Rifka used to believe that Judaism would insulate her from the addictions that plagued her father. The child of a Christian father and a Jewish mother who divorced when she was a small child, she enrolled in an Orthodox day school with the support of her mother, became devoutly observant and threw himself into community activities. However, her struggle with anxiety and the pressures of high school later led to her turning to alcohol. She was caught stealing alcohol from a synagogue, but school administrators did not comprehend the severity of her problems; they merely sent her to a one-day alcohol-awareness program. By the time she entered a post-graduate yeshiva in Jerusalem, Rifka — who withheld her real name out of sensitivity to her family — was pouring liquor into her morning orange juice.
Now a 23-year-old student at New York’s Hunter College, Rifka told the Forward her story on a recent afternoon in the Manhattan offices of Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons and Significant Others (known as JACS), a long-standing peer support program for teens and adults recovering from addiction. The Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services run JACS.
Rifka moved to New York from her hometown outside of St. Louis in 2003 to participate in the program, in addition to Alcoholics Anonymous, and since then, she said, has learned to “live life on life’s terms.” She currently works as an emergency medical technician and at a group home for disabled adults, on top of her full-time studies at Hunter.
Despite prevailing in her struggle with alcoholism, Rifka regrets that the adults in her life were not better equipped to help her. “In high school, I knew I could always rely on a particular rabbi in my community,” she said. “He answered my suicide calls and drove to get me out of dangerous situations, but I really think the whole situation was bigger than he could have known how to deal with.” But at her yeshiva in Israel, with her problems worsening, her calls for help were not answered. “I tried to let the rabbi know that something was up with me,” Rifka recalled. “And he said, ‘You’re crazy, get out of my place.’”
Now, Orthodox day schools in the New York metropolitan area are establishing a consortium — informally called the Safe Schools Committee — aimed at reaching out to students like Rifka, whether they are merely thinking about using alcohol or drugs or have progressed to full-blown addiction. More than 30 schools, kindergartens through high schools — including the Frisch School in Paramus, N.J.; the Modern Orthodox Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway, in Lawrence, N.Y., and Jewish Educational Center in Elizabeth, N.J. — have joined the effort, spearheaded by the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York and by the Orthodox Union, which represents some 1,000 congregations across the country.
While there are no official statistics for the prevalence of substance abuse among Orthodox teenagers, more than half of all teenagers nationwide have tried some illegal drug by the end of high school, and about three-quarters have tried alcohol, according to a survey conducted in 2004 by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Thirty percent of high school seniors reported that they had been drunk in the last 30 days.
This past November, the issue of substance abuse among Orthodox students was splashed across the mainstream press in New York when police raided a drug- and alcohol-fueled party given by an 18-year-old yeshiva student at his parents’ house in Livingston, N.J., where 42 people — most of whom were students at Jewish day schools, some as young as 14 — were arrested.
The public nature of the incident led to a newfound willingness in the Orthodox community to confront the issue openly. In the wake of the Livingston party, the O.U. launched a communitywide effort, dubbed “Safe Homes, Safe Shuls, Safe Schools,” to address drug and alcohol abuse in all segments of the community. Last January, the O.U. called on its member congregations to eliminate from their synagogues the informal drinking circles known as Kiddush Clubs, during which congregants slip out of Saturday morning services to drink scotch and socialize. (It was in a similar setting, Rifka told the Forward, that she started drinking as a child, sharing shots with her uncle in synagogue.)
More recently, the O.U. and the Board of Jewish Education have turned their attention to school-based efforts. A letter sent to parents earlier this month from the two groups stated that “within the past year alone, the yeshiva world and the general Jewish community have been rocked by unsettling stories of young men and women affected by the influence of drugs and alcohol. Although we have thought ourselves immune from the many dangers of contemporary society, our children are now confronting some of the same issues as their secular counterparts.” Parents were invited to attend a half-day conference coming up in November that will address various issues of adolescence; a similar conference held last spring attracted 850 parents.
Meanwhile, the Safe Schools Committee, which hopes to finalize its plans over the coming school year, is working to create a uniform substance abuse curriculum across Orthodox day schools (many of which do not currently have one at all), as well as standardized policies for dealing with abuse. The goal, according to Frank Buchweitz, director of community services and special projects for the O.U., is for schools to “support each other, rather than have a kid who has problems escape to another school.” A team of counselors has been hired to work in the schools, beginning this fall.
Orthodox schools elsewhere also have stepped up efforts to combat substance abuse recently. Over the 2003-2004 school year, Sephardic Orthodox day schools in Brooklyn launched a drug-and-alcohol education curriculum for grades five through 12. Roughly 3,000 students
now spend one period each week, for the entire school year, on these and related issues. Project SAFE (Sephardic Addiction and Family Education) conducts the program, which also provides counseling, addiction specialists, and support groups for children and adults.
A dozen Orthodox high schools in Los Angeles launched a substance-abuse consortium four years ago, and will expand services during the coming school year. Dubbed the “Mandatory Assistance Program,” or MAP, the program is run by the Aleinu Counseling Center at the Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, which already was providing counseling services to the schools. As in New York, the coordinated program emerged out of a sense that individual schools did not know how to cope with students who were using drugs or alcohol and were also afraid that by stepping up their efforts individually, they might be labeled as problem schools.
Now, when a child in the consortium is suspected of using drugs or alcohol, the student’s school automatically contacts MAP, which does a comprehensive assessment of the child, including a drug test, an interview, a parent interview and a standardized psychological test. MAP then designs a customized treatment plan for the child — which could range from two sessions of awareness training to intensive therapy — the completion of which is mandatory for the child to remain in the school. For the coming academic year, MAP has hired a full-time counselor to monitor the progress of each child, as well as institute a regular substance abuse education program and a parent-child counseling program in the schools
The comprehensiveness of the MAP program helps ensure that children steer clear of dangerous behaviors and get help for the deeper problems that often plague them, according to Debbie Fox, director of the Aleinu Family Resource Center.
“One-hundred percent of [children we assess] have significant family problems,” Fox said. “All the ones that we do the interviews on, we hear about some pretty significant issues: the loss of a parent, divorce in a family, very significant financial issues, domestic violence, child abuse — there’s always a sad story, there really is.”
According to Lewis Abrams, executive director of the Yatzkan Center — the only residential treatment center specifically for Jewish teenagers, which opened in the spring of 2001 in Mt. Vernon, N.Y. — substance abuse affects the entire family, and therefore the entire family must be included in the recovery process. But he said that children with problems can just as easily come from good families as from dysfunctional ones.
Indeed, for a certain number of both teenagers and adults, what starts out as a seemingly innocent attempt to have a good time can spiral out of control.
“One of the major points we make is that when somebody is experimenting with substances… nobody believes they’re going to cross over this line,” Abrams said. “Everybody who crosses over the line has that happen in a very innocent, naive kind of subtle way,” and once there’s a problem, it can be difficult to ask for help because “there’s a tremendous shame and denial and guilt and all sort of rationalizations in the Jewish community. When it comes to a situation when we need help, it’s sometimes difficult because historically and culturally we’re not in that role. But we’re learning about it.”
For more information, contact:
JACS (Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons and Significant Others)
The Yatzkan Center