Crushing today's golden calf

Traditionally Christian systems of treating addiction are getting a Jewish twist in the United States.

drugs mag 88 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
drugs mag 88 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
'Moses and I have something in common," says "Chaim," telling a favorite joke. "We were both born in denial." "Chaim" is neither an alcoholic nor a drug addict, but he was married to one for years. He is not without a list of emotional problems. "I was in my own insanity," he says. The son of two Holocaust survivors, Chaim, who lives in Philadelphia, was religious by the Iowa standards where he grew up. At age 19 he became a Chabad-Lubavitch hassid, and in 1983 he married a woman he met through a matchmaker. The marriage had problems from the beginning. "When you're obsessed with that type of addiction, that becomes your love, your partner, your soul mate," says Chaim, 46. At first he didn't know the extent of his wife's problems. Chaim bought wine by the case - of which his wife took liberal advantage, he says - mostly to save money and to always have the beverage on hand for Shabbat. He learned the full extent of her addictions about 10 years ago, when his wife almost died from overdosing on prescription pills, he says. But Chaim had to face his own demons - namely depression and anxiety. To do so, Chaim began to attend Al-Anon meetings about 10 years ago at the suggestion of a therapist. Now divorced, Chaim still goes to meetings three nights a week. No longer a Lubavitch hassid, but what he describes as "regular frum," Chaim says the meetings have taught him to think independently. They have also taught him to wake up to the fact that, even though he wasn't dependent on drugs or alcohol, he still had difficulty functioning in hs surroundings due to emotional trauma. BY NOW, the fact that the Jewish community has its share of people suffering from addiction is old news. But Jewish initiatives and resources to combat addiction remain spotty in some places, wholly lacking in others, according to rabbis and recovery leaders throughout America. The factors surrounding Jews and addiction are a cauldron of complexities. On one hand, some Jewish addicts distance themselves from their religious community, considering their own behavior as particularly un-Jewish. Yet on the other hand, rabbis report anecdotally that they see significantly more cases of Jews seeking help for their addictions - explained in part by an emerging younger rabbinate, better trained to deal with these problems, as well as others who feel that a subject once taboo is becoming more mainstream. Yet even as these factors come into play, it's a non-religious program with a Christian reputation that rabbis and recovery leaders advocate as the potential saving grace for Jews in recovery. Alcoholics Anonymous, they say - a program known to meet in churches throughout the world - is a place where Jews can find help. The program with the stereotype as goyish in fact has a lot more Jewish, than goyish, in it. With 12-step programs as their backbone, Jews in recovery are supplementing their regular meetings with Jewish recovery efforts whose purpose is to provide the Jewish connection. "ISSUES OF addiction are, at their core, not only physical but a deep spiritual malaise," says Rabbi Denise L. Eger, of the West Hollywood, California, Reform synagogue Congregation Kol Ami. "We haven't articulated a strong enough system to help people cope with it." Congregation Kol Ami offers a monthly recovery program that focuses on Jewish teachings as they relate to self-discipline. One of the texts presented as a source of study in this group is the book Shaare Teshuva, what Eger calls "a classic step-by-step guide to repentance. You can see it's very similar to the Big Book of AA." The principles of Alcoholics Anonymous and the tenets of Judaism are very similar, she says. In the various Anonymous groups (there's also Narcotics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Sexaholics Anonymous, among others), recognition of a higher power is critical for a person's recovery because the organization asserts that people are powerless over their addictions. A belief in this higher power ("We've always called that higher power 'God,'" says Eger) reinforces that life is bigger than any one problem, than any single addiction. Similarly, the Torah teaches people about maintaining a balance in life and curbing excess. "A life of spiritual devotion is not a cure-all, but it is part of the recipe of living a balanced life," Eger says. While cocaine, marijuana, ecstasy and crystal meth are not part of this delicate recipe, Eger says she regularly receives calls from concerned family members across all economic sectors who don't know where to turn and who's loved ones have run into problems with these drugs. There are not enough recovery beds in town, not enough rehabilitation centers. Jews, she says, are losing their jobs due to addiction problems; there is even an increase in the number of Jews in jail. "It's always been there," she says, "we've always just turned the other way. It's a shanda [shame]." As a result, the Jewish Federation has put little money into recovery efforts, says Eger, who also recognizes that there are other concerns within the Jewish community that need attention. Yet Jewish celebration itself can be a part of the problem, as Judaism encourages drinking in certain religious contexts. Eger pointed to the alcohol that flows freely during Purim, Simhat Torah and Pessah - as its tradition. "In this day and age, is this what God wants from us?" asks Eger. DR. ABRAHAM Twerski is a sober man - and an Orthodox rabbi - who has been going