Judaism and Addiction

Addiction is a disease that affects people of all religions and spiritual backgrounds. Yet the Jewish community has been haunted by a myth that substance abuse does not affect people of this faith.

Because of this tendency to deny or suppress the reality of addiction, gaining an accurate view of the prevalence of substance abuse among Jews has been challenging in the past. However, the community has become increasingly aware of the problem of substance abuse, not only among mainstream Jews, but also among the more traditional Orthodox members of the community.

Recent efforts to establish treatment centers that observe Orthodox Jewish law reflect this growing awareness, as well as a demand for such services. At the same time, self-help support groups have been created to address the need for education, support, and resources concerning addiction in Jewish life. Thanks to such groups and their efforts to educate their community, the notion of addiction as a universal disease has become more acceptable among Jews, and the need for faith-based recovery services has become more evident.

Myths and Misconceptions

For many generations, there has been a stigma against addiction in the Jewish community. Although wine and other forms of alcohol have been a part of Jewish rituals, holidays, and celebrations for thousands of years, many Jews denied that they knew anyone who had a problem with alcohol or drugs, or that they had ever used drugs or alcohol themselves. C. Glass describes the destructive impact of this tradition of shame in the Journal of Addiction: “Over the years, this long legacy of denial among Jews has resulted in unnecessary pain, heartache, and a great deal of alienation from Judaism by those suffering from addiction.”

Yet the stigma against addiction is based on a series of firmly held misconceptions:

  • The Jewish faith protects its followers against addiction.
  • Observant Jews do not drink or abuse illicit drugs.
  • Jews who do abuse drugs or alcohol do so because they have been alienated from their religious heritage or because they have lost their faith.
  • Substance abuse is a sign of moral failure, and people who abuse drugs or alcohol should feel guilty and ashamed of their behavior.
  • Because addiction is not a problem for Jews, there is no need for faith-based recovery services for members of this community.

Unfortunately, the denial of addiction has led to a lack of support for many Jews struggling with alcohol or drug problems. A nationwide self-help support group, Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons, and Significant Others, or JACS, was formed to dispel the myths and prejudices about substance abuse among Jews and replacing those myths with a more realistic, positive approach to addiction and recovery.

Prevalence of Substance Abuse

Myths and Misconceptions of judasim and addictionIn the past, gathering accurate statistics on substance abuse in the Jewish community has been difficult. Jews who were surveyed about substance abuse often did not want to admit that they or their loved ones had ever had a problem with chemical dependency, or that addiction was an issue for Jews in general. Yet a study published in the Journal of Addiction found that alcohol and drug abuse affects a significant number of people in this community.

A questionnaire of men and women receiving services through the organization Jewish Child and Family Services in Winnipeg, Canada, provided the following responses:

  • Over 41% knew someone who currently had a problem with drugs or alcohol.
  • Over 23% had a family history of substance abuse.
  • Approximately 44% stated that if they needed help with addiction or knew someone who needed help, they would seek resources from a community-based support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous or from social services agencies in their community.
  • Around 9% stated that they would consult a rabbi or priest for help with substance abuse.
  • Only around 3% said they would not seek help if they or a loved one needed help with substance abuse.

Over 70% of individuals who responded to these surveys reported using more than one substance, such as alcohol and tranquilizers, or alcohol and cocaine.

Although it is difficult to gain an accurate assessment of the prevalence of addiction in the Jewish community, some researchers theorize that substance abuse has become more common among the younger generations in this community.

An article published in Religions presents several theories about why drug and alcohol use has become more widespread, even among Orthodox Jews who practice a very conservative form of this religion:

  • The Jewish community can no longer provide the sort of insular security and protection from outside influences that older generations used to experience.
  • Alcohol and drugs have become an appealing way to cope with an increasingly stressful world.
  • Substance abuse is being used as a way to escape the boredom of a more restrictive, traditional lifestyle.
  • The media’s portrayal of drug and alcohol use as sophisticated and glamorous has attracted young people to substance abuse.

Even as the problem of substance abuse grows, the continued denial of addiction as an issue concerning the Jewish community has discouraged many young people from getting help. Substance abuse continues to be seen as a moral problem caused by the individual rather than a disease.

