Can moderation join abstinence as an addiction therapy?


In 2001, as 25-year-old Adi Jaffe lay on the pavement in the intersection of Beverly Drive and Olympic Boulevard following a devastating motorcycle crash, his broken tibia and fibula were not his biggest problem. Rather, that would be the amount of cocaine he was carrying (and selling), which could easily have netted him 20 to 30 years in prison.

Unable to walk and in need of immediate medical attention, Jaffe was arrested on the spot. 

Thirteen years later, Jaffe is now executive director and co-founder of Alternatives Addiction Treatment, an outpatient rehab clinic focused on helping substance abusers, primarily alcoholics, who are losing — or have lost — control over their lives. 

Jaffe said in an interview in the center’s Beverly Hills office that he resisted entering a treatment program until his attorney informed him that if he did not admit to being a methamphetamine addict (which he was) and commit to a rehab program, he would face a long prison sentence. 

The Tel Aviv native entered a 12-step program while serving a one-year sentence at Los Angeles County Men’s Central Jail. After sobering up, Jaffe earned a doctorate in psychology from UCLA and is now a seasoned researcher and clinician, specializing in understanding how people fall into addiction. He’s also been successful at helping them recover.

One catch, though: While Jaffe himself went through a 12-step program — the consensus go-to treatment for overcoming addiction — and abstained for three years before slowly reincorporating alcohol into his life, he now believes that telling everyone with any dependence on alcohol that they must never drink again — a core tenet of the 12 steps — does more harm than good. 

Jaffe, along with clinical psychologist and recovered alcoholic Marc Kern, runs Alternatives, with treatment centers in Beverly Hills and Irvine. Their program operates on the notion that moderation, not abstinence, is often a preferable treatment option for alcoholics, or at least those in the early stages of dependence. For 40 years, the idea that people with drinking problems serious enough to need treatment would be able to learn to stop at just a few drinks has generated fierce debate and has failed to gain a foothold in the mainstream addiction recovery world. 

Today, Jaffe’s program, and a growing number of programs like it in the United States and Canada, is offering the option of a middle path, indicating a sea change may be developing, however slowly.

“Most people who struggle with drugs and alcohol are actually not those stereotypical addicts who need lifelong abstinence,” Jaffe said. “Most people don’t fall into that bucket; they just get dropped into it for lack of another bucket.”

The Alternatives program and other “controlled use” centers offer both a moderation and an abstinence track — the former, Jaffe believes and research indicates, is in fact more effective for alcoholics with severe dependence than abstinence tracks.

Jaffe likens the abstinence-only approach to a doctor advising a patient experiencing foot pain to amputate below the knee — the solution, he believes, may be an overreaction to the problem, and the all-or-nothing approach can scare away people who need treatment but aren’t willing to commit to forgoing alcohol for the rest of their lives.

“You really don’t want to go for the hardest, most restrictive version of treatment first,” Jaffe said. “Most diabetics don’t go to daily insulin right away.”

Jaffe and Kern opened Alternatives in 2013 and have so far graduated 29 people. According to Jaffe, of the clients still sending information to the center, 12 are now abstaining and eight to 10 are drinking in moderation.

In place of the 12-step model, which emphasizes an addict’s powerlessness over alcohol and the need for a God-based, spiritual element in recovery, Jaffe’s clients work on mindfulness training, neuro-feedback tests and other advanced science-based treatments that seek to change the habit-forming parts of an addict’s brain.

In their first week at the clinic, which Jaffe terms “boot camp,” clients have 32 hours of one-on-one time with Jaffe, Kern and their team of seven doctors, clinicians and mindfulness experts. The moderation track lasts six months and the abstinence track has both a two-month and six-month option — drinking with control, the co-founders believe, takes more work than not drinking at all. 

Following the initial week, treatments consist of 10 to 15 hours per week doing neurological feedback exercises, therapy sessions and group activities such as hikes, movies and beach visits.

A central social element of Western cultures and widely available in most countries, alcohol’s appeal is not far behind that of sex.So, Jaffe asks, why are alcohol addicts and sex addicts treated so differently? 

“Imagine for a second a treatment for people with sex issues that would dictate that they have to abstain for the rest of their life — nobody would ever go there,” Jaffe said. “But we do it to people with [alcohol] addiction all the time.”

A five-year study published in 2012 by Columbia University’s National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse found that only about 10 percent of Americans older than 12 who have drug or alcohol addiction seek treatment. 

Modern research on the abstinence-only versus moderation debate dates back to a 1970s study of 20 patients at Patton State Hospital in San Bernardino, in which researchers Mark and Linda Sobell concluded that alcoholics who are taught controlled drinking techniques functioned better after two years than alcoholics taught to abstain. 

Although their study provoked a harsh response from researchers who believed in the 12-step model and accused the Sobells of publishing exaggerated or fraudulent claims, numerous recent studies have indicated a moderation approach can be more effective both in getting problem drinkers to enter into treatment and in keeping them from falling into a state of severe drinking. The Sobells currently run a recovery treatment center at Nova Southeastern University in Florida that bills itself as a “non-12-step alternative treatment.”

A 2006 study by the health research group Cochrane examined data from 40 years of worldwide alcohol treatment and found no evidence that “unequivocally demonstrated the effectiveness of” the 12-step approach in reducing dependence. A 2001-2002 epidemiological study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism looked at 43,000 adult alcohol abusers in the United States and found that among the 35.9 percent of people considered “fully recovered” after one year, 18.2 percent were abstaining and 17.7 percent were “low-risk” (i.e. moderate) drinkers.

A major shift in how medical and treatment professionals view alcoholism is illustrated in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (known as the DSM-V), released in 2013, which paints alcohol addiction as a spectrum — people with some form of addiction can either be mildly, moderately or severely dependent, which is a more segmented view of alcoholism than had been accepted in previous editions of the DSM. “Historically it was like an on and off switch,” Kern said. “Either you were addicted or you were not addicted.”

Mark Sobell, in a telephone interview from Florida, said that most existing alcohol treatment programs are geared toward people with severe dependence, who, he said, typically want to abstain and not moderate. They are not created with an eye on those who, as the DSM-V puts it, have mild or moderate alcohol problems — which Sobell said constitutes the majority of people with any form of drinking disorder.

Moderation advocates often point to the reportedly low success rate of 12-step abstinence-focused programs (estimates range from 5 to 10 percent) as one reason programs like Jaffe’s should, at the very least, not be considered taboo. Wayne Skinner, a clinical director at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), indicated in a telephone interview that the uniform abstinence treatment in the United States does not comport with the reality of alcoholism as a “continuum.”

“The treatment ideology in America is very strongly oriented to, ‘If you’ve got a problem you’re an alcoholic, and if you’re an alcoholic you should be abstinent for the rest of your life,’ ” Skinner said, adding that this ideology isn’t particularly helpful given that “the batting average of the abstinent-only approach hasn’t been terrific.” Skinner’s center at CAMH will accept patients who cannot commit to abstinence, or even moderation, but are concerned enough with their own bad habits to seek out treatment.

“[Moderation advocates] are not against people being abstinent, they just want to introduce the idea that for some people it might be possible to moderate your drinking,” Skinner said. “People who have less severe problems often do well with a moderation approach.”

Skeptics of controlled drinking programs, which includes the majority of clinicians in addiction recovery, say that moderation is simply not possible when it comes to a true addict. 

Peter Nathan is a clinical psychologist with an extensive background in alcoholism treatment and research, who once, but no longer, believed that controlled drinking would provide a major breakthrough in alcoholism treatment. He said that, like many junior alcoholism researchers, he began his career doubting the efficacy of 12-step programs, a treatment method he has since embraced.

“At the end of the ’70s I pretty much had come to the conclusion that it was not responsible to continue to provide this kind of treatment, because the data did not suggest that chronic alcoholics were able to get better, were able to resume a pattern of responsible controlled drinking,” Nathan said in a telephone interview. “It’s amazing that it’s still around.”

Distinguishing between alcoholics and those who get “carried away now and again,” Constance Scharff, director of addiction research at the Cliffside Malibu treatment center, believes problem drinkers can benefit from moderation treatment. “You might be able to learn some skills to keep your drinking in check,” she said.

However, while Scharff, like Nathan, considers moderation treatment a “disservice” for people with severe dependence on alcohol, she also does not consider the 12 steps to be an effective treatment method, notwithstanding the valuable camaraderie and support that Alcoholics Anonymous provides. 

“Twelve-step programs, I say it publicly and I’m sorry I have to, that is not treatment — that is not rehab,” she said. “What would we say about a cancer treatment that only had a 10 percent success rate? We’d say that’s terrible.”

Cliffside Malibu’s treatment regimen, which is highly influenced by Scharff’s research, focuses on the structure of an addict’s brain, which, she said, more or less necessitates a lifetime of abstinence if they want to lead productive lives. She pointed to actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died last February from a heroin overdose. He had relapsed in 2012 after remaining clean for 23 years. 

“Philip Seymour Hoffman is a great example of that. He hadn’t been using for 23 years, but his brain structure and biochemistry said, ‘You know you’re using like you used to use 23 years ago,’ ” Scharff said. “When you go back into addiction, that old structure of addiction is still there, and it just wipes people out.”

At a point in the abstinence versus moderation debate, terminology becomes a key factor, with some, like Scharff, saying that a “true” alcoholic cannot control his or her drinking, implying that those with some level of dependence who can nevertheless moderate are not technically alcoholics.

“When you tell an alcoholic that they can moderate, you’re lying to them,” Scharff said. Another point Scharff added is that addicts sometimes think, usually mistakenly, that their addiction won’t transfer between substances and that if they abstain say, from meth, they can try to use something else in moderation.

Jaffe, who said that for the past eight years he has consumed alcohol moderately — an average of a few drinks per week — without issue, has had people tell him that he was either never “truly” a drug addict (in addition to once being an alcohol abuser) or that he will eventually relapse because of his decision not to abstain. 

“I don’t know how to answer that,” he said. “Maybe they are right, maybe they are wrong.”

Theater as addiction therapy in ‘Bliss Point’


The healing power of theater underlies the collaboration between the Cornerstone Theater Company and rehabilitation centers around the city, which resulted in the company’s production of “Bliss Point,” a play about addiction and recovery, through June 22 at the Odyssey Theatre in Los Angeles.

Playwright Shishir Kurup’s research included conducting interviews with residents of various recovery facilities, including Beit T’Shuvah (“House of Return”). 

Tricia Nykin, who had organized several acting workshops while a resident at Beit T’Shuvah, was heavily involved in the play’s development process, working with the playwright and Cornerstone, and she ultimately arranged for a reading for the Beit T’Shuvah residents.

