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Drug addiction took my congregant’s life. We can stop others from suffering in silence

Having this conversation is going to save a life — and likely more than one.

Nearly 100,000 people died from a drug overdose in the United States last year, a dramatic increase from 2019. While the stress of the pandemic likely drove many to despair, it’s also a fact, proven over and over again, that stigma kills.

Though it’s uncomfortable, we need to start talking about addiction more openly in our Jewish communities — and start taking meaningful steps to help those in pain truly heal.

I didn’t spend much time thinking about addiction until it hit close to home.

As rabbi of the Chabad Intown community in Atlanta, I got to know a delightful young man named Jeff. Though we didn’t know it at the time, he was in recovery from a terrible disease known as Substance Use Disorder. As part of his spiritual 12-Step recovery path, Jeff began to join our services on Shabbat. I watched Jeff embrace his tradition, study Torah, pray and find a spiritual connection in his Judaism.

His sudden death on a Shabbat morning in 2018 devastated the community, and solidified my view that stigma was at least partially responsible for his death. Jeff was a beloved member of our community; his funeral was attended by 50 Chabad Intown members — and 150 people from his recovery community.

Although our community had grown close to him, I had no idea that Jeff struggled with addiction until it took his life. Who knows what opportunities may have been open to him if Jeff had been more comfortable sharing his struggles with those in our community? Did he know that I would have thought him a hero? Could he have been assured that those around him wouldn’t think of him as a bum who had fallen in with bad buddies?

Losing a loved one to an overdose is deep pain that will likely never go away. It was hard for me and my community, and I can’t even imagine the pain that Jeff’s parents and sister experience each and every day.

It was this pain — along with the inspiration and support of Jeff’s parents, Jon and Veronica Kraus — that led me to start Jeff’s Place. Located within our synagogue building, Jeff’s Place is a physical space where people in recovery meet for regular 12-Step meetings and where the broader community can attend addiction and recovery awareness events. Jeff’s Place also connects people who are struggling and looking for direction to the support they need, as well as sharing resources with those at the beginning of their treatment.

To my pleasant surprise, I have found that individuals and their loved ones in the recovery community in particular welcomed more open conversation around this topic.

The recovery community taught me a lot as well; I’ve started to incorporate some of the wisdom, teachings and parallels from the 12 Steps program into my Shabbat sermons, classes and individual discussions. At first, I’d get some funny stares. But as time has progressed, I’ve found that people are increasingly willing to explore what these teachings mean for them in their own spiritual journey.

Removing the stigma around speaking about addiction begins with the basic recognition that addiction is a disease — and a human response to something we’ve all experienced.

Can you conjure the feeling in your stomach you have when you are not at ease?

For me, it may feel like an overwhelming Sunday afternoon in August when I’m juggling getting my tired kids home from camp (and PCR-tested), traveling to a family wedding, and planning High Holidays for my community amidst the wild card of the delta variant.

Now imagine these feelings magnified a thousand fold, and you’re close to the pain that many addicts live with every day.

For many of us, our discomfort is manageable. But for someone struggling with an addiction, the pain is overwhelming — and if not treated, will kill them. Addiction is a disease that changes a person’s brain and body in powerful ways, not a weakness to be embarrassed about.

I have always had empathy for people who struggle with substance abuse; because of Jeff, not only do I empathize, but I also understand addiction a bit more than I did before.

Alongside therapy and often medication, recovery programs also often help people with addiction find something larger to anchor themselves in. Step two in the popular 12-step program is “believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

Normalizing the conversation around addiction is the first step to removing the shame and stigma that will allow people to do so in our communities. Educating ourselves and our fellow communal leaders about this disease is paramount.

While the privacy granted to attendees of Alcoholics Anonymous is a cornerstone of the program, those suffering from addiction in our communities should not have to do so anonymously. The more people I speak to about addiction, the more people are comfortable telling me about how this disease has affected them or a loved one directly.

On account of the pandemic, our 12-Step spiritual classes went virtual. Over 40 people from the broader Jewish community felt comfortable enough to show their faces and share their journey of addiction and recovery, anchored in spirituality with one another. Over 100 people attended a Clinton Foundation-sponsored community event as we explored the 5th Step — admitting “to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs” — with Rabbi Shais Taub, author of “God of Our Understanding.”

While my focus is on our local Jewish community, the work we are doing has had an impact on the broader community as well. On account of our work with Jeff’s Place, I was chosen to join an interfaith task force on the opioid crisis for the city of Atlanta sponsored by the Clinton Foundation from Fall 2019 until late 2020.

Members of the Clinton Foundation participated in the above-mentioned program with Rabbi Taub, and the director of the Clinton Foundation’s Opioid Task Force joined my class on the 12 Steps — and encouraged members of the Task Force to join as well.

This past week, I attended the National Jewish Retreat. I’m proud that the second day was a full-day Spirituality and Wellness Summit where the topic of addiction was spoken about openly. Local clergy, Jewish leaders and mental health professionals explored ideas around spirituality as a means of addiction recovery. Individuals shared their own journeys and helped normalize the conversation.

A highlight of the program was a 15-minute talk offered by Patrick Kennedy, an activist for the recovery community, via Zoom. Kennedy told those gathered that, in his view, spirituality is what happens when we are proactive in dealing with our inner challenges instead of being reactive.

Each unintended overdose is a tragedy, but it’s one that you and I can help prevent.

It will require organizing more Jewish conferences that dedicate time to discussing mental health, building physical spaces like Jeff’s Place, educating ourselves about the disease of addiction, and working to normalize speaking about addiction in synagogues, around our Shabbat tables, from the pulpit, and with our loved ones.

I’m confident that conversations like this will not only make our communities stronger, but help save countless lives.

To contact the author, email [email protected].


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