to AA meetings for nearly 45 years. A psychiatrist who founded Gateway Rehabilitation Centers back in 1972 - the organization now provides services to 1,800 people in Pennsylvania and Ohio - Twerski was introduced to AA in 1968 through an alcoholic so incapacitated that she had to admit herself to a state hospital for a year to stop herself from drinking. Once released, this woman joined Alcoholics Anonymous and stuck with it. So impressed with her recovery, Twerski, who's not an alcoholic, visited a meeting to check it out for himself. He's been attending ever since. Twerski has written extensively on the subject of Jews and addiction, and has heard every possible excuse and then some for Jews in denial. "First of all, people who don't want to go to AA, they don't want to hear they have to stop drinking," Twerski says. He began to list the most popular excuses why people don't attend Anonymous meetings. There's the, "I needed an extra job because my house is being renovated so I don't have time to go" excuse; the "meeting's too far away" excuse; and finally, "I don't want people to recognize me at the meeting" excuse. One patient described AA as "a goyish program," says Twerski. "He was married to a shiksa but that didn't matter to him. What mattered to him was not going to church" for an AA meeting, he says. A program for character improvement, the Anonymous meetings still have the reputation for causing some Jews unease. The meetings close with everyone standing in a circle, holding hands and reciting the Lord's Prayer. "That has no relationship to the content of the program itself," Twerski says. "The content of the 12-step program is very Jewish." THIS IS where Twerski jumps into explaining spirituality, the favored catch-word at any Anonymous meeting and in any discussion on addiction. "There is no question that spirituality is the backbone of recovery. Religion is not the backbone of recovery," he says. According to Twerski, there are two components to a person: the body, which is basically animal, and "something else which makes us human," he says. This "something else" is the ability for people to improve themselves, delay gratification, comprehend consequences and help others. Those traits together comprise the human spirit, says Twerski. He added that nowhere in that definition is there any mention of religion, nor even of God. Addicts, he says, are spiritually void, and violate each of the tenets of a spiritually healthy person. They are not free to make their own decisions, nor act out their own will. They are enslaved by chemical substances both legal and illegal so people cannot depend on them emotionally. A person in recovery is on a journey to restore their crippled spirituality. FOR ARTHUR MARION, president of the Jewish Recovery Network in Boston, Twerski is a spiritual guru; he describes him as "the hugest, the biggest person in Jewish recovery." Marion, 66, does not battle addiction. Instead, he fights for his daughter, Michele, a 36-year-old recovering drug addict. Marion is a self-composed man who appears to have banished feelings of guilt and shame - if he ever had any - that relate to his daughter. In a recent meeting at the Marriot Hotel in Newton, Massachusetts, he wears a small yarmulke and a gray button-down shirt. He's very polite, ordering a bagel in the hotel restaurant, even though he only really wanted a coffee. Like any story on addiction, the narrative behind Marion's story is long, with many starts and stops. The story begins with an illness. In 1965, Marion and his wife, Marjorie, who also leads the Jewish Recovery Network, had a baby, a boy diagnosed with Tay-Sachs. He died in 1968. Wanting to have a family, the couple adopted two girls 17 months apart, at two separate times. Michele was the second daughter to be adopted. Her birth mother was a Catholic who wanted her baby to be raised in a Jewish household. She was also an alcoholic and a drug addict. The signs of Michele's struggle with addiction probably began in high school, where she was the captain of the cheerleading team at Framingham North High School, but Marion did not pick up on those signs until years later. By the time she was 19 or 20, there were clear indications that something was not right with the younger of the two Marion daughters. Living at home and working in the restaurant industry, Michele would sleep all day and stay up all night. Other indicators included "being with the wrong kind of people because [her] self esteem was at negative zero," Marion says. Asked to describe the extent of Michele's problem, Marion says, "We didn't know what was wrong, we just knew she was a 'bad child,'" to which he put his fingers in the air and made quotation marks. He thought that maybe his daughter was suffering from some condition as a result of her birth mother's addictions. Michele, diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, was semi-suicidal and often admitted to the hospital. While Marion and his wife knew that their daughter smoked a lot of marijuana, it was not until August 2004, when Michele's therapist asked the family to meet as a group, that he learned the extent of his daughter's addictions. "She had moved to what the therapist thought might be the end of her life," says Marion. His daughter, he found out, was selling her body for drugs, and her habit moved from cocaine to crack. For the first time in her life, Michele agreed to rehabilitation. On August 26, 2004, the day of his wedding anniversary, Marion took a day off from work at the Jewish Community Center and drove with his wife and his daughter to a detox center in Connecticut. MICHELLE STAYED for three months and returned home in November, 2004, two months pregnant. Her