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We asked 22 rabbis: What can the Jewish community do to fight the opioid epidemic?

As a part of our Rabbi Roundtable series, we brought together leading rabbis from all corners of the Jewish world to offer their thoughts on the big questions. This week, we asked our rabbis, “What can the Jewish community do to fight the opioid epidemic?” Here are their responses:

Image by Anya Ulinich

Benjamin Sendrow, Conservative, Congregation Shaarey Tefilla: My brother Duvid describes himself as an addict. I say he has 28 years of sobriety. He still attends NA meetings, usually in a church. The flip side is I asked a congregation I served in the past to host an NA meeting. The Board said no. The opioid epidemic is no different from other addictions. The first thing Jews must do is forget the myth that Shiker iz der goy, a drunk is a gentile. Pretending that addiction does not affect Jews only drives Jews in need of help and support away from their community and shames them. I Googled Jewish addiction and up came this link to a Chabad program for Jews suffering from this disease. Searches for specifically Reform and Conservative equivalents turned up nothing. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg famously said he did not care what movement you belong to as long as you’re ashamed of it. Regarding addiction treatment, my movement and the Reform movement should be ashamed.

Denise Eger, Reform, Former President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis: The opioid epidemic is raging out of control across America and yet, the Jewish community remains silent. But ask a rabbi (as you have) and we see it in our congregants and our youth who are struggling. In the last few years, death by overdose has dramatically increased and the number of young people who are doing heroin or other drugs is skyrocketing. But it is not just our youth and young adults. This epidemic is hitting Jews in their 50’s and 60’s and beyond. We need a comprehensive plan of education and rehabilitation through the denominations, federations, Hillels and yes, membership organizations like Hadassah and National Council of Jewish Women. Organizations like these could be effective in breaking the silence that surrounds this killer.

Shmuly Boteach, Orthodox, Author of “Judaism For Everyone”: The community’s role is extremely important. Judaism seeks to bring light and values to the world. The opioid epidemic results directly from the existential emptiness currently pervading material life, materialism, broken relationships and an increasingly shallow religious culture. This is leaving a void in our souls. We seek to numb the pain through opioids. This is a national emergency which must be addressed and the Jewish community, who taught the world about G-d, ethics, and existential purpose should be taking the lead.

Aaron Potek, Pluralist, Gather DC: First off, there’s no such thing as “the Jewish community.” No body (and nobody) represents all Jews, and that’s good; decentralized power allows different Jewish communities to focus on different issues. Should some be fighting the opioid epidemic? Of course. I’m not a public health expert, but it seems the focus of that fight should be on encouraging our government to treat drug addiction — of all drugs — as a disease and not a crime. But there are many other issues that are equally urgent — and time, energy and resources are limited. Like the Talmud says: “try to grab too much and you don’t grab anything.” I’m not going to say which causes should be prioritized over others. That’s up to each community to decide.

Scott Perlo, Conservative, Sixth & I Congregation: Addiction is as much a spiritual disease as it is a physical one. And while American Jews are brilliant at providing community, we’re terrible at teaching spirituality. Do you know of a Jewish place that can teach you, step by step, how to let go of your character defects and find serenity? Do you have Jewish resources that help you, practically, be of service, let go of ego, process anger, and connect to your Higher Power? Are you surrounded by Jews who join you in this work, so that you can help and support each other. If so, you are very, very lucky, for you are one of the few. Every synagogue and place of Torah should teach spiritual health as a centerpiece of its mission.

Shmuly Yanklowitz, Orthodox, Author of “Torah of the Street, Torah of the Heart”: America’s crisis with opioids is a self-inflicted wound of desperation, greed and loneliness. To fight the opioid epidemic, the Jewish community must look both into the systemic roots and into the eyes of the suffering. Our imperative is to create a culture that is respectful, tolerant, and loving, even to those who hide inner traumas. Indeed, a primary reason for the opioid crisis is due to a culture where dulled experiences are preferred over the realities of life. This lack of ability to construct meaning in life is a shame, and Jews should do all we can to combat it.

