Orthodox treatment

J'lem's only religious halfway house for drug-related convicts, combines Torah study with rehab.

mda magen david adom 88 (photo credit: )
mda magen david adom 88
(photo credit: )
At 29, Albert looks older than his years. His gaunt features and blotchy eyes bear testament to his recent battle with drugs. He clears his throat earnestly before speaking. "With God's help I've begun to get my priorities straight," he says. "I realize that providing for my daughter is the most important thing." Talking about his two-year-old daughter brings a smile to the ex-convict's face and elicits similar responses from fellow group members. Ya'acov, a 50-something Ashkelon resident, is prompted to discuss his own children, with whom he hopes to mend relations damaged by his three stints in jail for drug-related crimes. "I've become a lot more conscious of wanting to be a good person and, obviously, a big part of that is being a good father," he says. The two are sharing their aspirations at a communal therapy session, part of a treatment program at the Ramot-based Beit Avraham halfway house. The hostel provides the last phase of criminal rehabilitation for former drug addicts who have recently completed prison terms for crimes related to their addictions. Beit Avraham is Jerusalem's only religious halfway house catering to this population. The therapy session demonstrates the dual role religion and therapy play in the center's rehabilitation process. Buoyed by words of encouragement from director Yossi Arish, a former prison officer, and resident social worker Asaf Yitzhaki, the men take turns discussing their achievements since arriving at the center. "These meetings enable the men to realize that others are going through similar trials to them and to receive encouragement from their mentors, which are two major functions of therapy," says Arish. "Through them they are empowered by the belief that they can change and they have the potential to make something of their lives. "Such ideas are very much in line with religious beliefs that God has given everyone the unique tools to be a good person and make the best of their lives," he continues. "It gives them something to believe in, which is often a key factor in successful rehabilitation." Such sentiments, Arish says, in 1972 prompted Avraham Hazan, former chief rabbi of the Israel Prisons Service, to establish Keren Hateshuva, a religious organization that assists former convicts in reintegrating into society. Beit Avraham, which opened a year ago, is the organization's current flagship project. It receives partial government funding but relies heavily on donations. The hostel houses up to 16 recently released convicts for nine to 12 months. Staff members guide them through the final stages of reintegration into society and maintain contact with them once they leave. Residents are religious before entering the hostel, many having found religion in jail. Therefore, as Arish is keen to stress, "There is no question of attempting to persuade residents to adhere to the center's religious lifestyle," which includes Shabbat and kashrut observance, synagogue services and Torah classes. On the contrary, he says, "Many residents see religion as an integral factor in their successful rehabilitation." Among these is Ya'acov, who says, "As a result of living a religious lifestyle, I've become a lot more conscious of wanting to be a good person. "For example, there have been delays with wages at my work, and rather than taking matters into my own hands and stealing from the cash register as I would have done in the past, the people here helped me write a letter to my boss and now the problem is being solved." Former resident Yonatan, now a yeshiva student who spends his evenings tutoring at the hostel, echoes their sentiments. "My religious belief definitely gave me the strength to get my life in order," The other stipulation for enrolling in the program is having been drug-free for at least three months. "This isn't a program for drug addicts," says Arish. "Our residents must be committed enough to reformation to have been clean for a period, and we assist with the next stages, which are staying clean and getting their lives on track." This assistance takes the form of a comprehensive rehabilitation program which, in addition to the communal therapy sessions, includes narcotics anonymous meetings, one-on-one meetings with Yitzhaki and personal skills workshops. "Many of our residents lack skills such as anger management or the ability to interact effectively with others or work as a team," says Arish. "We teach these and then help them find jobs while they're at the hostel so they can begin to put the knowledge to use." WHILE RESIDENTS acknowledge the role of religion in their rehabilitation, they underscore the importance of the program's therapeutic elements. A former resident tells of his stay at the hostel during its early days (before the arrival of Arish and Yitzhaki). "At the time, the main focus was on religion and the program wasn't as effective," he says. Arish says he and Yitzhaki were recruited to redress the imbalance. "The former staff weren't trained professionals and they focused almost entirely on religion, which meant success was limited, but Asaf and I have changed that." Arish is adamant, however, that it is the combination of therapy and religion that achieves the best results, a view born out by research by the Israel Prisoners Rehabilitation Authority (IPRA). "Successful rehabilitation rates for drug addicts are low overall and former