This viewpoint is especially pervasive in the Orthodox community, which deliberately separates itself from the practices and beliefs of mainstream society in order to live by traditional Jewish values. Persuading the Orthodox segment of the community that addiction is a preventable, treatable disease remains a challenge. However, the development of substance abuse treatment programs and rehab centers tailored to the requirements of Orthodox practice indicates that this group is becoming more accepting of the realities of addiction and its impact on modern Jews.

Overcoming the Shame of Addiction

In the past, the negative behaviors and destructive actions of addiction were considered to be cause for shame, while the lack of willpower associated with excessive drinking or drug use was considered to be a reason for guilt. Until the disease model of addiction was developed, the concept of substance abuse as a moral failing reflected general public opinion, not just the Jewish point of view.

Although Jews may have been late to acknowledge the disease model of addiction, this view of substance abuse has recently been gaining acceptance in the Jewish community. To clarify the disease model, the National Institute on Drug Abuse describes addiction as a physiological and neurological condition with the following characteristics:

  • Addiction is a chronic disorder of the brain, associated with neurological responses to the effects of drugs or alcohol.
  • The disease is progressive, leading to physical or mental illness, disability, and reduced quality of life if left untreated.
  • Like diabetes, hypertension, arthritis, and other chronic conditions, addiction is characterized by relapses into harmful behaviors.
  • Although addiction is chronic and progressive, it can be treated and prevented with therapeutic, pharmacological, and psychosocial interventions.

Overcoming the stigma of addiction in the Jewish community has been one of the greatest challenges for support groups and substance abuse treatment professionals. Organizations like the Jewish Center for Addiction: Prevention, Help and Hope provide outreach services, treatment referrals, educational resources, and counseling to individuals and families whose lives have been affected by alcohol or drug abuse. One of the primary missions of this program is to educate the Jewish community about the universal nature of the disease of addiction, while debunking the myths that discourage Jews from seeking help.

Along with the shame associated with addiction, people struggling with addiction may feel ashamed of other underlying problems, such as mental illness, a learning disorder, or some other disability. Shame can intensify the psychological need for denial, driving the user further into isolation and depression.

“The shame, if not resolved, can create a deeper need to deny that they have a problem, and then solving it becomes more complex,” said Rick Isaac, whose 19-year-old son died of a heroin overdose. Isaac, quoted in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, stated that he once believed in the stereotype of heroin addicts as down-and-out, impoverished street people. Now he and other members of his North Hollywood community recognize that addiction is a problem that crosses religious, cultural, and economic boundaries.

Applying Jewish Spirituality to Recovery

Applying Jewish Spirituality to RecoveryThe religious doctrines and spiritual traditions of Judaism provide a structure that supports rehab and recovery. The families of Jewish individuals who have been harmed by alcohol and drugs are making an effort to assist each other in the process of understanding and overcoming addiction. The Temple, the religious focal point of the Jewish faith, can serve as a source of support and strength. The Torah and the Talmud, the sacred texts that serve as a basis for Jewish law and spirituality, provide abundant resources for coping with adversity and disease, as well as spiritual and practical tools for recovering from personal hardship.

In an article published on Aish.com, Rabbi Eli Glaser discusses the correspondences between the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions, and the paradigm of self-growth presented in Jewish scripture. The Jewish paradigm is founded on growth in three areas of life: physical, emotional, and spiritual. Glaser states that each of these areas can be nurtured and developed through observance, worship, and prayer in the Jewish tradition, as well as participation in 12-Step fellowships.

Because 12-Step principles do not focus on any particular religious tradition, members are free to seek a connection with a higher power of their choosing. Yet because many 12-Step meetings have traditionally been held in Christian churches or in facilities sponsored by the Christian church, the 12 Steps have mistakenly been considered a Christian program. In fact, there are many Jewish organizations and temples that sponsor 12-Step meetings, and 12-Step principles can be easily adapted to the Jewish faith.