baby, Aiden David, is now six months old and healthy, says Marion. But Aiden's father is also a drug addict. While Marion tries not to think about what the future may hold for his grandson, he doesn't delude himself. "My grandson, what's his chance? He has a mother and a father who are both addicts," he says. Michele has been clean since July but still battles urges, though things are looking up. She's connected with old high school friends who had previously written her off, Marion says, and she attends AA meetings six times a week. Michele chooses those meetings in wealthy Boston suburbs over Narcotics Anonymous meetings because there is less chance of running into pushers outside the meeting - or passing old drugging haunts. Marion was introduced to recovery meetings in the early 1990s through Al-Anon, a sister program of the Anonymous groups for family members of addicts. "I said, This is not for me. There's got to be something more in line with Judaism," Marion says. He learned about the organization Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons and Significant Others, better known as JACS. After a couple of years he became a leader, but later changed the name to the Jewish Recovery Network, which he's been running for about eight years now. "The way I look at it, these are adjunct to an AA meeting," he says. Between four and 20 people show up to the meetings at Temple Sinai in Brookline, Massachusetts. There, people with all sorts of addictions and their loved ones talk about their experiences in a roundtable discussion. However, sometimes there's a lack of continuity to the meetings, says Marion. An addict will show up for consecutive sessions and then disappear for months, then return with regular visits once more. Or someone else will stop attending and never return. "Because of stigma sometimes, of being Jewish... I can't explain it. I don't know how to say it. They'll drop out and feel there's just no reason to be there," says Marion. "If things are fine, they're fine. But they're not. They just think they're fine." BESIDES regular attendance, the Jewish Recovery Network faces another obstacle: lack of funds. The Combined Jewish Philanthropies underwrites the Network with an annual donation of $2,600, says Marion. For as long as he can remember, that figure has remained the same each year. Utilities and rent come to about $900 per year. His telephone bill is close to $100 per month, he says. "There isn't much else, is there?" Marion's ultimate goal is to run a kosher rehabilitation center in the Boston area, since "there's none around, period," he says. While recognizing that Jewish philanthropies are more likely to distribute their funds to children services, day schools and elder care, Marion says he would still like to see more money directed at Jewish recovery efforts. "I would like be somewhere around third or fourth - not 29th," he says, referring to his view of the order in which agencies dish out donations. BEIT T'SHUVAH in Los Angeles bills itself as the only Jewish rehabilitation center in the country. As part of its syllabus for recovery, patients study Torah and go to services. "I think Beit T'Shuvah as a residential center is fairly unique in the country in that we use Judaism, 12 steps and psychotherapy," says Harriet Rossetto, 67, who founded the organization in 1987. Her husband, Rabbi Mark Borovitz, is Beit T'Shuvah's spiritual leader, and a former con man, mobster and alcoholic as he explains in his autobiography, The Holy Thief. The rehabilitation center grew out of a jail outreach program where Rossetto, a social worker, met and later married Borovitz. Through her social work, Rosseto found that Jews in jail have a problem with addiction. At Beit T'Shuvah, where about 25 percent of the 120 people at the center come from out of state, addiction is viewed as the disease. "We're treating it as a spiritual disorder," says Rossetto, who grew up in New Jersey. For instance, "When Mark [Borovitz] does Torah study, he always looks for what does this parsha teach us about recovery, about ourselves." There aren't many Jewish resources out there to help recovering Jews, Rossetto says. When asked why that's the case, she responds with exasperation. "Beats me! There's still a sense of, 'Oh, these people brought it on themselves.' The problem now is so epidemic and so epidemic at the top levels of society. When I started Beit T'Shuvah 20 years ago, it was considered almost lunatic." Why? "Because Jews don't have these problems," she responds. It goes without saying, though, that in reality the situation is quite different. "It's almost like the plague of our time," says Rossetto, referring to addiction as "the golden calf, if you want to use a spiritual metaphor." It costs the rehabilitation center, a non-profit organization, $3,000 per month to take care of a patient in the primary-care phase of treatment. Rossetto says Beit T'Shuvah has never turned anyone away because of inability to pay. The organization is funded through donations and by thrift-store sales. For Jews seeking help, striking the right balance of Jewish content in their therapy is still a complicated - and subjective - matter. The Anonymous organizations are "pareve," says Chaim, who explains that he did not look to Judaism for insight into his emotional problems, even though he still identifies as a Jew. He gets most of his inspiration from Al-Anon. "My father always treated me like a piece of crap," he says. "In Al-Anon, we are all unique." But even throughout his struggles and religious upheaval, Chaim still very much believes in a higher being. "I believe in a perfect God," says Chaim. "This perfect God created a perfect being - which is me, with all my meshugas."