Rabbi Dr. Kerry Olitzky of North Brunswick recently visited a synagogue where he had never been before. A congregant graciously welcomed him and informed him that he would be pleased at the top-shelf liquor in its kiddush club, an informal drinking group.
“He thought I would appreciate that, [but] I was appalled,” Olitzky said, because the club encouraged excessive imbibing.
“I went up to the rabbi afterward and expressed my dismay,” said Olitzky, a pioneer on issues of Jewish addiction and 12-step recovery. “He was taken aback by my reaction and it was clear he did not agree with me.”
Olitzky will speak on Feb. 25 at the Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth on coping with the rising substance abuse and addiction problem in the Jewish community.
While on faculty at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC), Olitzky designed training programs for rabbis and cantors that included handling addictions. He later instituted an interdenominational and interfaith doctoral program at HUC, which included extensive training in dealing with drug and alcohol abuse.
The Jewish community now faces “most of the same challenges every other group faces,” including addiction and substance abuse, said Olitzky, formerly a national adviser at JACS (Jewish Alcoholics Chemically Dependent Persons and Significant Others).
He said many Jews believe the community suffers less from addictions to alcohol, drugs, eating, and gambling than other groups.
“Historically we’ve been afraid of what other communities think about us, and in some cases I think we wanted to believe our own myth.”
Olitzky cited the Yiddish expression, “shikker iz a goy,” meaning getting drunk is a non-Jewish behavior, but said the “l’chayims at morning minyan,” kiddush clubs, and holidays like Purim and Simchat Torah belie that myth and in many cases encourage excess drinking.
He said addiction affects Jews of all denominations and observance levels, and anecdotally, agencies and support groups have seen an upward trend among Jews mirroring that of the general population.
Jews have been swept up “in the alcohol culture that has consumed American society,” said Olitzky. “It used to be that people would go out for a cup of coffee. Now they meet for a drink.”
One category where Jews have a higher rate of addiction than the general population is gambling, according to Olitzky, who said Jews comprise a higher percentage of calls to Gamblers Anonymous than other groups.
He attributes that trend to some Jews’ elevated socio-economic status. Gambling is “sanctioned in the community,” he said (although according to some sages, including Maimonides, Jewish law forbids gambling). “It could be the proximity to where they live in relation to gambling institutions and the way in which Jewish community institutions have embraced all forms of gambling from bingo to casino nights to cash nights.”
He said the community also needs to increase awareness of compulsive behaviors such as eating disorders, which evidence suggests is prevalent among Jews but rarely openly discussed.
June Stern, director of clinical services at the Jewish Family Services (JFS) of Middlesex County, said denial about addiction has hindered treating the problem. JFS has hosted, since 2014, a lay-led substance abusers support group for Jews known as JRecovery.
“Some Jews think there are no poor Jews, no depressed Jews, no addicted Jews,” Stern said, adding that her group has not seen an upswing in attendance despite the growing opioid crisis.
“It may be because they’re in denial or they’re ashamed or embarrassed and don’t want to let the Jewish community know,” she said. “Some may not know about our services, which are confidential. Others are uncomfortable going into a church for a support group. There are a lot of variables.”
Hilary Krosney-Rediker, the addiction outreach coordinator at Jewish Family and Children’s Service (JFCS) of Monmouth County, said studies have shown Jews have a higher rate of addiction to prescription drugs, such as sleeping pills and Xanax, as well as other psychotherapeutic drugs used to treat anxiety.
Krosney-Rediker said she expected fentanyl and methamphetamine to become a crisis in this area among the entire population, Jews included, as there has already been an increase in use in the last year among 18-25-year-olds.
“It’s only a matter of time because it’s a cheap and easy substance,” she explained. “Unfortunately, it’s one of the hardest to treat, as well.”
JFCS now operates the Jewish Center for Drug and Alcohol Treatment and Education, as well as a full-service clinical outpatient treatment program licensed by the state at its Asbury Park location. It recently began its “culturally sensitive” program geared toward Jewish addicts out of its Morganville office. (See sidebar.)
In Olitzky’s talk in Highland Park he will be challenging the Jewish community to reach out and welcome those with addictions.
“Alcohol abuse is not a personality disorder, it’s a disease,” said Olitzky. “Drug abuse is not a personality disorder. It’s a disease and we have to start treating it that way.”
If you go
What: Coping with substance abuse and addiction in the Jewish community
Who: Rabbi Dr. Kerry Olitzky
Where: Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth
When: Monday, Feb. 25, 8 p.m.
Cost: Free; RSVP to 732-545-6482
Related articles: Jewish addiction group launched in Monmouth County