September 24, 2018

‘Jewish House’ Helps Reconnect Men With Sobriety and Judaism

From left: Michael Stanislavsky, manager of Jewish House; Sammy Clifford, whose father founded the facility; and Jewish House resident David N.

Isaac didn’t have a bar mitzvah when he turned 13. But last April, at the age of 39, he went through the rite of passage at Jewish House Recovery Center, a sober-living home for men, located in West Los Angeles. The ceremony was led by Sammy Clifford, who operates the house with his father, David Clifford.

Isaac arrived at Jewish House four months ago, after spending six months in the Los Angeles County Jail and 18 months at a firefighting camp run by the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Charged with “drug-related things,” which he declined to elaborate on, Isaac told the Journal: “Everything stemmed from poverty and drugs.”

Isaac (whose last name has not been included to protect his identity, as with other Jewish House residents mentioned in this story) said he has been sober for six weeks. “I am slowly having time to heal here and I am having some serenity here and I am getting into Torah here and it’s healing my past,” he said. 

Isaac is one of 12 residents currently living at Jewish House. All the men here have struggled with drug and alcohol abuse, have already participated in some form of rehabilitation program and are transitioning back to their everyday lives. 

Residents usually stay for six to nine months, or until “they feel confident both emotionally and financially to make the move to complete independence,” Sammy Clifford said. “No one is pushed out.”

Sammy and David Clifford founded the center, originally called Jewish House Sober Living, in 2016. (More than 30 years ago, David Clifford, a native of Australia, co-founded a similar facility in Sydney.) In January, when they applied for nonprofit status for their L.A. facility, the Cliffords changed the name to Jewish House Recovery Center, now casually known as Jewish House.

“My mission is to help people maintain their sobriety,” said David Clifford, who is 66-years-old and an Orthodox Jew.

 “I am slowly having time to heal here and I am having some serenity here and I am getting into Torah here and it’s healing my past.” — Isaac

David Clifford runs the facility largely on his own. He rents the house from his daughter. And Sammy helps with fundraising. Jewish House is still in the process of obtaining nonprofit status, and the Cliffords hope to attract community support for their efforts. 

Los Angeles has two comprehensive Jewish rehabilitation centers: Chabad Treatment Center in Mid-City and Beit T’Shuvah in Culver City. For people who have completed those programs, Jewish House provides a place of transition where its residents receive support in living sober before they return to life on their own. Most of the 12 residents currently staying at Jewish House underwent treatment at the Chabad Treatment Center.

Statistics point to a real need for facilities such as Jewish House. According to the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC), more than 63,000 people in the U.S. died from drug overdoses in 2016. The CDC also reported that, on average, 115 Americans die every day from opioid overdoses.

“It’s today’s Holocaust,” David Clifford said.

Jewish House is a second act for David Clifford, who earned his living in the clothing business before opening the facility in Los Angeles. His desire to make the facility affordable for residents, however, makes it  unsustainable without private donations and financial support. While many sober-living homes charge more than $2,000 per month and show little compassion for residents if they relapse, he said, Jewish House charges $750 per month and doesn’t automatically kick out residents if they fall back into addiction. Michael Stanislavsky, the house manager, said only two or three residents have relapsed in the past six months. 

Stanislavsky, 40, knows how challenging it is to maintain sobriety. He grew up in New York in a Russian-Jewish family, attending birthday parties at Russian restaurants with easy access to alcohol. He was a teenager in the nightclub scene when the drugs ecstasy and ketamine, also known as Special-K, were popular. 

By the time he was 16, Stanislavsky was a high school dropout with a drinking problem. In his mid-20s, he discovered the prescription pain medication Oxycodone. After five years of taking Oxycodone, he began experiencing panic attacks. A doctor prescribed him the anti-anxiety drug Xanax. At age 30, while driving in New York at 70 mph, he fell asleep at the wheel and his car collided with the back of a dump truck parked on the side of the road. The crash fractured his back and neck and nearly killed him.

But even that near-death experience was not enough to put him on a path toward recovery. He spent several more years using drugs and became homeless before finally moving to Los Angeles in 2016, where he checked into the Chabad Treatment Center.

“I am extremely grateful to Chabad,” Stanislavsky said. “I wish I had a picture of what I looked like when I did my intake at Chabad compared to now. You would not recognize me.” 

While Jewish House does not turn away non-Jews, David Clifford prefers an environment where everyone is Jewish. He believes that approach helps build a familial bond among the residents that helps them maintain their sobriety.

“It’s a good family here,” he said. “A fellowship is an important part of recovery.” 

Stanislavsky agreed. “By being here, being in a smaller atmosphere, we all kind of help each other,” he said. “We go to meetings together, we eat together, we have house meetings all the time.”

The house has five bedrooms, three upstairs and two in a converted pool house. The master bedroom accommodates four residents.

Isaac, who shares one of the pool-house bedrooms, said that after his release from prison he bounced around different sober-living homes until a representative of the Aleph Institute, which supports at-risk youth, referred him to David Clifford. Since coming to Jewish House, Clifford has helped him get a job at a kosher restaurant. 

“It’s exactly what I need right now,” Isaac said, “and it’s working out great.”

His left forearm displays a Star of David tattoo he got when he was 18. He said it was a way for him to express his Jewish heritage, even though Judaism played only a small role in his upbringing. But at Jewish House, he said, he has discovered how Judaism can help him maintain his sobriety. Every morning, he studies Torah with Sammy Clifford.

“It’s opened me up,” Isaac said, “and I have hope again.”

Another resident, 36-year-old David N., started smoking marijuana when he was 15. As he got older, be began taking the pain medication Percocet. After he broke his foot, he got a prescription for more than he needed and soon became addicted.

“I took advantage,” he said. “They didn’t catch on until it was a problem.” 

Like Stanislavsky, David sought treatment at the Chabad Treatment Center. He has been living at Jewish House now for eight months. He works on a laptop on the first floor of the house, selling electronics over the internet. His two children, ages 11 and 6, live on the East Coast with his ex-wife, but he said the guys in the house with him are like a second family. “It’s nice to be with people who know your roots,” he said.

Isaac concurred. “It’s like going from no home to being home, having loss of freedom to freedom again, having no family to having family again,” he said. “It’s been amazing, and it’s saved my life.”