Addiction: A Jewish Problem, Not a Punchline
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