Call us today
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.
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:
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.
In 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:
According to the Journal of Addictive Diseases, alcohol is the most common drug of abuse among Jews. A comparison of population surveys and previous studies indicated that nearly 55% of Jewish men and women reported alcohol as their primary drug of abuse, while 24.5% reported alcohol as their secondary drug.
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:
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.
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:
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.
In response to Josh’s death, the Isaacs and their friends created a fundraising project called the Liberty Crew to help free other individuals and families from the trap of addiction.
The 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.
Jewish doctrine provides a framework for recovery that can be integrated naturally with 12-Step programs like Alcoholics
Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and other programs in this tradition.
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:
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.
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:
In addition to these aspects of treatment, a comprehensive rehab program should offer the core components that are central to any recovery program, including:
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. Key factors to look for in a program that caters to the Jewish faith are involvement of the family and Temple community, scripturally based recovery activities, the observance of kosher dietary laws, and the opportunity for worship and meditation in the Jewish tradition. When combined with the core services of drug or alcohol rehab, these elements provide a strong foundation for long-term sobriety.
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:
It’s Never Too Late to Get HelpTake Action Now