convicts are no exception, but nonetheless, prisoners who complete an intensive residential-based program like that of Beit Avraham have around an 80 percent rate of remaining free of drugs even as long as five years after rehabilitation," say IPRA spokesman David Irsai. "We have also found that rehabilitation rates are likely to be higher among residents of religious programs than non-religious ones." According to Bar-Ilan University criminologist Dr. Uri Timor, who conducted his doctoral thesis research on religious rehabilitation programs run by Keren Hateshuva, successful rehabilitation rates in the organization stand at 90% one to two years after the completion of treatment, compared to 75% at non-religious rehabilitation hostels. Dr. Timor attributes the trend to three factors. "Religious programs have a higher success rate because they offer ex-offenders a new lifestyle, which provides an alternative to returning to the often negative influences of the lifestyle and friends they came from," he explains. Secondly, "These offenders also have less free time because they engage in religious activities such as Torah study, and religion helps prisoners create a new self-concept; they identify themselves as different people and so no longer feel bound by their old behaviors." THE CONVICTION that religion is an antidote to the evils of drugs is shared by Rabbi Eitan Eckstein, founder of the Givat Shemesh-based Retorno, Israel's only religious drug rehabilitation center. Eckstein first established Retorno in his native Mexico in response to the "significant drug abuse problem that existed within the Jewish community." Upon moving to Israel he discovered a similar phenomenon and consequently set up a branch here in 1993. Today, Retorno offers separate programs for adults and teenagers with average stays ranging from seven to nine months for adults and around a year for teens. The center is largely financed by admission fees, which are costly, but Eckstein maintains that "subsidies are available for those who have difficulty paying." Retorno's approach to religion is relatively laissez-faire in comparison with Beit Avraham. "Not all our residents are religious. Some choose Retorno because they, or their families in the case of teenagers, value its religious ideals, but others are attracted by different factors," says Eckstein. "Consequently we have certain minimum requirements residents must oblige such as observing Shabbat and kashrut in communal areas, but what they do in private is their prerogative… similarly, we hold Torah classes, but these are also optional." According to Eckstein, however, religion is a contributory factor for many of the center's success stories. "A lot of the people who come here are looking for answers," he says. "They've seen that the secular world doesn't have depth and they are looking for meaning… when they discover religion it helps them get their lives back on track." He stresses, though, that the center's aim is for its residents to "incorporate spirituality and an awareness of God into their lives, rather than necessarily taking on religion." Retorno uses the Narcotics Anonymous 12-step program which, Eckstein says, "encompasses a strong spiritual component." "The 12-step approach is based on the notion of addicts giving themselves up to a higher power, such as God, and in doing so becoming better equipped to deal with their own lives," he explains. Former Retorno resident Josh (not his real name) tells of the spiritual lessons he gleaned at the center. "I realized that God is in control and everything happens for a reason… this knowledge helped me overcome my drug addiction and lead a more productive life," says the 26-year-old, who now works part-time as a counselor at Retorno. "The treatment program also enabled me to understand my strengths and weaknesses and the importance of imposing limitations on myself." Fellow former resident David (not his real name) also credits his stay at Retorno with endowing him with a sense of spirituality, as well as an understanding of the importance of boundaries and the tools to implement changes in his life. However, not all former residents are complimentary of Retorno's approach. Shimon's parents (not his real name) were assured his treatment would only last two months but found his departure date consistently postponed until, after nine months, they withdrew him from the program. Shimon is also critical of the center's "ultra-disciplinarian methods," preferring the "less punishment-orientated approach" of a second rehabilitation program he participated in. In terms of success rates, Eckstein claims that an average of 60-70% of Retorno graduates of the past 10 years are drug-free. But according to Dr. Rachel Bar-Hamburger of the Israel Anti-Drugs Authority, graduates of religious drug rehabilitation programs fare no better than those of non-religious programs. According to Bar-Hamburger, former drug addicts have a 70% chance of relapsing within a year of treatment and a 90% chance within three years. Caryn Green, director of Crossroads, a Jerusalem-based center for teens at risk, echoes these sentiments. "I haven't found that Retorno has a better success rate than any of the non-religious rehabilitation programs we work with," she says. "Having said that, I think an important factor in successful drug rehabilitation is finding something to believe in, a source of inspiration to continue when things are difficult. For some people that's religion, and for those people these beliefs serve as a deterrent from returning to their old ways."