THE STATISTICS ARE staggering. According to the Orange County coroner, there were approximately 400 overdose deaths in 2015, a 63% increase compared to 2005, giving our county the distinction of being #17 out of 58 California counties for such fatalities that year. The OC Healthcare Agency reports that opioid-related emergency department visits were up 141% in 2015 from 2005. Data from the National Center for Health Statistics confirms that nearly 64,000 American lives were lost to overdose in 2016, far more than from deaths related to vehicle accidents or gun violence. Contrary to a persistent myth that Jews do not suffer from addiction as much as other groups, Jews are among these heartbreaking statistics locally and nationally.
For the past two years, our OC Jewish community has been investing in a consistent and collaborative effort to address substance use disorder. It all started with a book, and now the latest effort toward increasing resources, education, and programming while decreasing stigma, revolves around a collection of ten books related to addiction and recovery.
When Marla Kaufman, Executive Director of Jewish Addiction Awareness Network or JAAN (a national nonprofit focusing on addiction and recovery advocacy founded in April 2016), read Rabbi Paul Steinberg’s book Recovery, the 12 Steps and Jewish Spirituality in 2015, it inspired her to action. She decided to host a book study group and reached out to Jewish Federation & Family Services (JFFS) and a few individual rabbis to help spread the word. This sparked the creation of the JFFS Jewish Substance Abuse Task Force comprised of community leaders representing the majority of OC synagogues.
The task force, in partnership with JAAN, clergy, and the Jewish Community Foundation, has made substantial inroads addressing this issue. Accomplishments include quarterly Serenity Shabbat services at various synagogues and holding an addiction education workshop for rabbis, cantors, and educators. Additionally, there are now two recovery meetings in Jewish spaces that are open to all: a weekly Alcoholics Anonymous meeting at Congregation B’nai Tzedek on Thursdays at 6 pm and a weekly Al-Anon meeting (a support group for family members) at Temple Beth El on Tuesdays at 7 pm. The Jewish Collaborative of Orange County offers another innovative recovery program; Stepping Out of Shabbes is a monthly discussion group focusing on 12-Step philosophy and Jewish spirituality (meets the third Shabbat of the month from 3-5 pm, location varies).
This year’s big initiative, giving addiction and recovery book sets to OC congregations, is possible because of a generous grant awarded by the Jewish Community Foundation to JAAN and JFFS. Kaufman and Cindy Anderson, JFFS’ Director of Clinical Services, are personally presenting the book collection during Shabbat services. “We’re very excited about this program,” exclaimed Kaufman. “Adding these books to synagogue libraries will be beneficial to their members as well as a resource for clergy and staff, and it’s another way to demonstrate that our places of worship are ‘safe places’ to come for help or be in recovery.” The books are accompanied by an explanation of the project and a supply of bookmarks that include facts about addiction.
The books in the set were chosen to provide knowledge of alcoholism, addiction, and recovery from a wide variety of sources. Four of the books are from the 12-Step programs of Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon (a support group for family members). Rabbis from across the Jewish spectrum wrote five of the books, and the remaining book was authored by a psychotherapist who is also a Jewish mysticism and meditation teacher.
Anderson, a Marriage and Family Therapist, says, “We need to get the word out that addiction is a chronic brain disease that has biological, psychological, social, and spiritual elements. It doesn’t stem from a moral failure or a simple lack of willpower. Like other chronic diseases, substance use disorder often involves cycles of relapse and remission, but it is treatable, and many people live wonderful lives in recovery.”
“Our Jewish community deserves kudos for putting this issue at the forefront and bringing it out in the open,” adds Kaufman. JAAN is building a comprehensive resource website and using OC’s model to help Jewish communities across the nation, so that stigma will be replaced with hope, understanding, and compassion.
For more information and the 2018 Serenity Shabbat schedule, please visit JFFS’ Family Services at familyservicesoc.org (under the counseling tab). To learn more about JAAN and sign up to be notified when the resource website goes live, visit jaanetwork.org.
Erika Lynne Silver is a contributing writer to Jlife Magazine.