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100,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2021. How should Jewish communities respond?

Overdose deaths rose 15 percent between 2020 and 2021, according to recently released federal data.

The U.S. recorded more than 100,000 deaths from drug overdoses in 2021 — more than any previous year, in a sobering milestone for an epidemic that has claimed more than 1 million lives in two decades.

According to new data published by the CDC, overdose deaths rose 30 percent between 2019 and 2020 and 15 percent between 2020 and 2021. In part, those numbers reflect the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, which for many has reduced access to treatment, strained mental health and amplified social isolation. 

The drug supply has also grown more lethal, with fentanyl — which is 100 times more potent than morphine — increasingly used to lace counterfeit pills. Deaths involving synthetic opioids, primarily fentanyl, accounted for 71,000 overdose deaths in 2021, compared to 58,000 in 2020.

Rabbi Eliyahu Schusterman, a Chabad rabbi in Atlanta who founded a support group for those in recovery and their loved ones, emphasized in an interview that no single bill, policy or organization is the silver bullet for the multifaceted opioid crisis. 

“There’s no magic thing that everyone’s going to start doing to solve the problem,” Schusterman said. But, he added, we can foster a culture of healing by “helping people live more deeply and more fully and being there for each other.” 

As experts warn that the overdose epidemic shows no signs of slowing down — “2022 will probably be as horrible as 2021 was, quite possibly worse,” Keith Humphreys, an addiction and drug policy researcher at Stanford University, told The Washington Post — Schusterman spoke with us about his top principles for Jews seeking to address addiction in their communities.

1. Talk about addiction more openly

The first step, Schusterman said, must be normalizing discussing addiction and mental health issues in synagogues, around Shabbat tables and with loved ones. “Addiction is not a moral failing — it’s a disease brought on, and exacerbated by, trauma,” he said.

Working to break the stigma around addiction, he said, will encourage people to open up about how it has affected them or their loved ones, which will in turn help those suffering feel less isolated.

2. Make synagogues a site of support and respite

While addiction should be discussed openly, Schusterman said, those suffering from it also need privacy — which, for Jews, can mean making sure they have access to support groups in familiar settings.

Some 70 people participate weekly in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings through Jeff’s Place, the program Schusterman founded after Jeff Kraus, an 18-year-old member of his congregation, died in November 2018. It, and Jewish programs like it, give Jews struggling with addiction an alternative to the church basements most often associated with programs like AA.

We should “move away from the fear” that 12-step recovery programs, which emphasize believing in a Higher Power, are “some kind of Christian teaching,” Schusterman said. “It’s universal teachings that are very much aligned with Torah teachings.”

“As a Jewish people, we have a very special, deep relationship with Hashem,” he said, “and we have to bring that into the conversation.”

3. Teach resilience

As overdose deaths rise among young people, Schusterman said, “we have to empower parents and educators to help build resilience in children.”

Young people must be equipped with both the understanding that life has challenges and pains and the ability to validate their own emotions and experiences. For physical and emotional pain, he said, many of us learn to turn to quick fixes to avoid dealing with the underlying issues. But “suppressing the pain,” Schusterman warned, “only works for so long for so many people.”

4. Support the people who know what they’re doing 

Jeff’s Place was founded in the spirit of collaboration, which speaks to the importance of uniting parents, educators, clergy members, clinicians and community leaders around spiritual practices to facilitate recovery. 

With this in mind, it can be valuable to learn from or join Jewish organizations promoting mental health.

Schusterman pointed to The Wellness Institute — part of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement’s educational arm — as a group that does “tremendous work” for youth worldwide. Jewish Family Service organizations, which provide counseling and other forms of assistance, are another potential place to start, he said.

5. Treat others with empathy

While rural areas have been hit particularly hard by the overdose crisis during the pandemic, it’s important to acknowledge that addiction is everywhere — and that it exists in our communities, Schusterman said. Each of us, he said, should be ready to say something if something seems amiss, and check in with friends and neighbors.

This practice can be difficult for Jews, he said, because like “any minority group,” we have a “culture of self-protection.” In his eyes, that culture can lead to a belief that we are immune to addiction and mental illness.

But “we must move away from the notion that we are perfect and our communities our perfect,” he said, “and live much more compassionately and authentically.”

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