Drug overdose deaths have skyrocketed in recent years, and our political leaders are taking note. In August, President Donald Trump declared the opioid crisis a national emergency, allowing the executive branch to earmark funds for the expansion of treatment facilities.
While chemical dependency is certainly not a new phenomenon in this country, the National Center for Health Statistics’ newly-released report revealed a very alarming trend that we have not seen before: In 2016, there were approximately 64,000 drug overdose deaths. About 20,100 of the deaths were caused by the lethal chemical fentanyl. Heroin was not far behind, with roughly 15,400 people losing their lives to heroin addiction. Maryland is one of three states that have reported the largest rise in drug overdose deaths.
Although these numbers are disturbing, you may be wondering why the WWW would publish an article on addiction, a problem you might think has no relevance to our community. As a matter of fact, chemical dependency, and in particular opioid addiction, has not at all spared the frum community. According to Howard Reznick, LCSW-C, manager of prevention education at Jewish community services (JCS), about 10 percent of the general population suffers from chemical dependency, and the frum community is no exception. In fact, your neighbor or friend may be suffering from addiction, and you would never know it. “Addiction is a problem that can be hidden until it can’t be hidden any more,” Mr. Reznick explained. And not only are the “at risk” kids susceptible to drugs; all age groups and professions are affected by chemical dependency. As Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski, founder of the Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Pittsburgh and renowned author of over 50 self-help books, shared with me, “Addiction can happen to PhDs, MDs, rabbis, and priests. It can happen to anyone.”
Nonetheless, certain individuals are at higher risk than others for developing an addiction: namely, people who have experienced trauma, and those who have general feelings of emptiness, family genetics for mental health disorders, family history of addiction, chronic pain, and certain other life situational factors. Then there are people who become addicted to drugs simply because they like the feeling it gives them. “The reason nice Jewish boys and girls get to heroin is because there are so many painkillers out there,” Mr. Reznick stated. “Some people’s reaction to painkillers is ‘Uh, this is like amazing. It makes me feel very amazing.’”
Three individuals in the Baltimore frum community who have been affected by addiction graciously agreed to speak to the WWW about their struggles and their subsequent recovery.
Binyomin, a product of local yeshiva day schools, grew up in a dysfunctional home environment. His parents detested each other and fought constantly. Binyomin rarely stayed with his parents for Shabbos and instead hung out with his friends. “There was no home,” Binyomin told me, reflecting on his turbulent childhood. Because of the turmoil, both of his parents turned to alcohol to soothe their pain. Binyomin had his first drink at age eight, and he instantly felt a buzz. By 11 or 12, Binyomin was drinking 11 or 12 shots at a time on Shabbosim. He was kicked out of school in the 11th grade. At 16, Binyomin stopped keeping Shabbos and gave up kashrus when he turned 20. After he was kicked out of school and upon learning about the tragic death of his grandfather, Binyomin started smoking marijuana. “I guess there is a G-d, but He doesn’t love me, so I am just going to do whatever I want,” Binyomin stated on why he started using drugs. While in yeshiva in Israel, Binyomin was exposed to heavy drug use and alcohol consumption. Over time, Binyomin’s drug habit accelerated. He began to take psychedelics, cocaine, ecstasy, and OxyContin all at once. His drug use almost cost him his life many times.
Binyomin’s life spiraled out of control after he returned to the U.S. He eventually became involved in gang activities. When his drug partner went to prison for murdering someone, Binyomin decided he would murder his employer so that he could continue to finance his drug business in prison with his drug partner. However, before he could cause anyone harm, he thankfully realized that his thinking was flawed. He checked himself into the psychiatric ward and detoxed at GBMC. Four years later, Binyomin is still sober. He attends Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meetings almost every day, which he says is a necessity in order to maintain his sobriety. He compares his meeting attendance to a diabetic who must take insulin in order to survive. Baruch Hashem, Binyomin has returned to being shomer Shabbos and shomer kashrus. He davens daily and learns Torah regularly.
