sitting on a cloud. Rather God is omnipresent, and through that I was able to connect God to my Jewish heritage….”

He said that on Fridays they would celebrate Shabbos with a live band, and “a huge turnout of community members, about 300 to 400 people,” who would join then for and a communal meal,” Ben said. On Saturday mornings they held Shabbat prayer services. 

Each resident is assigned a spiritual adviser who guides them in their Jewish journey through discussions of Talmud or Torah or other Jewish texts or matters that connect them to Judaism and “that then connect you to your recovery through Judaism.”

Additionally, Ben said, the facility looks to tap into each resident’s creativity so that everyone “can stay away from their vice, find their passion, and integrate that into a happy and fulfilling life.”

Lisa Lisser of South Orange, a Jewish educator who is also a member of the committee planning the presentation, said that while she was working toward a master’s degree in Jewish education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, she trained at Beit T’Shuvah, and witnessed the “incredible impact” the program has on residents.

“It is authentic and powerful at a time when in our community opioid addiction is so rampant that the National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that accidental death by opioid overdose will soon overtake fatalities by car accidents in the United States,” she said. “We need to address this topic as the urgent threat it is.”

Lisser said the Jewish community isn’t exempt from the scourge, which extends to professionals in such fields as law and medicine, as well as high school students, some of whom are also suffering from depression.

Lisser is a longtime Jewish community lay leader in the Greater MetroWest area and an adult educator at Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, and Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning at the Central Synagogue in Manhattan. 

Her involvement in the community has led her to witness firsthand the toll drug addiction has taken on families. In the Greater MetroWest area alone, in the last year and a half, Lisser said, “there have been eight deaths that I know of from suicide or drug overdose among Jewish teens or young adults. It is very upsetting…it just has such a wide range of impact.” 

The cost to bring “Freedom Song” to the local area during its East Coast tour ¬— $5,000, according to Lisser — was made possible by the Levenson foundation grant and the sponsorship of Adath Shalom, Morris Plains; Congregation Agudath Israel, Caldwell; Congregation Beth El, South Orange; Congregation Beth Israel, Scotch Plains; Temple Beth Shalom, Livingston; Congregation B’nai Israel, Millburn; Temple Har Shalom, Warren; Oheb Shalom Congregation, South Orange; Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel, South Orange; Jewish Family Service of MetroWest; Joint Chaplaincy Committee of Greater MetroWest; Greater MetroWest ABLE; Longtree & Associates, LLC; Pam and Michael Fishman; Marlene and Michael Karu; and Paul and Adele Nagelberg, in addition to Temple B’nai Jeshurun, Temple Emanu-El, and JCC MetroWest.

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