Secret Jewish Druggies
[Ed Note: This entry to the Jewis Values Online blog addresses some difficult and troubling issues, from a rather personal perspective. The reader is hereby warned. The contents are as written by the author. Jewish Values Online makes no assertions about the factuality or accuracy of the information, and neither condones nor comdemns the writer. We do, however, acknowledge that substace abuse and self-destructive behavior are a reality, and that they occur in the Jewish community - as in any other, and we strongly support the principle that those who are seeking help in dealing with these issues be afforded all possible assistance, and given support in their efforts. --- JB]
Some cultures have a built in acceptance for alcoholism and addiction. Judaism is not one of those cultures. Celtic literature is full of references to the happy-hearted but luckless drunk; the number of opiate addicts among the British masters is greater than the stars in the sky. Indigenous cultures around the world literally place their greatest psychedelic enthusiasts at the very center of their societies. The closest thing Jews have to an embracing of the state of intoxication is the Chassidic enthusiasm for knocking back schnapps before sitting down for a farbrengen. These customs, however, are particularly new when compared to the rest of Jewish tradition. The Torah itself is full of admonitions against indulging excessively in wine or strong drink. Suffice it to be said that mention of how to navigate engagements with amphetamines and opiates is nowhere to be found. In other words - it’s hard to be a Jewish addict.
In a generation where American Jews start binge drinking sometime around their Bar or Bat Mitzvah, where weed is hardly considered a drug, and where at least 1/4 of Jewish youth have tried Molly or psychedelics by the time they hit their 20s, it’s very easy to feel like the Torah doesn’t understand the central significance of altering consciousness in today’s day and age. King Solomon cautions against being “among those with bloodshot eyes… who sit late over wine,” but what happens when the simple reality of the situation is that you are one of those people? Where’s the Torah’s guidance when it comes to figuring out how to moderate or cease use of mind-altering chemicals beyond alcohol, which can be anywhere from hundreds to thousands of times more addictive?
Let me tell you a story. When I was in Israel, I knew a 20-year-old living at a Yerushalmi youth hostel called “the Heritage House” who was addicted to Xanax. He came to Israel after spending nearly all of his teen years becoming intimately familiar with the world of drugs. He came to Israel with the intention of joining the army and forcing himself onto the straight and narrow path. Little did he know that when he finished basic training and found himself more psychologically compromised than ever, he would go to a local pharmacy and find that Xanax was available over the counter. In unlimited amounts. You heard me right, ladies and gentlemen - in 2013 Israel, you could walk into certain pharmacies in Jerusalem - pharmacies that weren’t even a secret, that were literally operated on streets with cafes and tourist shops next door - and buy an unlimited quantity of one of the most addictive substances known to man. Without a prescription.
Needless to say, my friend didn’t last in the army very long. Last I heard of him he was wandering the streets of Jerusalem in an amnesic haze, out of touch with his family, his purpose and the rest of the world. I didn’t bother to follow up on his story because literally weeks after I met him, I was in the exact same situation.
See, I found that same pharmacy and within a few insane weeks of which I have about two memories total, I had been kicked out of the Yeshiva where I had just been number two in the top Shiur and my Dad was flying over to Israel to brokenheartedly bring me home. See, this wasn’t my first run in with drugs, and it wouldn’t be my last. If you ask around a certain group of American bubble Yeshivot in the Old City of Jerusalem, you can still hear the story of the Californian acidhead drug dealer bachur told over around a roaring campfire on the Shana Alef Yam L’Yam trip - that was me. I’ll save that full story for another article. Oy vey.
Against my best interests, I convinced my parents to let me stay in Israel, where I continued to captain the sinking ship that was my mental health until I eventually got kicked out of a second Yeshiva (this one didn’t even have any rules but I still managed to get kicked out - go figure) and finagled an early ticket home, where I quickly ended up in my first inpatient rehab. Again - it wouldn’t be my last.
So why am I telling you all this? Well - I think I have a uniquely good position to speak on the reaction to addiction in the Modern Orthodox community because that was pretty much the defining feature of my life experience for my teens and early twenties. First off, from the very first time I was caught popping pills at 15, my family and community didn’t understand what I was going through. My family would get completely shocked and heartbroken every time I revealed that I hadn’t been completely one hundred percent sober because they just couldn’t seem to understand that addiction is a chronic disorder, that it wouldn’t just “go away forever” because I was doing well for a while. I eventually learned to just not tell any adults in my community about what I was going through. All I would ever get was fear thrown at me when really what I needed was love.
