Not long ago, I wrote a post about Jewishness and addiction denial. The story focused on author Sharon Leder, who wrote “The Fix: A Father’s Secrets, A Daughter’s Search” about her dad’s secret battle with heroin.
“I hope Jewish groups, synagogues, can start conversations about the reality of addiction,” she told me at the time. “What addicts need are love and community. They need compassion.”
Now, it’s one step closer to becoming a reality with the first-ever drug and alcohol rehab center for Jews in Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood, known for its large population of Orthodox Jews. The opening is symbolic:
“We are hopeful to remove the stigma of addiction in the community so that more people can seek the help that they need,” the program director, Barbara Silverstein, told the New York Daily News.
It’s unique because so few centers focus solely on addiction as it pertains to Jews.
It seems like the tide is turning elsewhere, too, with more focus on addiction as a Jewish issue. A piece this month in the Forward titled “It’s Time to Admit That the Opioid Crisis Is Also a Jewish One” notes that, since October 2016, over 100 young people from New York’s Orthodox community alone had died from drug overdoses.
“It’s time we stopped denying that this crisis has come to us and start thinking of ways to address it,” wrote Bethany Mandel, whose own father quietly battled addiction and committed suicide. And a New York Post story earlier this year chronicled the ravages of heroin in the Hasidic community.
I thought about this the other day when my older son asked me about beer (which he pronounces “beard”).
“Is beard a grown-up drink?” he asked. I said it was.
“People get weird when they have too much beard,” he concluded. I said that was true.
The very next night, we got out of the car after camp and stepped into a strong (and I do mean strong) whiff of marijuana wafting down the street. It smelled like a Phish concert had parked itself on my curb.
“What’s that smell?” he asked. Panic.
“It’s a skunk,” I told him.
“Ew!” he yelled and ran inside.
At what point am I going to talk to him about drugs and alcohol? He’s young and isn’t at peer-pressure age quite yet. But he has encountered things, like the time he saw drunken guys bellowing at his baseball field waiting to play after the kids finished their game, or the time we had to call 911 when we saw someone passed out behind the wheel, careening through the center of our town…or when we had to leap onto the sidewalk to avoid someone passed out behind the wheel of a moving Prius on our very own quiet, leafy street, when walking back from the playground.
So he’s not immune, either. Nobody is.
And looking back, I didn’t explain the incidents well at all. I think I might have called the dude in a Prius a “bad guy” (and, in fairness, he could have run us over, which sort of does make him bad), but it’s not as simple as that. He was also clearly a drug addict. But right now my first-grader sees the world in black and white, good guys versus bad guys, right versus wrong. Addiction isn’t a moral issue, but it’s easy to paint it as one. It’s simpler than explaining or trying to understand.
At which point do we begin to teach our kids about shades of gray? At which point do we teach them that compassion also extends to supposed “bad” guys, like the guy in the Prius who nearly mowed us down? I’m not sure, but the fact that the Jewish community is beginning to push back against the stigma of drug abuse is a turning point in treating addiction with science, not shame.