Ayelet Cohen, Conservative, New Israel Fund, NY: As responsible, involved citizens, the Jewish community should participate in efforts to confront the opioid epidemic, both by providing care and treatment and addressing root causes. Addiction is often rooted in trauma and associated shame, as Jews understand from our own experience. Judaism prescribes a compassionate response, not blame and condemnation. There are incredible voices on addiction and recovery within the Jewish community — both organizations and individuals doing important work. Yet there remains an anachronistic silence around these issues, even when so many in our communities are living this reality daily.

Shalom Lewis, Conservative, Congregation Etz Chaim: As concerned citizens, we should be aware of the opioid epidemic and work with appropriate agencies in fixing this long-ignored health abuse. However, we dare not overreact, depriving those legitimately in need of pain-reducing drugs to acquire them with minimal red tape. To provide an halachic perspective of compassion, Judaism abhors the suffering of the ill and even encourages prayer for a speedy death rather than prolonged terminal suffering.

Ari Sytner, Orthodox, Author of “The Kidney Donor’s Journey”: The simple reality is that the tragedies we have recently seen are not due to drug overdoses, rather they are the horrific result of a deeper problem. As both a rabbi and social worker, I have seen beautiful, accomplished and wholesome Jews of every denomination turn toward a variety of addictions as an escape from inner turmoil and pain. That is the true area requiring treatment. Community leaders must speak about the dangers of drugs and alcohol. Additionally and perhaps more importantly is removing the stigmas associated with therapy and encourage constituents to seek help in coping with life’s immense stress.

Avram Mlotek, Orthodox, Co-Founder of Base Hillel: Before reciting the morning Shema, traditional liturgy asks that “we never feel shame — v’lo nevosh l’olam va’ed.” This ethos should govern our communities in the way we tackle the opioid epidemic, eating disorders, cyber bullying, sex and drug addiction, alcoholism, suicide and mental health illnesses. Jews are not exempt from the plethora of plagues that harm broader society. From support groups to rabbis speaking from the pulpit, it is incumbent upon our Jewish communities to mobilize our financial and spiritual resources to ensure that every Jew is counted and cared for.

Mitchell Wohlberg, Orthodox, Beth Tfiloh Congregation: The opioid crisis is a problem that all of American society must confront. From a Jewish perspective, the problem is that often our community thinks we are immune to society’s ills. There may have been a time when that was so, but not anymore. Is the tendency within elements of the Jewish community to close their eyes and “sweep under the carpet” these issues so that we shouldn’t look bad in the eyes of the Gentiles? We did this in regard to Jewish alcoholism, drug use and pedophilia. Jews paid a horrible price for this attitude — lives were lost. We dare not make the same mistake again.

Adam Jacobs, Orthodox, Aish Center: Opioid use is often the result of an overall sense of futility and meaninglessness. The more people are connected to the inherent beauty and meaning in creation, the less need they will have for the shot of temporary (and counterfeit) pleasure that the user gets. Judaism offers in-depth appreciation of reality. As such, the community’s role should be based in getting people the treatment they need in conjunction with the offer of an exploration of a way of viewing the world that holds the potential of obviating the need to escape from it.

Rachel Barenblat, Renewal, Author of “The Velveteen Rabbi”: Our first responsibility is recognizing that addiction knows no boundary and the opioid epidemic impacts not only “them” but also “us.” Our second responsibility is remembering that all human beings are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of the divine: including those who struggle with addiction. It’s our job to respond to the suffering of those who are addicted, and to help ensure compassionate and safe treatment and care. It’s also our job to wrestle with the choices our nation has made that lead to the conditions in which that epidemic flourishes, and to pursue wise, thoughtful, and just policy changes.