Shlomo was raised in a very supportive yeshivish home with loving parents and adoring siblings. However, ever since he was a young boy, Shlomo suffered from severe depression. “I kind of feel like I came out of the womb miserable,” Shlomo recalled. As he grew older, Shlomo loved the Judaism he received from his parents but could not tolerate the strict external demands of a yeshivish upbringing. According to Shlomo, everyone is required to wear black and white in order to be regarded as religious. That kind of lifestyle did not make sense to him. Despite many fruitful attempts to fit in with the regular Orthodox Jewish community, he was simply unable to play “follow the leader,” as he described it. Shlomo started skipping school because he was so terribly unhappy. His parents tried everything to help him, including taking Shlomo to several different therapists. Unfortunately, none of the therapists were able to treat his depression. Without a psychological or psychiatric cure for his depression, Shlomo resorted to other means to fill the void. In the 10th grade, Shlomo started drinking vodka and later marijuana. His relationship with Hashem also deteriorated. “The relationship with my G-d at the time was that I would just say at night, ‘Please do not let me wake up in the morning.’” But, Shlomo did wake up in the morning, and his misery intensified.
At 20, Shlomo tried cocaine for the first time and was instantly hooked. In fact, he vividly remembers attending a Seder at his parents’ home and leaving in the middle to meet his drug friends, who were supplying him with his next fix. Initially, the cocaine alleviated his misery. But eventually, the cocaine consumed Shlomo’s life for the next nine years. “You do not need anybody but your drug dealer. You need no one. You do not need friends. You do not have to go out. You do not have to do anything, because all you need is some money and your drugs, and you are good,” Shlomo said describing how destructive drug use becomes. To further illustrate how exhausting chemical dependency is for the addict, Shlomo unfortunately would spend all evening snorting cocaine. He would get an hour of sleep, if he was lucky. Then he would go to work and repeat the same process all over again. Moreover, the cocaine made Shlomo so paranoid that he thought every car on the road was a police officer pulling him over. In fact, Shlomo was arrested multiple times for possession of cocaine, once on erev Shabbos and another time on the night of Tisha b’Av. “You would think for a little Jewish kid raised in the yeshiva world it would be enough to be arrested once and you would be scared straight.” Yet, the arrests did not deter Shlomo from using drugs.
At the time of the arrests, Shlomo was no longer religious, and his relationship with his family was quite strained. Frumkeit and drug use are incompatible for some individuals, Shlomo told me, one reason being that the drug user may obtain drugs on Shabbos.
After Shlomo met a nice Jewish girl, whom he later married, Shlomo stopped using drugs for a period of time. He did not need drugs when he was focused on the relationship. He became religious again and reconnected with his family. But it was not long before Shlomo’s misery returned. He could not use cocaine any longer because that drug made him paranoid and “weird.” His wife would know right away that he was using drugs if he continued with cocaine. So he turned to Percocet and Oxycontin. The opiates mellowed him to such an extent that he could hide his drug use from his wife. Initially, he felt great, but over time, his body became physically addicted to the opiates. Then, as is typically the case, he turned to heroin, and his life revolved around heroin for four years.
Shlomo’s drug use ended abruptly when his wife found a wrapper of Suboxone on the floor of their home. This is a medication that is helpful with opiate withdrawal symptoms and, for some people, is prescribed long-term to reduce cravings for opiates. For the first time, Shlomo’s wife learned that he had a drug problem. She confronted him and threatened to terminate the marriage. Faced with the prospect of losing his wife, Shlomo finally decided to seek treatment, although he readily admits that 50 percent of him wanted to keep using. He checked into a short treatment program and afterwards attended NA meetings, which really helped him get sober. For the first time at the NA meetings, Shlomo connected with people who understood his life experiences, because only an addict can relate to the life of another addict. “To people who are not addicts, it looks like a moral issue – like what’s wrong with you, just don’t do that. And the addict brain says, no, no, you do not understand. Taking drugs is like breathing,” Shlomo concluded.
Currently, although Shlomo no longer has those feelings of misery and is in recovery, he lives with the perspective of one day at a time.