People had no idea how to deal with someone who wasn’t totally content living a normal MO lifestyle with the average illicit pleasures of religious life - a few sneak hookups here, a few pulls off the Glennfidich bottle at a Simcha there - that they could understand. But parachuting 15 mg of Alprazolam a day while simultaneously dosing LSD and burning back about 2-3 grams of Cali bud a day? And paying for it all by selling weed to other Yeshiva kids? That wasn’t a Jewish thing to do.
I still remember the conversation I had with the great Rabbi and Psychiatrist Avraham Twerski, may he be blessed with many more years of life. The Rabbi of the local girl’s school had arranged it for me, convinced that Rabbi Twerski’s advice would assist me greatly in getting my shtuss together so I could better support the girl I was dating, who went to his school. The conversation lasted all of two minutes - I still remember it like it was yesterday. Rabbi Twerski listens to me spill my entire story, collects his thoughts when I finish, and says “I hear that the meetings are helpful for people struggling with addiction.” And waits for me to respond.
That, in a nutshell, has been the absolute best response I’ve ever gotten from an Orthodox Jewish leader or spiritual guide concerning the issue of addiction. Referring me to outside help since they don’t know how to deal with it - and referring me to the absolute least effective form of outside help, to boot. I mean, AA meetings? Really?! Did he really think I hadn’t tried that?!
Baruch HaShem, today I am in a much better situation. I haven’t used any of the drugs that got me into trouble when I was younger in years - I have a productive life, featuring me in leadership roles for my peers and children alike, working on my English degree at UC Berkeley, preparing for a career in Jewish education and writing. (They don’t have a Jewish Studies degree at UC Berkeley. So literary analysis of another type of text is, for now, the closest to academic Torah study I can get.) And best of all, I actually feel comfortable and confident in my own skin.
This is all thanks to my personal relationship with Torah and Mitzvot - a program I’ve created for myself, as it were, through a combination of my own interpretations of Torah insights, the insights of useful counselors and addiction specialists I’ve seen over the years, and my own relentless self-evaluation. However, I wouldn’t have been able to reach the point of developing that program if I hadn’t spent a good long stint at the one and only effective Jewish rehab in the country - Beit Teshuva. After being to three different rehab facilities, with nearly no results, I finally gave in and went to the one place I’d had a feeling would help me all along. The Orthodox Jewish community at large is not equipped to deal with the issues of addiction because it is too invested in denying their existence within their numbers. But the pluralistic Rabbis at Beit Teshuva actually figured out how to apply the Torah’s lessons to the pressing issue of addiction - and taught me how to do the same.
People ask me constantly and with varying degrees of condescension - why do you want to be a Rabbi? It seems I have a different answer every time. But my answer after writing this article is simple. I want to be a Rabbi because I need to help other young Jews like me. Because I need them to understand that the Torah does have solutions to their problems, that they don’t have to throw their faith into virtually useless programs like “AA” - that they only need to place their faith in Hashem, the God of their ancestors, and realize once and for all that most of the answers they need are in the Book. And in their hearts. And all that jazz. L’Chaim. I need a drink.
. Jacob Schwartz regularly writes blog postings for Jewish Values Online.
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I recently lost my 23 year old son to an unintended drug overdose. My family is all beyond consolation. He did not "appear" to have a drug problem. He was living with his family post-college, in which he did well. He never pushed himself or really had goals, but he was so bright he always excelled. He held down a full time job after graduation, but he was caught 6 months ago stealing medication and other things in the home. He constantly lied to everyone. He started taking substances in his room and appearing "totally wasted". I started to get into conflicts with him over this not being acceptable. I consulted experts about what I should do. For his stealing I wanted him to show remorse and take responsibility for his actions by helping people less fortunate than himself - I wanted him to do volunteer work at a hospice for people dying of AIDS, to maybe lessen his selfish self-destructive behavior, and because I thought he might learn what the fruits of drug abuse are. My wife said I was too severe on her baby, and a hospice was depressing. I wanted him to get in touch with Jewish culture and values. My wife laughed at me. I arranged for him to see a psychiatrist, but she did not learn enough about him in 6 months to help him. I am furious at my wife for undermining my efforts to help him. No one will know if my efforts would have have helped. But maybe they would. Am I being unfair to my wife? Does it make any difference if she takes responsibility for prior actions? Unfortunately, it was never her nature to own up to the things she did. What should I do now?
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