AT A FRIDAY night Serenity Shabbat service, the rabbi declines to give a sermon, instead giving the pulpit over to a well-respected congregant who bravely tells his no-holds-barred story of being a Jewish alcoholic in recovery. For many, this was a part of their fellow congregant’s life they knew nothing about.
When it’s time to say Kaddish, the rabbi reads the names of loved ones being remembered on their yahrzeit, and then she asks if anyone is saying Kaddish for someone not on the list. A few people rise, and when the rabbi gets to one man, he tearfully shares that he is saying the mourner’s prayer for his son who died from the effects of alcoholism and substance use disorder a couple of months ago. He is not a member of this particular synagogue, but came because the theme of the service was addiction and recovery.
They arrive at the synagogue early; two young Jewish men accompanied by a counselor from an Orange County inpatient addiction treatment center. Somehow, they found out about the Serenity Shabbat service. During one part of the service, they joined with others on the bimah. One man started crying as he prayed and when the prayer was over, the rabbi lovingly put her arm around him and walked him back to his seat.
These are just a few examples of the many moving experiences that occur every time a Serenity Shabbat service is held. The Jewish Collaborative of Orange County and four congregations, Congregation B’nai Tzedek, Temple Beth El, Temple Beth David, and Temple Beth Sholom, have hosted these services so far. Three more are scheduled this year: June 8 at Shir Ha-Ma’alot, August 24 at Temple Beth Tikvah, and November 10 at Congregation B’nai Israel. The Serenity Shabbat program is sponsored by Jewish Federation & Family (JFFS) and Jewish Addiction Awareness Network (JAAN), a national nonprofit focusing on addiction and recovery advocacy, and is supported by a task force that includes representatives from various synagogues.
Through this collaboration, our goals – to increase the understanding of addiction, reduce stigma, and create opportunities for individuals and families affected by this disease to feel supported and validated by their Jewish community -are being achieved.
“It’s so important that we’re working together on this issue,” says Rabbi Heidi Cohen. “Addiction is now an epidemic and no family is immune. Jewish tradition and practice dovetail beautifully with the spiritual principles of recovery. These Serenity Shabbat services are full of hope and compassion, and are meaningful for anyone attending.”
Rabbis and Cantors work with their task force representative, JFFS and JAAN to plan a creative service. Many of them incorporate elements their colleagues have used in past services and also add new features. Each service is unique. They have included original meditations, special musical selections, Mi Sheberach (healing) prayers specifically addressing addiction, sermons and text studies integrating relevant Jewish sources, and people sharing lived experiences of dealing with addiction and recovery. In addition, a resource sheet is distributed so people can find more information and help.
Clergy have also found ways to honor those affected by addiction, either personally or through a loved one. At one service, people with a connection to the disease were invited to come to the bimah to light the Shabbat candles. Some rose from their seats right away, and they were soon joined by others until almost half of the people in the sanctuary gathered around the candles. At another service, people were encouraged to daven the Amidah on the bimah facing the open Ark. When the Amidah was completed, the rabbi took out a Torah and gave everyone a chance to touch it. During a recent Serenity Shabbat, all the participatory parts, aliyahs, Torah readings, leading prayers, were given to people in recovery.
Lari Davis, a task force member from Congregation B’nai Tzedek, attends almost every service as do a growing number of people. “As a Jew with 38 years of sobriety, it’s wonderful to finally be able to unite my recovery journey with my Jewish journey,” states Lari.
One of most rewarding parts is that at the Oneg before or after services, people seek out those who have been open about grappling with addiction to share their own experiences or talk about someone they love who they are worried about.
Serenity Shabbat is just one of the ways our community is actively addressing addiction and recovery. Other Jewish communities across the nation are taking note of Orange County’s model with an eye toward replicating it. What we as a community have created and continue to nurture has the possibility of bringing comfort to so many and even saving lives; a true example of Tikkun Olam.
Marla Kaufman is the Executive Director of Jewish Addiction Awareness Network (JAAN) and Chair of JFFS’ Jewish Substance Abuse Task Force. It is her own family’s experience navigating addiction with a loved one (who is thankfully now in recovery) that motivates her work.