Recovery can be supported and enriched by Jewish practices such as healing prayer, meditation, and scriptural instruction, notes Beth Fishman, PhD, of Jewish Child & Family Services. Some of the recovery services offered through social services programs like the Jewish Center for Addiction include:

  • 12-Step meetings based on a study of the Torah, or Jewish law
  • Healing meditation practice in the Jewish tradition
  • Workshops on Jewish ethics and morality as they apply to recovery and abstinence
  • Competence training for therapists and clinicians working with Jews in recovery
  • Education and public outreach for Jews and their loved ones who are struggling with addiction

Programs and services like these can be implemented through self-help support groups, community-based recovery programs, or professional rehab centers. Substance abuse education programs can help to prevent addiction in the early stages by reaching out to Jewish individuals and families in crisis. By doing so, these programs can dispel the outdated belief that teaching young people about drugs and alcohol will only encourage them to go out and drink or use. As more members of the Jewish community step forward to share their stories of addiction and recovery, the need for preventive education and substance abuse screening — as well as compassionate support services that embrace the tenets of Judaism — is becoming more apparent.

Finding a Jewish Treatment Program

Although acceptance of the need for spiritually oriented treatment programs is growing, rehab programs dedicated to the needs of Jewish clients are still relatively rare. Yet these programs are becoming more widely accepted, and the spiritually based rehab centers that do exist are offering a broader range of services.

The faith-specific components of a treatment program tailored to the Jewish faith include:

  • Spiritual counseling for individuals, groups, and families
  • Education about addiction and the recovery process
  • Study sessions focusing on the role of Jewish law and tradition in recovery
  • Meetings that combine 12-Step principles with Jewish spirituality
  • Prayer and meditation sessions based on Jewish scripture and contemplative practice
  • A structured residential environment that reflects kosher dietary laws

In addition to these aspects of treatment, a comprehensive rehab program should offer the core components that are central to any recovery program, including:

  • Medical detox services
  • Individual and group therapy
  • Research-based treatment modalities, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Motivational Interviewing (MI), and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)
  • Integrated treatment for co-occurring mental illness, such as mood disorders, anxiety disorders, or schizophrenia
  • Marriage and family counseling
  • Trauma and grief therapy
  • Experiential therapies (art therapy, music therapy, fitness therapy, and more)
  • Aftercare support and alumni programs

The traditions of ethical action, prayer, study, and contemplation that underlie the Jewish faith lend themselves naturally to a spiritually based recovery program. Through intensive work with substance abuse treatment professionals who specialize in faith-based recovery, clients can learn how to replace the temporary rewards of drug or alcohol use with the deeper gratification of spiritual practice. This is the focus of programs like the nonprofit Chabad-Lubavitch drug rehabilitation center in Los Angeles, which is founded on a treatment model that integrates 12-Step principles with Jewish tradition.

As spiritually based programs become more common, individuals seeking help will need to know how to identify facilities that combine effective, research-based services with an authentic foundation of Jewish tradition and spirituality.

Treatment Programs to Consider

Any treatment facility that follows the principles listed above might be appropriate for someone of the Jewish faith. Families looking for a little extra help and a jumpstart on the search process might consider these programs, which are specifically designed for people in the Jewish community:

  • Kosher Sobriety: This organization uses faith-based approaches, deeply steeped in Jewish traditions, to help people struggling with addictions. The treatment facility is located in South Florida, and the team can offer a number of rehab formats, including partial hospitalization, inpatient care, and intensive outpatient treatment. The team provides psychiatric evaluations, individual therapy, group therapy, and recreational therapy. Relapse prevention classes are also available. Holistic therapies include yoga, acupuncture, massage therapy, and 12-Step support. To find out more, call (561) 571-6798.
  • Chabad Treatment Centers: This organization is located in Los Angeles, California, and it has been in operation since 1972. The founders say that this is a nonsectarian program that is run under Jewish auspices, which means that the team delivers therapies that are in line with the Jewish faith. There are inpatient and outpatient programs available. Programs incorporate clinical solutions, including therapy with a trained professional, and 12-Step solutions, including group meetings. To find out more, call (323) 965-1365.
  • Chabad Residential Treatment Center: Men older than 18 are eligible to enroll in this treatment program in Los Angeles. This residential program offers a number of therapies for men with addictions, including individual counseling, group counseling, 12-Step support, vocational planning, and relapse education. The center is based on teachings found in the Torah, and there are daily Torah study groups available, as well as daily prayers in an onsite synagogue. Many people on the staff are observant, and all meals served are glatt kosher and cholov yisroel. To find out more, call (325) 965-1365.
  • Beit T’Shuvah: This organization, located in Los Angeles, has 145 beds available for adults struggling with addictions, including addictions to substances like alcohol and activities like gambling. The residential program offers group instruction, including courses on Jewish ethics, and it also provides a number of complementary programs for enrollees, including theater arts, organic gardening, and choir. There are also recreational activities available, including yoga and surfing. Those who do not need the wraparound care of a residential program can utilize day programs, and there are off-campus transitional living programs for those who have completed a program but need a little extra help in order to stay sober. To find out more, call (310) 204-5200.
  • Retorno: This organization claims to be the largest Jewish addiction treatment facility in the world, and it is located in Israel. The private inpatient rehab program connects people in need with individual therapy, equine therapy, Torah learning, anger-management counseling, and 12-Step support groups. Treatment progresses in stages. The first phase involves acclimation and getting to know the program, the second involves integrating into the community in a small way, and the third involves living in the community and preparing for the transition to the outside world. There are outpatient programs available, and there are programs available for teens. To find out more, call (718) 285-9815.
  • Torah and the Twelve Steps: Miami is home to this addiction treatment program. It offers a nonmedical, Torah-based, 12-Step-infused approach to addiction problems. People who enroll move into structured housing, and they are offered 28, one-hour spiritual groups each week. They also access recovery coaching, Torah study mentoring, physical health education, interactive classes, and group counseling. Costs are kept low, so more people can take advantage of the care. To find out more, call (305) 776-3794.
  • Jewish Community Services: People living in Maryland can access outpatient addiction treatment through this program. Clinicians offer individual counseling, group counseling, and referral to community organizations when they cannot address a specific issue. The team also heads into the community to hold classes on the dangers of addiction, so future generations can avoid the destruction an addiction can cause. To find out more, call (410) 466-9200.
  • The Associated: This Baltimore organization offers a number of programs for people of the Jewish faith, including addiction services. The care here is provided on an outpatient basis, which means people continue to live at home while they get care for an addiction issue. Counseling is the primary form of treatment offered, and it is provided by clinicians with special training in the difficulties that an addiction can cause. To find out more, call (410) 727-4828.
  • Jewish Family Service: Seattle residents can get help for an addiction through this organization. Families in crisis due to addiction can reach out to a caseworker, and with that connection, families can find out more about solutions open to them. For some families, help might take the form of emergency housing vouchers or financial assistance. For others, that care might involve counseling or referrals to inpatient programs that can help. To find out more, call (206) 461-3240.
  • Evolutions Treatment Center: This very large treatment center in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, offers a treatment track made just for people of the Jewish faith. In addition to the counseling and support people might get in the regular treatment program, those who tap into this track also gain access to a kosher living space, spiritual guidance programs, shabbaton, and social support. Personalized treatment options that allow people to observe the Sabbath are also available for those who wish to partake. There is also a tight-knit community of Jewish program graduates who are able to provide insight and support. To find out more about this program, call (800) 795-8527.
  • Chabad Lifeline: Since 1989, this organization in Montreal has helped all sorts of people recover from addiction, including many people of the Jewish faith. The team approaches addiction from a family systems perspective, which means the team believes that addictions spring from an entire family’s group of behaviors. All of those behaviors must be addressed, the team believes, for the addiction to resolve. Everyone who enrolls has access to a case manager, who provides one-on-one personalization. Treatment is provided on an outpatient basis, but the team can refer people to appropriate treatment centers if they need an enhanced form of therapy. To find out more, call (514) 738-7700.
  • Jewish Family Service of San Diego: Behavioral therapy is a big part of what this San Diego organization offers people of the Jewish faith. There is no specific addiction program per se, but the team has qualified counselors on staff who can provide individual counseling for a variety of mental health issues, including addiction. People who came to addiction due to grief, loss, aging issues, or mental health issues might benefit from adding group therapy to the mix of their overall treatment regime. In group sessions, participants can learn more about how these issues contribute to an addiction issue, and they could walk away with great ideas for making things better. To find out more, call (858) 637-3210.

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