When I was a child, I overheard conversations about the shanda of my Poppy’s brother, Uncle Jake “the Horse Thief,” his jail time and his drinking issues. The implicit and explicit messages I received growing up were: Jews don’t do illegal things. Jews aren’t alcoholics. Jews drink a bit of wine in moderation for celebrations. But Jews don’t lose control; Jews aren’t addicts.
On Rosh Hashana this year, I spoke about addiction because Jews can, and obviously do, develop life-threatening problems with drugs and alcohol. To believe otherwise leads to an unwillingness to ask for help. The “shame” of having a problem Jews aren’t supposed to have prevents many from seeking support and treatment.
I chose to speak about addiction because addiction is an issue in our OJC community. On Rosh Hashana I spoke about addiction because the path of teshuva – redemption – is parallel to the path toward sobriety.
Most of all, I spoke about addiction because people struggle and suffer quietly, in isolation, with a profound sense of loneliness. They and their families carry a burden of shame and embarrassment because of the stigma attached. When I listen to their stories, I want them to know that the Jewish community is here for them, that we can hold it, that we will fight against the stigma and sorrow. I want them to feel affirmed, to hear their stories in public, to know that this Jewish community can speak their truths and not look away.
For our community to be as inclusive as we say we are, we must open our eyes and our hearts to the stories of those who are struggling with addiction to drugs and alcohol. And more than this, we must open our arms to the families of those who are addicts. Their suffering and powerlessness is never ending. Relief is not in sight. . . only endurance will get them through to the next day. I shared the stories of three OJC congregants and their struggles with sobriety, with loved ones’ addiction, and with feelings of extreme loneliness.
People were moved by the stories. I believe that they listened open-heartedly. But now is the time to take action. First, I encourage you to learn more about addiction in the Jewish community. Getting educated is one way to make a tikkun (a repair) in the world. I learned so much in preparing for the sermon. I hope that you will too:
- Olitzky, Rabbi Kerry, Renewed Each Day, Volumes 1 and 2
- Shapiro, Rabbi Rami, Recovery – the Sacred Art: the Twelve Steps as Spiritual Practice
- Steinberg, Rabbi Paul, Recovery, the 12 Steps and Jewish Spirituality
- Twerski, Rabbi Abraham J., MD, Living Each Day
Resources for Help:
- Twelve Step Programs: https://www.na.org/ or http://www.nnjaa.org/ (in Northern NJ) and http://rocklandnyaa.org/meetings (in Rockland County NY)
- JACS (Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons, and Significant Others) 212-632-4600 and their website: www.jbfcs.org/JACS.
- Smart Recovery, a scientific, behavioral approach to recovery: http://www.smartrecovery.org/?gclid=CjwKCAjwu7LOBRBZEiwAQtfbGNQ_KXOOJWtd0X6Cr8qKmRqxJifgE3qJNfUhKUsdOZM3nLAsr28PMRoCku0QAvD_BwE
- Another useful organization: https://www.chapter9couplesinrecovery.org/
In my sermon, I spoke about another way for our community to make a tikkun, to bring the problem from outside our walls within. Most sobriety programs take place in church basements. If you are interested in working to bring a meeting or a support group here to OJC, please be in contact with me. Our congregation is dedicated to #OJCSupportsU, our program of mental health awareness and support. We are thus perfectly poised to open our doors to those in need of sobriety support. What a shift that would be for us here at the synagogue, knowing that we are not just acknowledging that addiction exists, but offering our holy space to be a part of people’s recovery.
The director of counselling services at an inner-city rehabilitation center for teen heroin addicts described why the center is successful: “This is the first place they’ve ever been that gives them unconditional love. We are the first people they’ve met who care enough about them to say No.”
The unconditional love paired with limits and boundaries that supports struggling teens is just what God does for us each year in these days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. We make mistakes, some small and some devastating. We could carry on like this indefinitely, harming others and ourselves, were it not for the High Holy Days calling us to account for our sins. At this time of teshuva, if we open our hearts, we encounter God. And God offers us unconditional love and cares about us enough to say No.
That ultimate no is tough business. Too often we ignore warning signs that our friends or family, or we ourselves are in trouble. Perhaps we are not aware that there is a problem, or are too embarrassed to seek help. And sometimes, we actually enable our teenagers to indulge in substance abuse, perhaps by buying the alcohol and serving it in our homes, by partying with them, or by driving our teens to and from parties where alcohol is served so they do not “drink and drive.” The message in these parenting choices is that using drugs and alcohol is normal, and harmless. . . which it is… till it isn’t.
“Choose life” is a core Jewish value. Choosing life includes being fully present to the abundance and blessings of our lives. It means not anesthetizing ourselves from the beauty or the pain. It means not causing harm to our bodies, our minds and our spirits.
In this season of repentance and atonement, I pray that we take the first steps toward awareness. Chemical dependency, whether it involves alcohol, narcotics, or cocaine, is a destructive, malignant condition. It claims as its victims not only the user, but the family members as well. Judaism teaches: Choose life. May we do so today and tomorrow and throughout the year 5778. Shana tova.
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
“When you come into the land that the Lord your God has given you, and have possessed and settled it….” These words serve as the Torah’s introduction–in this past week’s portion Ki Tavo— to the thanksgiving ritual of bikkurim, or first fruits. Upon arrival in the Promised Land, the Israelite is to appear in the presence of the kohen, bearing his basket of produce, and offer a scripted monologue detailing the history, context and expression of gratitude for the bounties bestowed.
The timing of this ceremony is a subject of debate among the rabbis. Specifically, does the language of the verse quoted above indicate that the ceremony is performed upon entry into the land, or only after the land has been settled? How this question is answered informs our Jewish understanding of the concept of gratitude. If thanksgiving is to be offered immediately upon entry, the gratitude expressed is in appreciation of God’s goodness, a promise kept, a gift given, even though the gift received has not been opened yet! On the other hand, if thanksgiving is to be offered only after the land has been settled (and it would take years before the land would be entirely settled!), the gratitude expressed in the first fruits ceremony would be accompanied by a very different intention. The gift’s recipient would have had the chance to unwrap the gift, open the box, and make use of the gift. Gratitude would be accompanied by a rational appreciation for the thing itself.
I am certainly not suggesting that we write two thank-you cards for every gift we receive. The trait of gratitude we cultivate, however, should be informed by both perspectives. We should appreciate the generosity of others for the consideration they show us, regardless of the gift itself. And we should recognize and acknowledge the gift itself as we come to recognize its unfolding impact on us.
On this sixteenth anniversary of the life-shattering events of 9/11/01, I remain deeply saddened by the stories of suffering, especially those of individuals who have recently lost their lives as a result of 9/11-related illnesses.
But I also feel gratitude. In the initial aftermath of the tragedy, I was grateful to those who showed supreme heroism, selflessness and compassion in the darkest hours, many of whom gave the gift of life at the cost of their own.
With the passage of time, I have also come to appreciate how these self-sacrificing individuals and their communities of volunteer and professional servants have shaped our neighborhoods and communities. “We are one family” is a refrain I heard repeatedly this morning, and a theme I saw play out in our broader community. As our OJC community joined together in commemoration with our neighbors and volunteers in Tappan, and as we joined in learning with the faith community of the Dominican Sisters of Sparkill, a true sense of brotherhood and sisterhood prevailed.
I am grateful for the care we show one another in the wake of tragic events, and for the human and institutional actions we have witnessed in response to natural disasters Harvey and Irma. Today, I express my gratitude–with a basketful of intentions–to those who serve us each day and to those who work toward creating the kind of community we aspire to be.
Rabbi Craig Scheff