“I wanted to get feedback as to the legitimacy of the script,” Nykin said.

The play focuses on two divergent scenarios that merge unexpectedly at the end. One concerns an addict whose friends come to get high with him in celebration of his birthday. Eventually, a particularly devastating event causes him to crash. The other scenario follows an East Indian journalist who is caring for his sick mother and also interviewing addicts at a treatment center for an article in a major magazine. 

One of the addicts telling her story to the journalist is played by Nykin, who is one of five cast members from Beit T’Shuvah, most of them with little acting experience. In fact, Nykin, who has been a professional actor since childhood and has a bachelor’s degree in theater, is one of only a few professionals in the 15-character play. 

She is also a heroin addict who came to Beit T’Shuvah almost a year ago as a “court commit.”  

“I eventually started selling heroin, and I got caught a lot,” Nykin said. “I got raided three times, and I went to jail, in and out, in and out, about seven times over the course of a year and a half. And then, on March 11, 2013, I went to jail for the last time.  

“The court and my probation [officer] decided they were not going to let me out. So, I was stuck, and I was really forced to look at myself, and it was miserable, it was difficult. And thank God for that, because it gave me the gift of desperation and enabled me to see that I felt freer in those four tiny walls in a cell than I did in the real world. That’s what made me want to change.”

Her grandmother read about Beit T’Shuvah, and her mother eventually got her alternatively sentenced to the center. She was immediately cast in a play the facility produces periodically, and she slowly began establishing a theater program.  

Now sober, Nykin moved out of the treatment residence about five weeks ago into a house where many Beit T’Shuvah staff members reside. She is employed as the managing director of the facility’s theater department.

Jared Ross, another resident who is part of the “Bliss Point” cast, said his own recovery, as well as the play itself, has helped him find a passion for learning and growing again. He said that, as an artist himself who draws, paints and sculpts, he particularly relates to the character he plays, whose artwork is exhibited in the Whitney Museum.

“But, also, [there’s] the dark side of this character — he’s been an IV drug user, which is something that I’ve battled since I was 16. 

“But he does come to a place of revelation, of wanting to survive, to really get his name out there and make it as an artist. And, just like with myself, for that to even have a shot at happening, I have to put the drugs down.”

In order to “put the drugs down,” Beit T’Shuvah residents are required to go to therapy and meet with their counselor every week, as well as a spiritual adviser every week, and go to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting every night.  In addition, both Jewish and non-Jewish residents must attend Torah study every morning and services every Friday night and Saturday morning.

There are also adjunct, voluntary programs, such as music, yoga, mindfulness meditation, creative writing, surf therapy and, of course, theater, which the center’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Mark Borovitz, believes is therapeutic in that it allows addicts to tell their story and the stories of other people.

“They can see themselves in other characters,” he said, “so it helps them get out of their own self-obsession. It helps them have empathy with other characters, other people. It also creates a community within the community. They know that their success, and the success of the project, is dependent upon everyone working together, so it gets them to be part of something instead of separate from everyone. Plus, they have a great deal of fun and camaraderie.”

The rabbi would like audiences who see “Bliss Point” to come away with an appreciation for the power of recovery and of redemption, “and to see themselves in the cast members,” he said, “so they start to realize that it’s not ‘those people,’ but it’s us.”

 

“Bliss Point” is at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles, June 5-22. Performances are 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. For tickets, call (310) 477-2055, Ext. 2. For group tickets, email aescalante@cornerstonetheater.org. Pay-what-you-can: Suggested donation is $20.

We don’t live in Stepford


Not long ago, I showed up for a Friday night Shabbat service at Beit T’Shuvah in Culver City. Over the years, I have counseled a number of congregants whose adult children were saved by this addiction recovery program, and I wanted to experience Beit T’Shuvah’s spiritual Shabbat service, which I had heard so much about. 

As I walked into a room crammed with several hundred people, I spotted one of my young adult congregants who had shared his struggle with addiction with me over the years. He gave me a big hug — it was clear he was grateful for the opportunity to share this part of his life with his rabbi. 

A short time later, I noticed a synagogue member sitting with her husband and two 20-something sons. I knew this family well and wondered what brought them to Beit T’Shuvah. Over the last 20 years we had shared moments of joy and sadness as well as a closeness every rabbi yearns for with his congregants. I wondered if they were there in support of a family member. When I finally caught the eye of the congregant, it was if she had been punched in the stomach; there was no joy in her eyes, only fear. I knew then that she was there for one of her boys. 

Toward the end of the service, when I made my way to the exit to get a little air, one of the sons left his seat to find me. He said it was as if God had brought me to him. He had not been at Beit T’Shuvah long, and he made his mom promise that she would not call me until he had contacted me first — thus his mother’s look of surprise and consternation. He was there for an addiction to prescription drugs. My presence, he said, was an omen that everything was going to be OK. By the time his parents greeted me after services, they had gone through the emotional journey of my presence — from the fear of exposure to the gratitude of sharing. As they greeted me with hugs, I could feel a sense of vulnerability and relief. 

Whether it is a troubled teen who is sent to a residential program or a 20-something enrolled in a rehab program for substance abuse, we live in a community in which our imperfections are too often kept secret, sometimes even from best friends. As a rabbi, I see many of the struggles of “good Jewish families.” Few families have the perfect life, and yet we live in a community that often wants to portray the so-called perfection of a “Stepford” world. 

There are many reasons why our kids lose their way. Depression, addiction and criminal behavior are a few of the issues our community faces. I have shared the struggles of families who took legal custody of a grandchild because their child’s drug addiction rendered them an unfit parent. I have cried with parents who listened to their out-of-control teen scream, “You are a terrible parent!” while being sent to a residential program. I have tried to give strength to mothers who had to lock their sons out of the house so they would hit “the bottom” necessary for the self-realization that they needed help. 

Mental illness, suicide and incarceration round out the list of issues grieving or struggling parents share with me in the confidence of my office. These are not families in socioeconomically disadvantaged areas. These are not dysfunctional families. These are our families. But unfortunately, many of them keep their struggles a secret because of the guilt, shame and embarrassment they often feel. This occurs partly because that is our parental default — to blame ourselves — but it is also the result of a community in which families like to portray everything as perfect.

In truth, not every family is required to share their family secrets. They have no obligation to reveal their family struggles if they don’t want to, and it is none of our business. In other instances they want to share, but worry about how people will respond. Will they be seen as bad parents? Will they be judged as a dysfunctional family? Will everybody know? (Why is it bad news travels so much faster than good news?) Sometimes the struggles are a result of biology, and sometimes they are psychological. In some cases they are just issues of bad choices on the part of the child. But in all instances, the family can use our help in coming to terms with their situation and having the strength to deal with each day. There are some extreme cases in which the abusive or dysfunctional behavior of parents can lead to the problem of the children, but in our community this is often not the case. Not that we only have perfect parents, but rather we mostly have “normal,” imperfect parents. We must stop judging parents for the challenges of their children and instead provide the place to deal with their situation.

It takes families time to get to the stage where they can share. Like Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ stages of grief, they must go through their own stages that will finally lead to an acceptance of their child’s condition. It is time for us to provide a safe and caring community in which people can share. A community in which the veneer of perfection is removed and the realities of family life become the norm. We must provide comfort to the struggling families as well as celebrate their successes. 

Some things I have learned in dealing with these families: Don’t try to fix the problem, just let them share. Don’t overreact, but be sympathetic. “What’s going on now?” and “How are you handling it?” are questions that allow the individuals to open up … or dodge the question. Don’t offer suggestions unless asked. Never say, “I know how you feel,” unless you have been in a similar situation and are willing to share it. Keep their family situation in confidence; it is their decision to share, not yours. Most of all, help them feel “normal.” The synagogue family I met at Beit T’Shuvah that night has not yet shared their family struggles with friends. It will take courage for them to “come out” and risk the exposure of not being a perfect family. But until they can, there can be no true healing.

I am not a psychologist or a therapist who specializes in these issues. My thoughts come from the experiences of dealing with many families struggling with these family dynamics. I only wish everyone could see what I see, to know that just about every family has confronted one of these issues. There is no need for guilt, shame or embarrassment; most of us have experienced something in our families, and we need to be able to support each other in these difficult times. Let us remove the false veil that shrouds the truth of our lives and perpetuates the myth that our families do not suffer these travails. In doing so, we can deal more honestly with each other and provide the strength and comfort necessary to deal with the realities of life. As we enter the High Holy Days, reflecting on our own imperfections and striving to be better, let us find the strength to acknowledge our imperfect families and begin to share the real struggles of real life with friends and community. 


Stewart Vogel is senior rabbi at Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills.

Sober seders spreading


It’s rare that an Orthodox rabbi chooses to omit an important Jewish ritual in his holiday celebrations.

But in the spring of 2000, Rabbi Yosef Lipsker cleared his living room of furniture, set up three large dining tables and invited dozens of people to a special seder that included all the standard Passover observances — except for one.

“When it comes to seders, everybody thinks of the four cups of wine drunk during the service,” said Lipsker, a consultant at the Caron Treatment Center for Substance Abuse and Chemical Addiction in Reading, Pa. “But we said, ‘Listen, we’re going to have you at the seder, but you’re going to have four cups of grape juice instead.’ ”

Lipsker’s guests all were recovering alcoholics and drug addicts and their families, and his seder was devoid of wine. Lipsker is not the only rabbi organizing sober seders — a dry version of the standard Passover evening ritual. In the late 1990s, several Chabad rabbis across the country, unbeknownst to one another, were organizing sober seders geared toward Jewish recovering alcoholics.

In a little more than a decade, the practice has spread far and wide. This year, sober seders will be held in Miami, Montreal, Philadelphia, Detroit, Los Angeles and London. Hundreds of recovering addicts are expected to attend, raising a glass of grape juice in celebration not only of the liberation of the Jewish people from bondage in ancient Egypt, but also of their own sobriety.

Participants in sober seders say the absence of wine not only doesn’t detract from their enjoyment of the event, but can even enhance it. They connect the struggles of recovering from addiction to Passover’s theme of breaking free from servitude.

“It was great,” said Ricky, a 56-year-old recovering addict from Montreal, referring to his first sober seder. “I sat at a table with the rabbi’s wife, kids and other addicts in recovery, and I felt great, like I had a real a sense of belonging.”

Ricky credits Rabbi Benyamin Bresinger, who with his wife runs a Chabad addiction clinic in Montreal, with saving his life. He points to the 2008 seder as a life-altering event and continues to attend sober seders each year.