Gil Student, Orthodox, Editor of I am sure that the causes of the opioid epidemic lie on many planes: social, medical, economic and more. We need to listen to the different alternatives for far-sighted solutions. However, rabbis are not experts in policy decisions. We add value by nurturing a supportive community, starting with strong families, continuing with loving schools and synagogues. A strong family and community will save some from addiction and help others survive. Addicts — whether recovering or not — need our love, support and encouragement. And our prayer. When they are ready for our guidance and instruction, we will be there. Until then, we will be praying for them and loving them.

Adina Lewittes, Conservative, Sha’ar Communities: We should become hooked on compassion. We should fixate on removing the stigma of dependency, on connecting people to treatment and on teaching hope in the possibility of rehabilitation. We should be relentless in building communities that are educated about substance abuse and welcoming of those who struggle with it. We should be consumed by our mission to model productive, purposeful living, helping people find their peace not in the darkness of denial or escape, but in the light of love and possibility.

Uri Pilichowski, Orthodox, Yeshivat Migdal Hatorah: Like any illness that plagues the community, the Jewish people have a responsibility to play its role in helping those who need assistance. Our Sages told us that we must help those in our community and the larger community with its problems. The extent of the resources and how much effort should be put into the problem is each community’s decision based on how much they can give and how many other problems it is dealing with at the same time.

Rachel Timoner, Reform, Congregation Beth Elohim: Step one is loving our families who are affected, and bringing the stories out from the shadows in the Jewish community. Secrecy and shame are compounding the suffering. By leading in this way, we will not only comfort the bereaved among us, but also educate the vulnerable.

Jill Jacobs , Conservative, T’ruah: The opioid epidemic, like the crack and other drug epidemics, is a public health crisis — not a criminal justice issue — and should be treated as such. Jewish law includes a strong imperative for the community to care for the health needs of its members. Rabbi Shlomo Goren, former Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel, wrote, “The government may not excuse itself from responsibility toward the sick since the government is responsible for the health of the people.” The Jewish community should be advocating for the protection of healthcare, and for funding for the establishment of effective recovery programs, as well as for economic reforms that change the conditions that cause too many to fall into drug use.

Yitzchok Adlerstein, Orthodox, Cross-Currents: As is generally true, the first question we ought to ask, and the area of our greatest involvement, should be our own community. While we should take part in the general campaign to educate people about the dangers of addiction and of casual “sharing” of prescription drugs, we need to double down on the specific causes of opioid addiction among some Jewish young people. We need to overcome the reluctance of some to realize that no part of the Jewish community has escaped the scourges of addiction, abuse, bullying and more.

Adam Chalom, Humanistic, International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism: Most American Jews do not live in West Virginia or rural Ohio, locations struck by the opioid epidemic. Yet our loyalties and responsibilities go beyond our “tribe.” We do not live in an ark that can survive a flood of misery and destruction. And this plague affects our own too, even if we hesitate to admit it. If we love our neighbors as ourselves and sympathize with the stranger from our own experience, then we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers even if their people is not our people and their god is not ours. Modern plagues require human action.

Rebecca W. Sirbu, Post-Denominational, Rabbis Without Borders: The first step is for the Jewish community to admit that the opioid epidemic is a problem. It’s a problem in our own commutates and in our nation at large. Once people acknowledge the problem openly, we can begin to talk about it and make a plan of action. We need to invite trained counselors and educators into our communities to begin the conversation about drug use, abuse and the mental health issues that surround it. Then, we need to make sure that every individual or family who wants treatment knows where to go to access it, and has the means available to seek it. We can advocate for health insurance to cover all treatment both for the user and his or her family.

Asher Lopatin, Orthodox, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School: The opioid crisis is killing more people than the AIDS epidemic did at its height. As a religion that stresses the sanctity of human life, Judaism must be at the forefront of confronting this. The Jewish community and its leaders can help by encouraging people to speak up about how opioid addiction has killed people they know and love, and by advocating for more government spending on education, research, and treatment. Our leaders must spread the word that the Jewish community is suffering from this epidemic as much as the rest of society.


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