Chaim is not a drug addict himself, but he has plenty of experience with addiction. That’s because his son Nochum* is in recovery. He says that, from a young age, Nochum was not particularly ambitious and always looked for shortcuts in life. After his bar mitzva, Nochum stopped being religious, although he appeared outwardly observant. He started experimenting with drinking and smoking marijuana. Then he advanced to heroin. When he began taking heroin, Chaim had no idea his son was a heroin addict, because Nochum was able to cover it up. Eventually, Nochum could no longer hide his addiction. At that point, Chaim began locating rehab facilities for his son.
In total, his son was in a dozen rehab facilities. “One of the things about addiction is that very, very rarely does a single stay in rehab take care of it,” Chaim stated. When Nochum returned from rehab, Chaim thought he was clean. He wasn’t. So Chaim adopted a philosophy he learned from the support group Nar-anon (a 12-step program for the family and friends of addicts), which is called “detach with love.” Others might call it “tough love.” Instead of enabling Nochum and allowing him to stay in the home unconditionally while using drugs, Chaim kicked his son out of the house and refused to support him financially. According to Chaim, many parents are under the impression that they have to buy their child a car or pay their rent in order to save them from addiction. In reality, they are harming their child: “If you enable you might as well be signing a death warrant,” Chaim emphasized, underscoring why giving in to addicts is a fatal proposition.
After Nochum was kicked out of the house, he was homeless and floated in and out of various halfway houses for a while. However, after five years of unsuccessful rehab stints and living an uncertain life on the streets, Nochum finally accepted that he needed to get help once and for all.
Chaim found a residential treatment center in Los Angeles for Nochum called Beit T’shuvah. Beit T’shuvah, although non-Orthodox, incorporates Jewish spirituality into its treatment programs, which Chaim believes is very important. Chaim is a strong proponent of the motto, “An addict is an addict because he has a hole in his soul, and he is trying to fill that hole with the wrong things.” Unfortunately, Chaim contends, many of the rehab facilities are ineffective because they attempt to fill the hole using mental health or medical principles instead of spiritual ones. At Beit T’shuvah, Nochum learned how to deal with his issues through Judaism. He returned to Baltimore, after a six-month stay, a changed man, committed to his sobriety. Nochum has returned to being observant and is allowed back in Chaim’s home.
When Nochum came to his senses, he thanked his father for having kicked him out of the house. If Nochum had remained at home, he would have had no incentive to return to treatment and would have eventually died. Unbeknownst to Chaim at the time, Nochum overdosed many times. The ending certainly could have been very different.
Binyomin, Shlomo, and Nochum are indeed the lucky ones. For many families, the ending is quite devastating as the above-noted statistics from the National Center for Health Statistics clearly show. This past June, Avreimie and Rivka Klein, of Borough Park, lost their 20-year-old daughter, Malky, a”h, to a heroin overdose. In a gut-wrenching interview with Dovid Lichtenstein, which can be found on YouTube, Mr. Klein told the harrowing story of Malky’s troubled life.
Mr. Klein recounted how Malky had a beautiful neshama and many friends. However, she had significant learning disabilities, which went undiagnosed for years. In the second grade, her teacher publicly embarrassed her in front of her classmates and said she belonged in the first grade. That humiliating experience never left her psyche, and throughout her young life, she had a debilitating inferiority complex. Even though she believed that she was an underachiever, she had many talents. Regrettably, several high schools rejected Malky because they could not handle, or were not willing to address, her learning disabilities. This only exacerbated her low self-esteem.
Malky medicated her pain by using drugs. Her parents tried everything to help her seek treatment. For a while, she was in treatment in another state and seemed to be making progress. After she finished treatment, she returned to New York in June to be with her family, but the nagging feeling of being an underachiever resumed. She relapsed and most likely consumed street heroin laced with fentanyl. Mrs. Klein discovered Malky on June 24 in her bedroom slumped over and frothing from the mouth. She could not be revived, r”l. Now, Malky’s parents are courageously speaking out about how imperative it is for educators to talk to children in a positive manner in order to prevent another child from experiencing what Malky endured.