“Before and after the seder we sit around and talk,” he said. “Many of us know each others’ stories by now. For the newcomer coming to the sober seder, there’s a belonging. It’s a celebration rather than a regular AA meeting.”

The sacramental consumption of wine is commonplace in Judaism, used to mark the beginning of nearly every major holiday and the weekly Sabbath dinner. On seder night, tradition calls for the drinking of four glasses as a sign of liberation. Wine also figures in other seder-night rituals: Many Jews have the tradition of removing drops of wine from their cup for each of the plagues visited upon the Egyptians, and a cup of wine traditionally is set aside for Elijah.

Naturally, the ubiquity of drink poses problems for alcoholics and addicts of other substances.

“Jewish law says everyone has to drink wine during the seder,” said Rabbi Yisrael Pinson, who runs the Jewish Recovery Center in Detroit. “But for an alcoholic, it’s a danger of death.”

Pinson cited “pikuach nefesh,” the Jewish principle that saving a life takes precedence over other religious strictures, in skipping the wine drinking in Jewish rituals. He noted that Rabbi Abraham Twerski, a prominent psychiatrist specializing in addiction, sanctions abstinence for Jewish addicts as a life-saving measure.

Pinson also hosts a sober seder.

“We ask people who attend the seder, ‘What is your personal story of freedom? How did you break free from the shackles of addiction?’” Pinson said. “Obviously, we read the haggadah. But we also talk about where we are in life. It’s fresh on their minds. They feel the wounds.”

For Greg, 24, from New York, seders used to be an opportunity to binge. “Every Pesach, by the third ‘Chad Gadyah’ we were singing it backwards,” he said.

The son of a Charedi Orthodox rabbi, Greg’s family moved around a lot when he was growing up. The first time he got drunk was on Purim at age 10. It was a sign of things to come. By the time Greg met Lipsker in his early 20s, he had become addicted to painkillers and cocaine. With the rabbi’s help, Greg said he managed to overcome his demons.

“For the first time in 23 years, I could be at a seder, feel real liberation and not be finished by the end of it,” he said of his first sober seder with Lipsker.

Greg’s life is now back on track. He has a job working in finance in Manhattan and says he has found value in his Jewish identity. On weekends, he often drives out to see Lipsker, who lives a two-hour drive away. He said Lipsker is saving him a seat at this year’s seder. 

Fighting to beat addiction


Beit T’Shuvah, the Jewish addiction treatment center and synagogue, held its second annual “Knock Out Addiction” fundraiser on Sept. 15, drawing a crowd of more than 400 to the Petersen Automotive Museum for a gala that included six boxing matches.  Last year, Beit T’Shuvah’s rabbi, Rabbi Mark Borovitz, faced off with comedian Tom Arnold, but this year, professional boxers and a “secret celebrity guest” took to the ring. 

Robert Shapiro, founder of the Brent Shapiro Foundation for Alcohol and Drug Awareness, emceed the evening. Michael King received the Knock Out Award, and Zach Wohlman, a recovering addict and former Beit T’Shuvah resident who is now a boxer, was given the Recovery Award.  A live auction of mainly sports memorabilia preceded the boxing.

Ryan O’Neal, an Academy Award and Golden Globe nominee, served as the secret celebrity guest and won his fight against Jimmy Lange.

The event raised $200,000, double the amount of last year.

A Mensh on the radiowaves to recovery


One afternoon in 1989, Ricky Leigh Mensh hid out in his car in a parking garage in Bethesda, Md., paranoid after a five-day cocaine and booze spree.

“I had experienced so many consequences as a result of my addictions,” Mensh, now 48 — and 19 years sober — said as he prepared to debut his syndicated “Recovery Radio Live” program on KLSX 97.1 Free FM this week. “I had been in and out of jail, broken bones while drunk, broken my nose several times in bar fights — even had developed gout. I had become so paranoid after 13 years of using that I would lock myself in my townhouse and not come out for days.”

Mensh had not slept for five days on that afternoon in 1989 when he realized he was “a cadaver waiting to happen” and phoned his grandmother from a pay phone for help. Forty-eight hours after that “moment of clarity,” he said, he checked into a rehabilitation center and has been sober since.

He went on to become a prominent music industry executive and a voting member of the Grammy Awards — and now he is hoping to offer addicts moments of clarity similar to his own with his “Recovery” program, which premiered locally this week and will continue to air Saturdays from 11 p.m. to midnight on KLSX.

“The show is designed to feel like a 12-step recovery meeting on the air,” Mensh said from his home base in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. “Our primary goal is to reach out to those who are still [using], as well as to people in recovery, their friends, families and co-workers.”

Mensh acts as the show’s brash, charismatic host and says he studied past and present recovery shows while developing his unique format. His polished but personable program includes interviews with medical experts, such as Dr. Drew Pinsky (“Celebrity Rehab”); celebrity recovering addicts like bassist Nikki Sixx of Motley Crue; drug-related comedy bits; music inspired by addiction and treatment (think Aerosmith’s “What It Takes”); conference-calling listeners to share stories; and scholarship giveaways to the C.A.R.E. 30-day treatment program in North Palm Beach, Fla. (the regular price tag: $22,000).

Pinsky has lauded the show as “the embodiment of recovery” and as a powerful example of the way the media can be used to transmit the message of recovery.

On the air, Mensh often shares parts of his own story, which began as he grew up in and around Washington, D.C., attending his maternal grandparents’ Orthodox synagogue.

“But unfortunately, my mother married not one but two violent men,” he said of his father and former stepfather; beatings and severe emotional abuse were de rigueur. Two days after Mensh graduated high school, he found his suitcase packed in the living room along with a note that read, “Get the f— out.”

He fled to the efficiency apartment he had already rented for the summer and was showering the next morning when a roommate offered him a lit bong through the shower curtain.

“I took my first hit, and it filled the black hole inside of me that all addicts feel,” he recalled. “It set me free from all my anger, and made me feel more comfortable in my own skin.”

Over the next 13 years, Mensh snorted cocaine (sometimes off the turntables at his disc jockey gigs), added acid and Quaaludes to the mix, and imbibed to the point that he blacked out, only to awaken in a ditch or a stranger’s car or bed. Although he managed to hold down radio jobs and even to found several profitable businesses during those years, his disease eventually spiraled out of control. In 1989, Mensh’s therapist, who had also treated John Belushi, told him that the only difference between Mensh and the late comedian was that Belushi “was dead, and you aren’t yet.”

His first day of sobriety was March 25, 1989.

Cut to August 2007, when Mensh — who by then had been voted one of the 30 most influential people in music by Source magazine — was mortified by a tabloid TV show about celebrity addicts such as Britney Spears.

“The shows were ridiculing these people, whom I see as sick, as fodder for their revenue,” he recalled. He also perceived that stars like Spears were using (or encouraged to use) “recovery” as a way to gain publicity for their latest albums or films.

“The tabloid media was bastardizing our beloved 12-step programs, and I wanted to do something to portray them in a positive light,” he said.

The result was “Recovery Radio,” which got its start on a Palm Beach station and is now in multiple markets. The show is expanding to include other kinds of addictions (on Super Bowl Sunday, the topic was gambling, for example). And plans are in the works to do live shows from Los Angeles — such as broadcasting from a 12-step meeting in a federal prison — and in other cities.

“As a Jew, it’s important to me to reach out to other Jews,” Mensh said. He cites the perception within the Jewish community that Jews don’t tend to be addicts, which “made me feel like even more of a schmuck while I was in rehab. There’s also the idea that Jews are too smart to abuse drugs and alcohol, which is part of the B.S. I told myself to keep me in denial while I was using.”

“We want to reach out to people who are still sick and suffering, whomever they may be,” he added.

The Shoah, Beit T’Shuvah, Clinton, Raphe and Szyk


The Shoah

How incredibly written was The Jewish Journal editorial (“Genocide 2.0,” May 2).

Beit T’Shuvah, Jewish/Arab day schools, Charlton Heston


Beit T’Shuvah

I would like to thank you for printing “Rescuing Jewish Addicts — A Day in the Life at Beit T’Shuvah” by Roberto Loiederman (April 25).

The article is so well written, and it’s so important that our community knows that an agency of our Federation is serving those who need help with addiction struggles.

In addition to services mentioned, Beit T’Shuvah (BTS) also serves the community with a Partners in Prevention program that goes into day schools, camps and synagogues. This outreach program teaches Judaism as a path to promote self-acceptance, self-worth, spiritual values and family harmony.

The residents and alumni of BTS have also joined together in creating an insightful musical performance event called. “Freedom Song,” which communicates their common experiences with addiction and the growth they’ve experienced with the life-giving support of BTS. The group has performed the show locally and throughout the United States, receiving overwhelming support, interest and rave reviews.

As a BTS board member, I’m so proud of the wonderful staff and volunteers and the progress of the residents, and am so grateful that you’ve brought attention to BTS’s efforts toward the healing of Jewish souls.

Annette Shapiro
Los Angeles

Drug Law

Punishing victimless drug crimes exceeds the standard for retributive punishment established in the Scriptures (“Addiction Debate: Legalization, Medication or Therapy?” April 25).

Exodus 21:23, “life for life”; 24, “eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot”; 25, “burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.”

Punishing the victimless crime of drug use violates the law of God by inflicting injury where there was no injury to another. Drug use murders no one, blinds no one, no teeth have been knocked out and no maiming has occurred, so where’s the godly authorization for enforcing drug prohibition.

Nowhere in God’s word is there any commandment to ban drug use. Victimless drug convictions often bring more prison time than for armed robbery, beating someone to death in a fight, detonating a bomb in an aircraft or providing weapons to support a foreign terrorist organization. The maximum sentence for all those crimes together is less than the mandatory minimum under sentencing rules for many victimless drug crimes. Drug war punishments clearly violate the eye-for-an-eye principle stated in the law of God.

Upholding a drug crusade that violates God’s ordinances is doomed to failure.

Ralph Givens
Daly City

I commend you on a well-written and well-thought out piece. What few people realize is that the drug laws were lunacy from the very beginning. Modern people assume that the drug laws were passed for a good reason. They weren’t.

Opium smoking was originally outlawed because of the fear that Chinese men were luring white women to have sex in opium dens.

Cocaine was outlawed because of the fear that superhuman Negro cocaine fiends would go on a violent rampage and rape white women and shoot white men.
Caffeine was almost outlawed at the same time for the same reasons. The only reason caffeine escaped prohibition is because it is found in so many common foods.

In the past 100 years, there have been numerous major government commissions around the world that have studied the drug laws and made recommendations for changes. They all concluded that the drug laws were based on ignorance and nonsense and cause more harm than good.

The full text of these reports can be found at http://druglibrary.org/schaffer under Major Studies of Drugs and Drug Policy.

