There is a growing problem of drug and alcohol abuse in the Jewish community, specifically Orange County, and members of the community and professionals I have spoken to have all expressed a collective frustration that there are too few resources to help those in need—whether it’s information, support, or just a place to feel welcome. I wanted to write an article that would get the conversation started about a few of the things being done in the community and try to remove some of the stigma surrounding this issue.
One obstacle to dealing with the alcohol and drug problems head-on is the shame these problems cause in the Jewish community. Whether it is embarrassment or fear, drug and alcohol problems are often kept behind closed doors by families, shuls and organizations. This only serves to exacerbate the problem. There should be no shame in dealing with either substance abuse issue. We must all understand this and come together as a community to provide support for our neighbors dealing with these issues. They need our help. This is important for the individual as well as for the community.
Allison Johnson, LMFT, Director of Client Services at JFFS and a substance abuse pioneer in the Jewish community said, “This is a real problem in Orange County and only recently has our community begun to address it. As a Marriage and Family Therapist, I have seen a marked increase in the number of teens and adults struggling with substance abuse issues, and am saddened by those who are still too embarrassed to seek help. I am working with congregations and other organizations in Orange County to decrease the stigma related to sharing these issues with friends and family, and building support within our community for those ready to seek help. This is something we all need to stand together on and say, ‘it’s ok to talk about this.” According to the OC Health Care Agency report, published in 2014, the rate of drug overdose deaths in Orange County has increased 61% and alcohol related deaths have risen 41% between 2000 and 2012. Yet we are still told to keep everything “hush hush” in our community. It’s about time we finally start talking—we’re Jews, it’s what we do best!
A community member whose family has coped with their child’s addiction issues for nearly a decade is thrilled to see that interest is growing in the Orange County Jewish Community to increase conversation and resources surrounding substance abuse. “When we found that our teen was abusing drugs and alcohol, we turned to professionals for help and we also sought support from our rabbi. Although he was supportive, we found ourselves not feeling very welcome in Jewish environments we had previously enjoyed. This affected us as well as our younger child. Many people simply do not understand that addiction is a disease, and unfortunately, this particular disease still carries a lot of stigma, shame and fear. People do not reach out to affected families like they do with other illnesses. At the very time a family needs empathy and inclusion from their community, they often have the opposite experience. Many churches are addressing addiction head on, with dedicated recovery support groups and other programs; it’s time for us to focus on this growing problem. Jewish texts, liturgy, and traditions have so much to offer in helping individuals and families in terms of recovery.”
This past June was the first meeting of the OC Jewish Substance Abuse Task Force. Community members and professionals came together and agreed that increasing substance abuse education and resources is a pressing issue in the Jewish Community. Here are a few things that they focused on:
With support from Temple Beth El they are moving forward with having an Al-Anon meeting on Tuesday nights. This will be the first 12-Step meeting held in a Jewish location in Orange County! A true step in the right direction in our community. Al-Anon is a worldwide fellowship that offers a program of recovery for the families and friends of alcoholics, whether or not the alcoholic recognizes the existence of a drinking problem or seeks help. Many people come to Al-Anon to get help in stopping someone else’s drinking. However, Al-Anon, as a program, recognizes that the friends and families of alcoholics are often traumatized themselves, and in need of emotional support and understanding.
In addition to the other programs a community member will be hosting the OC Jewish Book Study Group that will meet starting in October to discuss Rabbi Paul Steinberg’s book, “Recovery, the 12 Steps and Jewish Spirituality.” “Rabbi Steinberg has written the go-to resource for Jews in recovery, and also for those who wish to support them. His honesty about his own addiction and recovery, combined with his insights into Jewish spiritual teachings, make this a very powerful book-comforting and inspiring as well as informative and accessible.” —Louis E. Newman, Professor of Religious Studies, Carleton College. To sign up or get more information please email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Temple Beth El is making progress on planning its “Navigating the Challenges Teens Face” conference for January 2016. This event will be open to all teens, 8th-12th grade, and their parents (countywide). It will tackle various issues including substance abuse prevention and how to navigate recovery if prevention doesn’t work.
In summation, I would say there are some people out there doing a lot of good work for the community and putting their heart and soul into helping us move in the right direction, but there is still much to be done! I’m looking forward to seeing the incredible work our community is planning, which will shed light on a subject that is no longer “a shanda” or shame.
Tanya Schwied graduated from New York University, studied abroad in Israel, and currently works for the CEO and President of Jewish Federation & Family Services.