When 'l'haim' is not 'to life'

Addiction is also a Jewish problem.

There is nothing more spiritually different than the "L'haims" that many Jews make on the secular holiday of New Year's Eve, and the contemplation of the purpose and meaning of our lives that we make on the solemn Holy Day of Rosh Hashana. For addicts and alcoholics, whose excess of "L'haims" have brought disaster to their lives and to the lives of their loved ones, there is perhaps no day on the Jewish calendar that is more crucial to their recovery than Rosh Hashana, the day on which we acknowledge the sovereignty of God over every aspect of our lives. The verbal acknowledgment on Rosh Hashana that there is a Creator who can and will provide us with the material and spiritual means to lead a meaningful, joyous life, is one of the first steps to teshuva (repentance, or return) of any kind, for any person. It certainly is one of the first steps to recovery from addiction to alcohol or drugs. On Rosh Hashana the addict and alcoholic stand with their fellow Jews all over the world, regardless of denomination, sect or label, and together, each saying in our own way to the God of our individual understanding: "We believe in You. Please help us to change." We ask God to help us, not only to change our own individual lives, but to bestow goodness, strength, health and prosperity on us, so that we can help to change the lives of others. To the addict, whether to alcohol or drugs, it is necessary not only to rely on God's help, but to be willing, often for the first time, to rely on the help of others. The addict often builds barriers of lies to hide his addiction. Perhaps worse, when he gets so far along that he is incapable of caring for himself or what others think, his life, hovering on the verge of death, becomes a sad and frightening reality to all of his loved ones. And of course an addict is not always a he. Women suffer from substance abuse, perhaps for different reasons, at a rate more or less the same as men. Often men are, or have been, a catalyst to a woman's addiction. Regardless of the causes, when men or women suffer from addiction, their children suffer as well, both those living and those not yet born. Children of addicts are statistically more likely to become addicts themselves. Physical, psychological and emotional distress will follow these children the rest of their lives. On Rosh Hashana, addicts are given this opportunity, as on no other day, to acknowledge their reliance on God, and on the rest of us, to begin or to sustain their recovery. But can we be relied upon to help? One of the greatest barriers to groups combating addiction, such as the Israel Anti-Drug and Alcohol Authority (IADAA), is the fact that many Jews still believe the myth that there is no problem of substance abuse in the Jewish community. Sadly this is not the case. At this stage, with Israel still facing massive budget cuts in its social services, there not only is a problem, but it is not being sufficiently addressed. And because substance abuse in the Jewish community is not limited to Israel, the IADAA, along with the IADAF, its US-based foundation, have initiated dialogues with Diaspora communities to offer their services in the context of a Jewish environment. The notion of Israel reaching out in this manner to help Diaspora communities, in their communities, is virtually unprecedented. But the problem of drugs and alcohol facing Jews all around the world is one that needs to be addressed for the wellbeing of us all individually, and communally. Our hopes and prayers for the New Year are about turning a new leaf, hope for the future, being willing to change, with God's help. For addicts, this is easier said than done. We must realize that substance abuse is indeed a Jewish problem, and a problem that impacts us all. Individuals who abuse drugs and alcohol need our help, as do those most prone to such a problem. For everyone else, educational programs geared toward prevention need to be front and center. In this New Year, let us hope that Jewish institutions and entire communities will put substance abuse, and prevention, at the top of their agenda. The human and actual cost to the community of not doing so is substantial and unnecessary. May this year bring us life, health, peace and prosperity, and may all of our "L'haims" truly be to life. Jonathan Feldstein is the executive director of the Israel Anti Drug Abuse Foundation (www.antidrugs.gov.il). Yaakov Ort is a vice president of Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons and Significant Others (JACS), a program of the Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services of New York. He is also group director of Creative Services at The New York Times.