Clifford Schaffer
Director
Schaffer Library of Drug Policy

Jewish/Arab Day Schools

I would like to encourage Rabbi Daniel Gordis to keep an open mind when it comes to educating Israeli Arab and Jewish children together (“Debra Winger Explores Jewish/Arab Day Schools,” April 25).

Each of our four award-winning schools is a community of humanitarians dedicated to laying a foundation for a real and lasting peace in Israel.

Our teachers respect and celebrate each child’s heritage, and our Jewish students, who because they interact daily with the “other,” are forced to develop an even stronger sense of their own identity. Our parents are gratified because they are raising the next generation of leaders who might just be able to do what government officials have been unable to do thus far: find a peaceful way to coexist in Israel.

In addition, I’d ask Gordis to read our groundbreaking curriculum, which is sensitive to educating children from varying religious and ethnic backgrounds. Our curriculum is so successful that it is now in demand from other countries around the world as an innovative model on how to teach conflict resolution to children.

I appreciate Gordis’ view that perhaps we should wait until high school or college to teach “competing national narratives,” but until there is another viable plan for peace, I — and many others — believe as Gandhi did: “If we are to teach real peace in the world, and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children.”

Julie I. Bram
Board Member
American Friends of Hand in Hand

Charlton Heston

What is Tom Tugend’s basis for stating that Charlton Heston was “reviled by most American Jews” as an arch conservative (“Charlton Heston, Oscar Winner and Advocate, Dies at 84,” April 11)?

Even if it is true that most American Jews revile the NRA’s policies, to assume that we would also revile the man doesn’t give us much credit. I would hope and think that most American Jews, like most other Americans, are fair-minded people who can disagree with someone on an issue, even strongly, and still respect them.

Ben Schwartz
Calabasas

Hydrogen Fuel

The C.En hydrogen-based transportation invention appears to be little more than another fuel-cell battery (“

Mother pens memoir on life with heroin addict son


Rita Lowenthal raised her family in a nice Jewish home, lived in a nice Jewish neighborhood and belonged to a nice Jewish temple. So how did her son become a heroin addict at age 13?

The need for an answer to that question, as well as a desire for closure, is what inspired Lowenthal to pen “One-Way Ticket: Our Son’s Addiction to Heroin” (Beaufort Books, $14), a memoir that compiles her experiences and correspondence with her son and his journal entries while in and out of San Quentin State Prison.

Despite years of treatment, Josh Lowenthal never broke the heroin addiction that eventually took his life in 1995.

“It looked like our family had all the blessings, so I wanted to figure out what happened,” Lowenthal said.

At a time when celebrity drug use and failed rehab attempts are all too prevalent — and even joked about — “One-Way Ticket” illustrates the cruel reality of drug addiction. “It is a disease, and it needs to be treated that way,” said Lowenthal, who wants to make the idea of knowing or loving an addict less shameful.

She first noticed a shift in her son’s behavior when he was 13, when the family lived in Pittsburgh. Along with her first husband, David, and their older son, Mark, Lowenthal quickly dismissed the change as teenage arrogance that would be addressed after the bar mitzvah.

“In 1969, Josh was 12, crazed with excitement about The Beatles, long hair, guitars, jazz and psychedelic paints that transformed his cute little boy’s bedroom with the cowboy bedspreads into a teenage den,” Lowenthal said. “He was beginning to bring home different, somewhat older friends, and he quit saying ‘goodbye’ in favor of ‘one mind.'”

Heroin was the furthest thing from her mind.

“Josh always appreciated a thrill and was always looking for the next excitement,” she said. “He was fun to be around. We never thought it would come to this.”

After the family became aware of the problem, Josh would spend the rest of his life in and out of recovery and rehabilitation centers.

Because he started using at such an early age, Lowenthal believes Josh’s body and mind never had the chance to fully develop independently of heroin, thus making the path to sobriety increasingly difficult with age.

Josh never liked many of the facilities, Lowenthal said. He went AWOL from several institutions, many of which preached “tough love,” an idea that had little effect on Josh and a concept extremely difficult for Lowenthal to embrace.

In a journal entry from 1985, Josh wrote about a particularly frustrating rehab experience: “This rehab is no good. Better off in jail if I want to be clean. I don’t know if I could stand to brown nose my way through this for months … more concerned with table manners than wrenching guts…. One thing is for certain, if I could be successful in this program I wouldn’t need it.”

Looking for a fresh start, Lowenthal and Josh moved to Los Angeles after her marriage ended. She found work as a professor in social work at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), while Josh struggled to find a college that would accept him. But no matter where they moved, “he was never far from drugs,” Lowenthal said.

Of all the treatment facilities, both Josh and Lowenthal acknowledged that Beit T’Shuvah was by far the most effective and encouraging.

“They know relapses will happen; they only hope the addicts will return to the program when they do,” Lowenthal said.

After frequent relapses and periods in and out San Quentin for petty theft, Lowenthal explains that Josh was finally realizing the futility of his addiction. While he craved a normal life, Josh was scared by a world without drugs — a sentiment expressed by many addicts close to full recovery.

In an unsent letter to his brother, Mark, written just a year before his death, Josh shows a disturbed, yet more self-aware, side while serving time at San Quentin:

“Realistically, I expect that in approximately two-and-a-half more years on parole, the state will probably squeeze another year out of me. Six months out, six months in, seems nearly unavoidable…. I imagine with hindsight that, more or less, we all reflect on — with misgivings — precious time squandered as so much spare change.”

Lowenthal said she sensed that Josh was extremely close to ending the nightmare of his addiction. In a video interview with Beit T’Shuvah, recorded one week before his death, Josh admits, “Like I said, I’ve been a junkie for 25 years. I’m 38, and I’m tired, and it’s over. These are my friends…. This is the end of the story — at least for the moment.”

She believes Josh committed suicide when he overdosed on heroin, although no note was found.

Lowenthal is now retired from HUC-JIR, as well as from the USC School of Social Work, where she was a charter member of the Betty Friedan Feminist Think Tank. She worked on the 2000 ballot initiative, Proposition 36, which changed California’s law to permit substance abuse treatment, as opposed to a jail sentence, for first- and second-time offenders guilty of nonviolent, simple drug possession.

She currently serves on the board of the Progressive Jewish Alliance as chair of the Drug Policy Committee of the Criminal Justice Task Force, in addition to being a member of the Community Action Committee of the Progressive Christians Uniting.

While Lowenthal has learned to turn her depression into political action, she said she’s still haunted by her tragic loss of Josh. For many years while Josh was using, her only comfort was a statement made by her son, which she said had become like a mantra for her: “There is nothing you can do, Mom; you can’t compete with heroin.”

It’s Personal, It’s Family and It’s Me


What was most surprising about the e-mail I got just a few months ago is that it came three years after the story ran.

When the story I wrote on addictions — particularly, sex addiction — was first published in March 2003, the response was immediate and strong.

Some people denounced a family paper for running such trash. But others, many more others, e-mailed or called to thank me, saying they hadn’t known they could get help for what they, too, suffered from. More than one person credited me with saving their lives.

And then — so much later — this e-mail came out of the blue, from someone who found the story online, and wanted to know how to get in touch with the man I had written about, a New York Chasid who had been sexually abused by older boys as a child, then grew up addicted to drugs and sex, all the while leading a respectable life with his wife and eight children. Now recovering, he helps others in the same situation, working quietly in the shadows of his Orthodox community.

Not every story I write gets that kind of reaction or has that kind of shelf life. And I am painfully aware that while some of the stories I have written for The Jewish Journal over the past eight years help people in small or large ways, a few of them hurt people and institutions as well.

But whether the articles are uplifting or depressing, helpful or hurtful, readers take articles published in The Jewish Journal personally.

And that’s why I do what I do. That’s why since college, when I edited Ha’Am, UCLA’s (now dormant) Jewish newsmagazine, I have stuck with Jewish journalism, never even being tempted to cross over into the mainstream press.

Reading a Jewish newspaper, I like to believe, is an intimate experience. In a Jewish newspaper — in fact, probably in any niche or ethnic publication — every bit of information is important and personal, because it is about people and things readers care about. The Los Angeles Times is about the world. The Jewish Journal is about your home. And even when the L.A. Times writes about your home, it is an outsider looking in, not a family member filling you in on the latest.

In fact, I often feel like I am writing for a family newsletter. I can picture readers flipping through the pages looking for articles by or about people they know. And even if there aren’t familiar faces or names, everyone is familiar, because everyone is part of the extended family of the Jewish world.

Look at our letters page. Readers’ responses jump with passion. People get incredibly elated, or totally upset, because the articles we write are about causes or people or institutions close to them.

Over the years, people have often asked me whether I’ve ever thought about working at a “real newspaper.” The idea, I guess, is if I’m good enough why wouldn’t I want to move up to the mainstream press? But for me that would be more of a move out than a move up.

I’d rather write for an audience of thousands that is curling up with the paper on Friday night and reading with a curious mind and, hopefully, an open heart, than for an audience of hundreds of thousands that is skimming the headlines before grabbing that travel-mug full of coffee and getting on the 405.

 

Substance Abuse a Senior Problem, Too


 

When Amy Kaplan heard about Betty (not her real name), a Jewish Family Service client in her early 70s who said she couldn’t afford all of her medications, Kaplan suspected there was more to the story. Kaplan, a social worker and addiction specialist, visited Betty’s home and confirmed her suspicions: Betty was taking 24 prescription medications, some of which were duplicates or even triplicates. Betty was drowsy, unsteady, financially strapped — and addicted.

“The numbers are astronomical,” Kaplan said. “I’d say 90 percent of our clients are affected by addiction in some way, either themselves or through a family member, a close friend or a neighbor.”

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, prescription drugs and alcohol abuse among adults 60 and older is one of the fastest growing health problems in the country, affecting up to 17 percent of older adults. With baby boomers beginning to turn 60 this year, the incidence will continue to climb without intervention.

“This is a significant problem which has been underidentified and under-recognized,” said Karen Leaf, director of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles’ (JFS) Valley Storefront in North Hollywood. “Given the scope of the problem, we decided we needed to be better equipped to deal with it.”

With grants from the Archstone and Jewish Community foundations, JFS instituted the Senior Substance Abuse and Mental Health Initiative last summer. Kaplan, who had previously worked at the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, was recruited to develop programs for JFS. The agency’s first priority involved educating and training its own social workers and case managers — who deal with thousands of seniors in the course of a year — to better recognize and assist clients with substance abuse problems.