Malky’s parents are raising awareness, albeit under horrific circumstances, about the plague of drug addiction, which the frum community has for many years been hesitant to acknowledge as a problem that must be addressed. “The denial of a drug problem in the family is intense. It is considered a shonda, an intense shame,” Rabbi Dr. Twerski informed me from his home in Jerusalem. “Presence of a drug problem in the family may obviate shidduch prospects for all siblings. The cover-up is therefore airtight.” Furthermore, according to Rabbi Dr. Twerski, yeshivas will not talk to bachurim about the dangers of addiction, because they do not believe they have a problem with addiction and do not want to create an impression that it exists in yeshivas.
Although there is no reason to believe that drug addiction in the frum community is more or less prevalent than in any other community, denying its presence can only cause harm to frum addicts and their families. “The culture of the frum community is to keep our problems secret. It is not good. It is not healthy,” Chaim told me candidly. The secrecy that shrouds the frum community inhibits addicts from reaching out for help. Secondly, the stigma discourages parents or spouses of addicts from joining support groups because of the fear that their neighbors or friends may discover that their family is dealing with addiction. As Chaim found out for himself after he attended the Nar-Anon meetings, it is critical for parents to attend these meetings for their own personal health. If not, the addict can easily bring down an entire family. Unfortunately, Chaim knows many frum families who are too embarrassed to talk to anyone about their loved one’s addiction. Thirdly, the denial prevents the tzibur (public) from sponsoring addiction prevention programs and taking ownership of addiction as a community problem.
Shlomo attributes the denial to a lack of understanding about the physiological or neurological underpinnings behind addiction. “Someone says ‘I got cancer,’ and everyone is praying for you all of a sudden: ‘G-d, take the cancer away.’ You are an addict? ‘What is wrong with you? Stop doing drugs.’”
There is hope for change. Shlomo is aware of more and more rabbanim who are speaking to their kehilas about addiction. Howard Reznick also believes that there is a cultural shift, in which this generation is more willing to acknowledge addiction than previous ones: “Everyone knows somebody who has had a mental health issue,” he said.
Not surprisingly, though, there are no NA or Nar-anon meetings geared to the Baltimore Orthodox Jewish community. Hopefully, in the near future, a shul in the community will agree to host NA and/or Nar-anon meetings for those suffering from addiction.
Road to Recovery
Although NA meetings are a vital resource for many addicts, it is important to remember that not everyone has the same journey to the recovery that Binyomin, Shlomo and Nochum traveled. There is no one size that fits all when it comes to addiction treatment. Individual therapy, family therapy, group therapy, residential treatment programs, outpatient programs, rehab facilities, and mentorships with other addicts in recovery are all valid treatment approaches. The first step to successful treatment is that the person with the addiction must accept that he or she needs help. If that happens, there is reason for optimism. But, as Rabbi Dr. Twerski reiterated, families must disabuse themselves of the notion that addiction can’t happen to them. After families overcome their denial, family members who suspect that a loved one may be addicted to substances should immediately intervene to locate an appropriate treatment program in order to increase their loved one’s chances of reaching sobriety. Otherwise, Rabbi Dr. Twerski said, the addiction will significantly progress to such an extent that families “will have missed the golden hour” for treatment.
Even when an addict is in recovery, relapse is always a major concern, because addiction is a chronic condition and requires constant monitoring. While there is no way to predict whether an addict will relapse, the National Institute of Drug Abuse states that 40- 60-percent of addicts will relapse at least once in their lifetimes. “People relapse on the trigger of an old familiar song. People can relapse on ‘Boy, it’s a nice warm day outside.’ It’s that subtle,” said Howard Reznick. However, after 30 years of counseling addicts, Mr. Reznick has accumulated numerous techniques to guide an addict to stay on track and pursue healthy coping mechanisms when confronted with a difficult period in life. Certainly, whether addicts in recovery maintain contact with a therapist like Howard Reznick or join a support group to remain sober, long-term recovery is feasible with the right kind of help.
While addiction is very complex, with varying approaches to recovery that cannot be covered in one article, there is no question that drug addiction is a growing epidemic nationwide – and in the frum community. The community must therefore urgently expend all its resources to fully address addiction head-on without equivocation. We can not afford to lose another Jewish neshama to the perils of addiction due to ignorance and unwillingness to face reality.
Brad E. Kauffman is an attorney in Towson and a freelance writer. He can be reached for comment through the WWW.