Kaplan now leads a weekly Alcoholics Anonymous meeting at the Valley Storefront location, and JFS hopes to add more locations in the future. Dr. Alan Schneider, a psychiatrist specializing in the elderly, has given presentations about mental health and medication management during brown-bag lunch sessions at area senior centers. To increase public awareness of the issue, Kaplan and others have made presentations at health fairs, meetings and other community events.

Older adults are usually “accidental addicts,” according to Carol Colleran, director of older adult services at the Hanley Center in West Palm Beach, Fla., and co-author of “Aging and Addiction” (Hazelden, 2002). She said that seniors often develop problems when they continue to take prescription medications that were intended for short-term use. This is common with a class of drugs called benzodiazepines, medications prescribed for insomnia and anxiety. Benzodiazipines, which include Valium and Xanax, are addictive.

Colleran said that late-onset addiction can be triggered by loss, such as the loss of a spouse, a job or a sense of purpose. To cope with these losses, individuals may self-medicate with prescription drugs and alcohol.

Problems are compounded because the body processes alcohol and drugs less efficiently as it ages. Older adults may find that they can no longer tolerate the same amounts of alcohol that they consumed in the past. And alcohol’s effects are intensified when it is mixed with prescription or over-the-counter drugs.

“Safe drinking for older adults is one drink per day,” Colleran noted. One drink equals a 12-ounce beer, 1 1/2 ounces of liquor or 5 ounces of wine.

Underdiagnosis of alcohol and prescription drug abuse among older adults is common because symptoms — including fatigue, depression, irritability, insomnia, frequent falls, chronic pain, impotence and congestive heart failure — are often misinterpreted as signs of other medical conditions. Symptoms may be attributed to dementia, Parkinson’s, depression or simply products of aging.

Addiction is not on the radar screen for most physicians, according to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA). In a CASA physician survey presenting a hypothetical case of a mature woman who showed the typical early symptoms of alcohol and prescription drug abuse, only one percent of the doctors considered substance abuse as a possible diagnosis.

“We need to get the word out about this,” said Colleran, who believes ageism and sexism are additional barriers to recognition of the problem.

On the positive side, she said that older adults have the highest success rate in treatment of any age group.

Jews and Addiction

Although JFS is a nonsectarian organization, addiction specialist Kaplan estimates that 50 percent of the agency’s senior clients who suffer from addiction are Jewish. The perception that Jews don’t drink, she said, is a myth. Further, a 2001 study published in the Journal of Addictive Diseases refuted the perception that Jewish alcoholics have lower educational, financial or religious levels.

While the JFS initiative does not incorporate Jewish content, there are programs that address addiction through a Jewish lens. Unlike the JFS initiative, however, they are not targeted exclusively to older adults. New York-based Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons and Significant Others (JACS), which offers numerous resources on its Web site, holds programs in several Los Angeles locations. Beit T’Shuvah, which provides both residential and out-patient treatment, addresses addiction using Jewish spirituality, the 12-Step program originated by Alcoholics Anonymous and psychotherapy.

Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas has offered a variety of programs addressing addiction, including Madraygot (Steps), a monthly program that looks at the intersection of Judaism and the 12-Step program. The synagogue commissioned a rabbinic intern, Rebecca Hoffman, to develop a curriculum designed for congregations to offer their own Jewish 12-Step program.

“I’ve worked at three Los Angeles area synagogues, and the minute I started talking about addiction, people started coming out of the woodwork,” Or Ami’s Rabbi Paul Kipnes said. “My goal is to break down the walls of silence and talk about it ….Individuals who are suffering from addiction have a place in the community and the community needs to respond.”

Signs of a Problem


by Gabriel Meyer

Medicine and alcohol misuse can happen unintentionally. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the following signs may indicate an alcohol or medication-related problem:

\n

• Memory trouble after having a drink or taking medicine

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• Loss of coordination (walking unsteadily, frequent falls)

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• Changes in sleeping habits

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• Unexplained bruises

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• Irritability, sadness, depression

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• Unexplained chronic pain

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• Changes in eating habits

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• Desire to stay alone much of the time

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• Failure to bathe or keep clean

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• Difficulty finishing sentences

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• Difficulty concentrating

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• Difficulty staying in touch with family or friends

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• Lack of interest in usual activities

Unhappy New Year!


OK, I’ll be absolutely honest — I spent this past New Year’s Eve alone. Sure, I could have salvaged the situation with a round of frantic last-minute calling, but I never got around to it because I had to go and get into a fight. Fortunately, I was the only one who got hurt. You see, I picked a fight with myself. And on New Year’s Eve day, no less. Almost out of nowhere and with virtually no warning, I started in on myself.

So, who’s your lucky date for New Year’s Eve?

Please. You know darn well I don’t have any date tonight.

What? The Duke of Dating flying solo on New Year’s? I’m stunned. How can it be?

I don’t want to talk about it. It just worked out that way.

It doesn’t “just work out that way.” You worked it out that way. How many coffee dates have you had this past year?

Too painfully many to remember.

And not one of them was available for New Year’s Eve?

You don’t just ask someone out on a date for New Year’s Eve. It’s a very meaningful night. A very expensive night. It’s not for “a” date; it’s for “the” date.”

So with all those coffee dates, how come none of them worked out into “the” date?

You want a reason for each? She wasn’t attracted to me. I wasn’t attracted to her. She wanted someone who made more money. I wanted someone who talked about something other than herself. She wanted to have more kids. I wasn’t communicative enough for her. She didn’t have a sense of humor. I didn’t have a passion for four cats. Shall I continue?

You know what you’re doing, don’t you?

What am I doing?

It’s so obvious. For every woman you meet, you’re finding some reason, any reason, to keep you from starting a relationship.

That’s ridiculous.

Is it? You mean to tell me you meet a woman who’s perfect in every way, except she has four cats, and that’s the deal-breaker?

Look, I never said she was perfect otherwise. And besides, if I didn’t want a relationship, what am I doing spending all this time and energy meeting women?

You really want to know?

I asked, didn’t I?

You’re addicted to dating.

Get out of here.

Exactly. That’s the message you’re giving these poor women: “Get out of here.” For you, it’s all about the thrill of the chase. Ms. Right’s just around the corner. The next one’s going to be flawless. Well, get this, oh Sultan of Singles: There is no Ms. Right; there is no flawless, and there is no satisfaction for you if you keep on this way. One day you’re going to wake up to find yourself 78 years old and on your way to your next coffee date. That what you want, Pops?

Of course not. But none of the ones I’ve met this year feel right. I’ve had coffee dates where everything just clicks, we start dating, and before long, we’re in a relationship.

Sounds lovely. And where are those “everything-clicks” women now?

They didn’t work out.

They didn’t work out? Or you subconsciously torpedoed the relationship so you could get back to your addiction?

I, uh…

You know, I’ve about had it with you. You disgust me. Get out of my sight.

I can’t. I’m you and you’re me.

What did I do to deserve this?

Well, come on, don’t give up on me. What do you suggest?

I don’t know. Since I am you, I’m somewhat limited in my perceptions and insights.

You don’t have to insult me.

I’m sorry. OK, look, let’s try something different this year. One word: “Stop.” Stop the coffee dates. Stop the singles Web sites. Stop the matchmaking services. Stop the personals ads. Stop the singles parties and dances. Just stop.

Are you heading for a celibacy thing? Because that’s not what…

I’m trying to keep you from a celibacy thing. Just live your life. Do your work. Be with your friends and family. Volunteer for something. Be out in the real world. She’s out there, but you’re trying too hard. Stop trying. Start living.

I don’t know. I’ll think about it.

That’s all I ask. Now let’s get some Thai food, and for the love of God, no “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.”

I was in no mood to fight with myself any more. I picked up some Thai food. I called a few loved ones. I watched a Marx Brothers movie. And I gave some serious thought to what I’d said to myself. It wasn’t so bad. Yes, I was alone, but not lonely, really. And maybe next New Year’s Eve, I’ll have a date. She can even bring her cats.

Mark Miller, a comedy writer and performer, can be reached at

Home Repair


In a narrow Jerusalem alley a few blocks away from the souvenir shops of Ben Yehuda Street, a former drug addict who wants tobe called Shimon is telling me the story of his horrific childhood.

Born into a large Chasidic family in Eilat, Shimon and his 11 siblings were repeatedly raped by their father. The father was eventually arrested and sent to prison, where he is serving a 10-year term.

At 12, Shimon turned to the streets — and drugs. He sniffed glue, drank, smoked. He tried to commit suicide twice. After two years, a friend pushed him toward a program called Susan’s House.

Now 17, Shimon sleeps at a psychiatric institution at night. But during the day he reports for work at Susan’s House, an on-the-job training center for Jerusalem’s most troubled teens. Shimon works under the guidance of caring adults, including some of Israel’s most acclaimed artists who create beautiful crafts for sale worldwide.

“The place really helps me,” he says of Susan’s House. “It gives me self-confidence.”

I thought of my visit to Susan’s House this week because so much of the news from Israel was of a particularly nasty sort. Israel’s ambassador to Sweden, Zvi Mazel, vandalized an art installation by Israeli-born Dror Feiler, setting a sorry example for the rest of the world; Yigal Amir, the assassin of Yitzhak Rabin, is set to wed in a prison ceremony (“I want a grandchild already,” his mother told Israel’s daily Ma’ariv); and outside Israel’s soccer stadiums, Jewish fans have been regularly shouting slogans such as “Death to Arabs” at Israeli Arab players and flinging rocks at them, apparently without fear of repercussion from Israeli authorities.

There is no doubt that the combined effects of the Palestinian uprising, or intifada, and the collapse of the Israeli economy have contributed to a social coarsening. Homelessness, hunger, drug abuse, alcoholism and school violence are growing problems; academic scores are plummeting to what one analyst called “pathetic” levels; and the ruling Likud Party is in the midst of a scandal that parades tales of bribes, underworld thugs and payoffs across the front pages. The Israeli press is full of eulogies for a kinder, gentler nation. Two weeks ago, Education Minister Limor Livnat warned of “marginal groups with economic interests, including criminal interests, who are trying to take over the ruling party.”

And she’s a member of the ruling party.

The American Jewish dream of Israel has always been rosier than the reality. But these problems, along with the ongoing political crisis in the Middle East, threaten to enlarge a cultural gulf between Diaspora Jews and Israelis.

That’s why visiting Susan’s House, as I did last November, felt so reassuring. Eyal Kaplansky is a successful diamond merchant whose counterculture beard and clothes hide a savvy business mind. He dreamed with his wife, Susan, of memorializing a young friend by starting a home to help troubled teens. A year after planning began, Susan died of cancer, and Kaplansky continued the project in her memory. Now in business two years, the home provides a last chance for the increasing number of wayward Israeli youth in Jerusalem.

“I thought that the Jewish people don’t rape, abuse or kick their kids,” Kaplansky told me, “and I found out the Jewish people do all these things. We’re getting the toughest kids off the street.”

Susan’s House rents a series of small rooms in an old stone building. About 20 teens sit at work stations creating extraordinarily beautiful crafts of glass beads and homemade paper. Renowned papermaker Zvi Tolkovsky and glassmaker Louis Sakolovsky of the Bezalel Academy helped Susan’s House establish the training program. Kaplansky combines the artistic endeavors with lessons in business.

“These kids are scared of the grown-up world,” he says. “But we teach them if you know the game and play by the rules you can make it.”

Kaplansky knows because he was one of the kids. Rebellious and heavily involved with drugs, he turned his own life around. “I knew that if these kids could survive the streets they could accomplish a lot,” he says.

The organization has a $250,000 annual budget. There are five paid staff, 22 kids and a huge waiting list. Susan’s House doesn’t look to the government for help, because, Kaplansky says, the government is cutting budgets anyway and the red tape would suffocate the endeavor. Instead, Kaplansky tries to expand his project through individual donors and the sale of items in bulk to businesses and institutions around the world (the next time your organization needs items for charity banquets, think of buying them through Susan’s House, www.kys.org.il/susanhome.html).

It is a model Israeli-created charity, and it is not alone. Amid adversity, Israelis are taking it upon themselves to soften their society’s edges. The number of nonprofit associations has swelled to 35,000, according to a Ben-Gurion University of the Negev study, and 77 percent of all Israelis contribute to charity (compare that to 50 percent of Europeans).

“After the streets,” Shimon told me of Susan’s House, “it is a place I can come and feel like family.”

Treating one another like family — wasn’t that the ideal of the Jewish State from the start?

‘On_Line’ Takes Byte Out of Cyberspace


While obsessing over an ex-girlfriend in 1997, Jed Weintrob, then an Orion vice president of interactive media, turned to the Internet for distraction. “I got hooked peering into the lives of strangers,” said Weintrob, a self-described Jewish “techno geek.” “It was both calming and mind-blowing to log on and see Jenni on Jennicam.org who was also awake at 4:30 a.m., but in the end it was also kind of alienating…. You’re watching this person do the most intimate things, yet you’re never going to know them or touch them.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by John Roth (Josh Hamilton), the Internet-addicted lonely-heart in Weintrob’s acclaimed directorial debut, “On_Line.” Like Lynn Hershman Leeson’s “Teknolust,” the gritty but stylish film is among the first to probe relationships in cyberspace.

Weintrob shot his actors in separate rooms connected by Web cams so they felt like they were alone with their computers.

The message is that “we all need human contact, so eventually you have to get off line,” he said.

Weintrob, 34, first learned about the importance of human connections growing up in a close-knit Manhattan Jewish family where Israeli relatives often crashed on the couch. His introduction to the Web (and to cybersex) was the early PC model he received for his bar mitzvah.

Sex ed part II was researching “On_Line,” co-written with fellow Harvard alumnus Andrew Osborne; one inspiration was the man who learned of his wife’s infidelity by reading her Web journal.

“He never spoke to her again except via e-mail,” Weintrob said. “That started me thinking about the intimate things people were willing to reveal online and how messed up that could make you in real life.”

The fictional Roth evolved as Weintrob wondered what would have happened had his heartbreak-induced Web addiction escalated. “We’ve all felt desperate and depressed, and that the computer is our only friend,” said the director, now dating a nice Jewish girl from Long Island. “But as personal as it feels, it’s completely impersonal.”

“On_Line” opens June 27 in Los Angeles. For moreinformation, visit www.onlinethemovie.com .

Web Can Ensnare Victims Quickly


In his 35-year career, Rabbi Juda Mintz established a Jewish
youth group in Montreal, founded a traditional congregation and a campus Hillel
in Atlanta and led more than 50 missions to Israel — all without the aid of a
computer.

But when he was hired at a Mount Freedom, N.J., synagogue at
the age of 56, his board felt the rabbi should have a computer.

It didn’t take long before Mintz stumbled upon Internet
pornography. For 18 months, he spent several hours a day numbing out in front
of the computer.

Now in recovery for two and a half years, he continues to
uncover underlying reasons for his addiction: parents who were distant, his own
dysfunctional marriage of 36 years.

But it is also true that without Internet pornography, Mintz
may never have acted on his emotional disturbances.

Like a growing number of people, Mintz became addicted on a
medium that can snare its victims within a matter of weeks.

Robert Weiss, who co-authored “Cybersex Exposed: Simple
Fantasy or Obsession” (Hazleden, 2001) with Jennifer Schneider, said he is
seeing a significant increase in the number of people addicted to cybersex,
even among people with no history of addictive behaviors.

“Something about the intensity and the accessibility and the
affordability of the Internet made it more arousing and a more immediately
compulsive medium than any of the other outlets for sex, and therefore more
addictive,” said Weiss, clinical director of the Sexual Recovery Institute in
Los Angeles.

Weiss said that about 60 percent of all Internet traffic
involves a sexual purpose. An estimated 2 million users are addicted — meaning
they are ashamed of what they are doing, it is impacting their life, yet they
are unable to stop.

In a small number of cases, the behavior moves out of
virtual reality and into real life.

Just last week in New Jersey, Rabbi Israel Kestenbaum, who
founded and directed the Jewish Center for Spiritual Care for the New York
Board of Rabbis and was named the board’s Chaplain of the Year for his work at
Ground Zero, pleaded not guilty to charges that he was having sexually explicit
e-mail conversations with a 13-year-old girl, who turned out to be an
undercover police officer, according to The New York Times.

While it is hard to cull out how many cyberaddicts are
Jews, mental health professionals agree that there is no reason to believe the
proportion is any different among the Jewish population than the general
population.

“The Web site has become the opiate of the 21st century.
It’s a wonderful way to stay in your secret world, your fantasy world,” said
Donna Burstyn, a psychotherapist who has many Orthodox clients.

In the last two months before he was caught, Mintz’s
addiction spiraled down to child pornography, for which he could face up to
three years in federal prison. For now, he is living at Beit T’Shuvah, running
a weekly 12-step minyan at Kehillat Israel in Beverlywood and working to alert
community leaders — and especially educators — to the allure of Internet
pornography.

“I don’t think any rosh yeshiva or teacher or rebbe for boys
or girls is in denial that this is a humongous plague facing these kids,” Mintz
said.

Natural adolescent curiosity now has an outlet that is more
convenient, prolific — and addictive — than magazines hidden under the
mattress.

Many Jewish families, especially in more observant circles,
use heavy filters, none of which are foolproof firewalls. Others use commonly
encouraged approaches, such as keeping the computer in a common area and
monitoring when and for how long kids are on computer.

But the most effective tool, said Scott Perloff, assistant
director for education technology at Milken Community High School, is keeping a
culture of openness around the Internet.

“You should really be engaged with the kids when they are on
the Internet,” he said. “Use it as an opportunity for helping kids develop
judgment about what is appropriate and inappropriate material.”

If kids do happen upon explicit material, don’t overreact,
Perloff said. Teach kids to close the image, or just turn off the monitor, and
alert a parent or teacher to what they have seen.

“When parents are faced with a 9-year-old boy who mistakenly
ended up on a porn site, that is a teaching opportunity the parent dare not
avoid,” said Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector of the University of Judaism and an
expert on ethics. “Because if they do avoid it, children may deduce that this
is perfectly fine, or they may deduce that the parents are so uncomfortable
with it that is a taboo subject which they are not to talk about with parents.”

The Agonizing Toll of Sexual Addiction


One Friday night 33 years ago, when Yisroel Richtberg was 12
years old, an older boy sneaked into his dorm room at his Chasidic yeshiva in Israel,
pulled off Richtberg’s pajama pants and raped him. The same thing happened the
next Shabbat.

The boy told Richtberg (not his real name) that if he ever
told anyone, the two would be blacklisted at all the yeshivas, and the attacker
said he would kill himself.

Richtberg didn’t tell.

Instead, he sank into a cycle of depression, shame and
isolation, one that would lead to a 20-year addiction to prostitutes,
pornography and drugs, fronted by a double-life as an upstanding Chasidic
rabbi, businessman and father of 12.

Today, Richtberg is alive to tell his story because he got
help from therapists and 12-step programs. He has made it his life’s mission to
help others conquer an addiction so coated with shame that it resides at the
very bottom of the hierarchies of addiction.

Identified in the 1970s by Patrick Carnes, author of “Out of
the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction” (Hazelden, 2001), sex addiction
has the same psychological and physiological underpinnings as alcoholism, drug
abuse and other addictions, but cultural proscriptions against openly
addressing sexual behavior problems have made it one of the least understood of
the addictive disorders. Addicts are either feared as offenders, which only a
small percentage are, or mockingly revered with a that-sounds-like-fun wink.

But addicts say there is no pleasure in being a slave to a
compulsion so strong that it affects the body and mind as acutely as a drug.

“There is still this judgment of ‘what a sleazy guy,’ but
what they don’t understand is that the addict has a psycho-biological disorder
in which he is seeking a drug that he himself produces,” said Robert Weiss,
clinical director of the Sexual Recovery Institute, on Olympic Boulevard, just
outside Beverly Hills. “He is literally dosing himself with his own
neurochemistry, like a drug addict with a needle in his arm.”

Whether acting out by compulsively masturbating to
pornography, having serial affairs, frequenting prostitutes or habitually
seeking homosexual or heterosexual one-night stands, sex addicts sink into a
pit of shame and self-loathing, often threatening their families and
livelihood.

It is difficult to determine whether the incidence of
addiction is higher or lower in the Jewish community than in the general
population, where Carnes estimates that about 5 percent to 8 percent of adults
have a sexual compulsivity disorder. Conversations with several mental health
professionals who work with the Jewish community, from ultra-Orthodox to
unaffiliated, revealed that all had a significant number of patients dealing
with sex addiction, including several rabbis. Several pulpit rabbis revealed
that congregants had sought counseling from them about sex addiction.

Weiss believes the vast majority of sex addicts are men, and
pointed out that female sex addicts might be too embarrassed to seek help, or
might be getting paid to act out as prostitutes or exotic dancers.

Weiss estimates that about 20 percent of addicts are sexual
offenders, usually engaging in exhibitionism or voyeurism. Occasionally addicts
are guilty of molestation or rape, but not all sex offenders are addicts.

In a world where clothing styles, entertainment and
marketing have stripped away sexual inhibitions, triggers are everywhere for an
addict. Free-flowing pornography on the Internet has added to the mix a population
of addicts who never showed such tendencies before (see Web, p. 11).

The changing reality of cybersex has forced Jewish community
leaders, educators and rabbis to begin battling a seemingly inbred denial and
acknowledge that the community must aid its addicts.

In Los Angeles there are indications that awareness is
growing. A Jewish Federation conference on addictions in the fall of 2001
attracted 250 people.

This year, 880 people attended the annual dinner of Beit
T’Shuvah, a residential rehabilitation organization in Los Angeles that uses
Judaism at the core of its treatment — the only such facility in the country.

With the help of Rabbi Juda Mintz, himself a recovering
addict to Internet pornography, Beit T’Shuvah and the Board of Rabbis of
Southern California recently co-sponsored a series on addictions. It was at the
session on sex addiction, and in private conversations with The Jewish Journal,
that Richtberg told his story.

Addiction or Just Bad Behavior?

Richtberg is a Chasid with a scraggly beard, wide-brimmed
hat, long coat and knickers tucked into his thin black socks. Thick glasses
cover his tired blue eyes, and his Yiddish accent belies his American birth and
Israeli upbringing.

Two years after Richtberg was raped, his parents transferred
him to a new yeshiva in Jerusalem, hoping to reverse his baffling
transformation into a depressed and isolated C student.

A rabbi at the new yeshiva, an ad hoc counselor for boys who
have sexual problems, was the first person Richtberg told about the rape and
his subsequent behaviors: compulsive masturbating, viewing pornographic
materials and a sexual relationship with another boy. (Years later, Richtberg
found out that the boy, after he married and had a family, committed suicide.)

While the rabbi was more compassionate than others in the
yeshiva system who scolded and blamed Richtberg, he was not a mental health
professional and was more interested in getting Richtberg to stop his behaviors
than in healing him. Richtberg said he would promise the rabbi that he would
stop, but then would come back crying in shame when he didn’t.

“Today I know I was an addict from the start because I had
so much pain, and I didn’t have a person to talk to about my pain, and I tried
to do something to cope,” Richtberg said.

Experts say his symptoms — compulsive, self-destructive
behavior, followed by shame and heartfelt-but-futile promises to stop — were
classic signs of addiction, whether caused by an acute trauma or more subtle
emotional trouble.

“All addiction is caused by a hole in one’s soul, and a need
to fill it with something,” said Rabbi Mark Borovitz, spiritual leader of Beit
T’Shuvah. “It’s about loneliness and emptiness. We turn to addictive behaviors
and substances as a solution to this experience of not fitting in, of not being
good enough.”

Despite an understanding that the addiction is destroying
his life, the addict’s attempts to stop will fail until he gets outside help,
experts say.

“An addiction becomes the center of your life,” said Rabbi
Elliot Dorff, rector of the University of Judaism and an expert in Jewish
medical ethics. “It becomes like an idol, theologically speaking, and
everything in your life is centered around it, and most other things that are
really important get lost.”

While society has come to accept an individual’s
powerlessness in relation to drugs and alcohol, because of the brain’s chemical
dependency on these substances, the terminology of addiction seems harder to
justify in reference to gambling, overeating or sex, which most people can control.

However, experts report that sex addicts have the same
genetic predisposition toward addictive behavior as other addicts. And once an
addict gets hooked on a behavior, his body treats it — and the pursuit of it —
as a drug.

“Neuropsychological research shows that the exhilaration
that people feel when in pursuit of the object of their addiction can
approximate the high in and of itself, so that not only are they seeking the
thrill through the drug or illicit behavior, but even the pursuit is generating
an exhilarating high,” said David Fox, a clinical psychologist and rabbi.

Just how to classify sex addiction is still a matter of
debate in the medical community. Sex addiction made its way into the DSM III,
the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual, in 1980, but was
pulled with the release of the DSM IV in 1994. Weiss is confident that current
research has quieted most debate and that the diagnosis will be reinstated in
the next edition.

All of this makes it difficult to use sex addiction as a
legal defense, and Weiss notes, it is hardly a defense that conjures much
empathy among jurors.

The Double Life

Mark Altman (not his real name), a 40-something married
professional, who was a sex addict for more than 20 years and has been in
recovery for five, was raised by two alcoholics and suffered a childhood trauma
that set off his addiction.

He began sexually acting out as a teenager, “numbing out” by
compulsively masturbating, he said. Starting in college, he sought sexual
liaisons with men at sex clubs, bathhouses and park restrooms, while in his
public life he dated women. He continued his double life through 15 years of
marriage, raising three children and belonging to a Reform temple.

“Every New Year’s, every birthday, every Rosh Hashana, every
time there was some sort of event when I could make a resolution, I would swear
to myself I would stop, because it was killing me,” Altman said.

“I was leading a good family life, I was there for my kids,
I was there for my wife,” he continued. “I just carried on this charade, and I
was dying inside. And I couldn’t stop, no matter how hard I tried.”

At one point, he planned suicide. He sought therapy, but it
didn’t give him the tools to stop. At the height of his addiction, he was
acting out almost daily — adult bookstores, cybersex, phone sex and cruising
for sexual encounters.

Altman knows now that what he was searching for was
validation — the comfort of believing, however fleetingly, that someone else
thought he was worthy of love and attention. It was never about the sex, he
said.

“The thing I was really looking for was somebody to hold me
and rub my back and tell me I’m an OK guy, not such a bad person,” he said.
“You feel so bad about yourself, and as an addict, you look to the exterior to
find something to fix you.”

But the fix never lasted long.

“I would act out,” Altman recalled, “then feel really crappy
about it afterward, saying, ‘I can’t believe I did this,’ then go home to my
wife and kids, and feel awful and shameful and guilty and horrible, and the
only way I knew to make it stop was to act out again.”

Experts say the cycle Altman described is characteristic of
all addictions and is usually augmented by what is referred to as boundary
crossing, where increasing levels of the substance or behavior are needed to
achieve the same high.

Richtberg can mark each of the milestones in his life with
another boundary crossing. When he was 19, on the advice of the rabbi who was
counseling him, he married. His first introduction to the female body quashed
his desire for men, but enhanced his addiction.

He stayed clean for three weeks after he married. But the
first night his wife cooked dinner, he took a bus into Manhattan’s redlight
district instead of going home.

“I cruised the streets and went to some peep shows,”
Richtberg recalled, “and came home about 3 a.m.”

It was his first time at a live show. “Today, I know it was
too hard for me to deal with my life, and I had to run.”

He celebrated the birth of his first daughter by seeing a
prostitute for the first time. As his habit grew more expensive, he left
kollel, where he was studying full time to earn rabbinic ordination, and
started a business.

At around that time in 1983, his third child was born, a son
with a serious genetic disease. “I knew for sure that Hashem is punishing me,
and that’s why he gave me such a sick child,” Richtberg said. “And I kept
promising myself that I’m going to stop.”

Two years later, another child was born with the same disorder,
and two years after that another child was born with a different chronic
illness. Another child died in infancy.

With each trauma, Richtberg crossed another boundary. He
began to use drugs — first marijuana, then cocaine, then crack.

“At a certain time, it’s hard to say exactly when, I gave
up,” Richtberg said. “I stopped making promises and decided to live a double
life. My goal was to make a lot of money and to make sure that my two worlds
don’t mix.”

Getting Help

Getting into drugs killed Richtberg’s illusion of control.
Within a year and half, he lost his business and started bouncing checks within
his own community. In 1990, he pleaded guilty to business fraud for which he
later served a 20-month sentence. His double life was falling apart.

It took a well-timed external kick to finally induce
Richtberg to get help. The nurses who lived at Richtberg’s home to care for his
disabled children told his wife that they thought he was on drugs. His
brother-in-law brought him to a clinic.

Richtberg yo-yoed through the first few months of therapy,
which focused only on his drug problem, until his therapist insisted that he go
to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and intense outpatient rehabilitation.
Richtberg went on his last cocaine binge in October 1991.

Richtberg said he stayed away from prostitutes for a full
year. But then one day, he found himself in Manhattan, in tears and with a
prostitute. The next day, he and his therapist came up with one last hope: Sex
Addicts Anonymous (SAA).

Richtberg went to a meeting that day and has been clean
since.

“Treatment for any addiction is directly related to
motivation, so if someone is really motivated to change, it is possible, but it
is an active process,” Weiss said.

Unlike gambling, drugs or alcohol, sex cannot simply be
sworn off. Rather, sex addicts construct parameters in which they can have sex
— with a loving partner, for instance — and still stay on the path toward their
life goals.

Altman went to his first SAA meeting after he was arrested
at a park where men hung out to pick up sex partners.

“I never really thought that I could ever find a group of
people talking about the kind of things that I was sure nobody else did,”
Altman said. “Twelve-step gives you tools you can work with to stop these
behaviors, to really live your life. It’s not just about stopping the sexual
activity. It’s about living your life with integrity and honesty and being
accountable for your actions.”

Spiritual Treatment for a Spiritual Malady

Borovitz of Beit T’Shuvah, himself a recovering alcoholic,
believes that spiritual counseling, prayer and Torah study are essential to
integrating all the elements of a Jewish addict’s soul.

“One of the things that most people speak about in recovery
is finding their authentic soul and how important it is that they can take a
breath and be who they are, rather than who everyone else expects them to be,”
Borovitz said.

He said addicts need to harness God’s power to make their
recovery successful.

“Turning my life and will over to God’s care is a statement
by me that the creative energy of the world is available to me to learn and to
follow the derech [the right path],” Borovitz said.

While some might mistake admitting powerlessness for
relinquishing responsibility, Borovitz said the admission brings a renewed
sense of moral culpability.

“Once I have a connection with God, I have to accept the
yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven,” he said. “I can’t lie to myself anymore.”

Both Altman and Richtberg had to re-envision their
relationship to Judaism and God to succeed in SAA’s 12-step program.

“When I was first forced to go to AA meetings, I felt that
it’s goyish, it’s not for me,” Richtberg recalled. Meetings are often in
churches, God is invoked as the higher power and sessions end in “The Lord’s
Prayer.”

Richtberg wove together the 12-step process with the Jewish
path of teshuvah (repentance), growing closer to God and stronger in his
Judaism as he made amends with himself and others.

“This is like a cancer, my addiction, and based on the
prognosis, I can’t stay sober,” Richtberg said. “But there is a God who can
help keep me sober if I turn to him every day,” he said. “Every day, I get up
in the morning, and I say, ‘Tati [Daddy], I’m powerless, I can’t stay sober and
I’m asking you for a toivah [favor]. Please keep me sober for today. I’m not
asking more, just for today.’ That has been working for 10 years.”

Altman, a self-described atheist who grew up in a
“spiritually empty” family that belonged to a Reform temple, said he had “to
get away from a lot of initial religious baggage before I could develop my own
concept of a higher power.”

Altman now has a “constellation of ideas” that constitute
his higher power. One of those ideas incorporates the ongoing conversation in
his own head between what he calls “my addict” and the person he was born to be
— the one who can discern right from wrong, the one who can learn to love
himself for who he is.

“The program consists of people helping each other,” he
said. “Two people are always stronger than one person alone, so I cannot deny
that that is a power greater than me.”

With Help, Hope

Altman is honing his new conception of God with Rabbi Paul
Kipnes of Congregation Or Ami in Agoura Hills, who has worked with addiction
for years.

“Every rabbi should have the big book of Alcoholics
Anonymous, as well as some of the Jewish recovery books, on their shelf just
over their shoulder, so everyone knows that we’re here, and that we’re open,”
Kipnes said.

Harriet Rossetto, CEO of Beit T’Shuvah, said that opening
Jewish opportunities for recovery is especially vital for rabbis, who often
have no one to talk to about the conflicting realities of their public image
and what goes on inside them.

“It’s time to address rabbis as human beings and acknowledge
that they have these issues and provide treatment, rather than putting them up
on this pedestal and knocking them off and stepping on them,” Rossetto said.

Beit T’Shuvah, with Mintz’s help, is putting together an
anonymous 12-step group for rabbis.

Mintz said that working to raise awareness of addiction in
the Jewish community has become his tikkun — a mission of healing that is his
life’s purpose.

Richtberg, who hides his secret from his Chasidic community
and the small congregation he runs, believes his ordeal also has a divine
purpose. He makes himself available to rabbis, doctors and mental health
professionals. He started an SAA group in Israel and he often runs the minyan
at international SAA conventions.

And if in his past life his milestones were marked with
sinking deeper into his addiction, he said they are now marked with saving more
lives.

On the very day last year that his son, disabled from birth,
died as a teenager, Richtberg got a call from an Israeli friend who was in the
United States and needed the support of a fellow recovering addict. With
Hatzolah paramedics still in his home, Richtberg at first explained that he
just couldn’t. Then he called back and told the man to come right over.

“My son left in the spirit of somebody who was reborn,” he
said. “I helped somebody recreate a new life and another one left.”

In the 10 years that he’s been clean, Richtberg and his wife
have had three healthy children. On their anniversary this year, his wife, who
considered leaving him when he revealed his secret, told him she now treasures
each minute she is married to him.

“If you ask me what is the basic change that has happened to
me in the last 10 years, it’s that 10 years ago, I did not believe I had
anything to give, that there would ever come a time in my life that I would
have something to give,” Richtberg said.

“Now people feel that I’m something,” he said. “People value
me. Sometimes I still have a hard time believing it.”

Somebody Stop Me


I’ve been spending so much time and energy dating that it
sometimes feels like an addiction. Or at least another career. If only it paid. And didn’t involve so much time at Starbucks.
And didn’t require at the end of each meeting having to come up with a polite
way to say, “It’s perfectly okay with me if we never see each other again for
the rest of our lives; in fact, I’d prefer it.”

Which usually emerges from my careful-to-be-tactful mouth in
this fashion: “Very nice meeting you.”

In the first three years following my divorce, I went on 150
coffee dates. And by “coffee dates” I’m using the standard Merriam-Webster
dictionary definition: “first-time meetings, usually ending in disappointment.”
And I’m an optimist, mind you.

Now, I realize that 150 coffee dates sounds like a lot, but
spread out over three years, it’s just one a week. Of course, depending on the
person, 15 minutes with the wrong woman for the first time can seem like a
whole week. But I learned something very important from those 150 coffee dates:
If I’d saved all the money I spent on them, I could have afforded a Hyundai.
(Granted, four of the dates resulted in relationships, but the other 146 of
them only resulted in a thorough knowledge of the differences between lattes,
frappucinos and caramel macchiatos.)

Sometimes I think this dating odyssey is God’s way of
getting back at me for never having taken chemistry in school. He’s making it
virtually impossible for me to find chemistry with my beshert. Is mutual
worship and adoration too much to ask for? Of course not. You can ask for it
all you want. Getting it is another story.

It’s the same old story: Either they’re not attracted to me
or I’m not attracted to them. Sometimes they show up without a sense of humor,
without a sense of playfulness, without even the realization that someone else
is sitting across the table from them. One woman talked to me about herself for
a full hour without asking me one question about myself. Astounding. But if I
want self-absorbed, I’ll date actresses exclusively.

I admit that I do like the variety. I’ve gone out with a
judge, a cantor, a masseuse, a teacher, a network executive, a nurse, a college
student, a speech therapist, a doctor, an actress, a psychologist, a lawyer,
even a forest ranger. I’ve had a first date in an art museum that featured
life-sized, naked, anatomically correct male and female mannequins.

At a recent brunch, a woman immediately removed a digital
scale from her pocketbook and proceeded to weigh each item of food that was
served. Another date took me to the Holocaust-themed film “The Pianist”; but my
efforts to salvage the mood (“We Jews really have to stick together — wanna
come home with me?”) came to no avail. At one Starbucks, I waited an extra half
hour for my date to arrive, missing the fact that she was already seated a few
tables away — she looked so different from the photo that went with her profile
that I could not believe she was the same person. Still to this day I am
convinced she was my date’s mother.

And even though I’ve done my share of rejecting, I’ve also
experienced my share of being rejected. At first, I took it personally. Now I
consider it part of the process. Often, women can’t bring themselves to say,
“Sorry, not interested” to my face, so they’ll lie.

Once, I asked a date, “Can we go out again?”

She cheerfully responded, “Call me!” I never heard back from
her. Now when I hear a cheerful “Call me!” I realize it’s the kiss of death,
not unlike that given by Michael Corleone in “The Godfather.”

My favorite kiss-off, though, happened recently. When I
brought up the subject of a third date, I actually heard these words come from
her lips: “I’m going to be really busy in January.” Wouldn’t a quick slap
across my face have made the point more directly?

So why do I put myself through all this pain, aggravation,
expense and time over and over and over and over again? Am I masochistic? Or am
I a serial dater so addicted to the process that I consciously or
subconsciously never intend to settle down with one of them?

I don’t think so.

I go through it all because I’ve experienced the thrill of a
relationship when it works. In fact, I’ve been lucky enough to have had more
than one relationship in which both people worship and adore one another. I
think these kinds of relationships are rare — at least for me. But when they do
happen, it’s special, exciting, stimulating, life-enhancing. It’s magic. And I
know she’s out there somewhere, perhaps even looking for me.

All I ask is that at the end of our first date, she doesn’t
look me in the eyes, smile warmly, and cheerfully say, “Call me!” Â


Mark Miller is a former stand-up comic and current marketing manager at KCET. He’s also a comedy writer, who has written and produced TV sitcoms, sold feature film comedies to Warner Bros. and been a humor columnist for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate and other publications.

Exodus From Addiction and Shame


These are the Ten Plagues of Prison Life, and we take a drop of grape juice out of our cups for each: Damage left in the wake of destructive addiction. Abusive relationships. Low self-esteem. The embittered spirit. Wrong attitude. Weakening mind and body. Daily degradation. Deprivation. Captivity. Separation from loved ones.

Freedom has a different meaning for the Shalom Sisterhood, a group of 20 inmates who meet twice a month for Jewish study at the California Institution for Women (CIW). As they gather for a seder in the meeting room of this college campus-like institution set among the dairy farms and truck repair shops of Chino, the Shalom Sisterhood considers anew the story of the Exodus and the freedoms of mind and spirit available to them.

Their seder is just one of many held throughout the area that reinterprets the ancient story to shed light on contemporary issues (see sidebar).

Before attending the March 18 event at CIW, Rabbi Paul Dubin wondered what kind of seder is appropriate in a prison. As a board member of Gateways Hospital and Mental Health Center, the sponsor of the event, and former executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, Dubin wanted to help the inmates connect their prison experience with Jewish life. He read the haggadah they had prepared and was impressed. "They’re covering the very thing that would have worried me: How do you speak about freedom in a place like this?"

Dubin spoke at the seder about "all those enslavements that warp the spirit and blight the mind, that destroy the soul, even though they leave the flesh alive."

In the "Haggadah Shel Assurim" ("Haggadah of Captivity"), developed by the Shalom Sisterhood with Rabbi Mel Silverman before his retirement last year, the Jewish prisoners include their own stories. Margaret Tanner, who wears a small necklace charm reading "Try God," reads from her selection, "Many women have said ‘I wasn’t arrested, I was rescued.’ This is true for me."

Dawn Ayers is chair of the Shalom Sisterhood. At the seder, she reads her "Letter to Heroin," a declaration of freedom included among many of the inmates’ meditations in the haggadah. "Each day I find courage and strength, not from you, but from my spiritual fold," she reads, "I regret that I had to lose everything to set myself free…. I will stay sober and out of your bondage."

Kim Braun was a preschool teacher from Porter Ranch. Following her divorce and a bitter custody battle, Braun began writing bad checks and got involved in computer hacking. She vows that when she is released, "I’m never even going to have a parking violation."

Mona Blaskey is a mother of nine. When her own mother died last year, she went out drinking with a friend. The night turned violent when a drunken argument with a friend led to a shoving match; an aneurysm burst when her friend fell. It was Blaskey’s first run-in with the law. She is serving six years for attempted murder and will serve half the time for good behavior.

Braun and Blaskey consider themselves lucky. Blaskey recalls her first meeting with the Shalom Sisterhood. When the women introduced themselves and the amount of time they were serving, she says she was "heartbroken" — many of the women at this seder have "indeterminate" sentences of seven, 15 or 25 years to life.

On her left hand, Blaskey has a Star of David tattoo. She says the seder makes her homesick for her father’s Orange County home, where she would spend hours cooking for her family.

Rather than cooking a meal with family, on this night the Shalom Sisterhood enjoys the treat of nonprison food, with dinner contributions from Art’s Deli in Studio City and Gateways Hospital pitching in for the catered chicken dinner. Boxes of matzah and macaroons are available to take back to their rooms; what hot food is left over, Shalom Sisterhood members pile onto plates to share the joys of Passover with roommates. No door is left open for Elijah, but strangers are invited in.

The seder was sponsored by the Jewish Committee for Personal Service (JCPS), a service of Gateways Hospital that helps to bring Jewish life and values to prisoners and acts as advocates on their behalf. JCPS Director Judith Sable visits CIW every other week. Since Silverman’s retirement, the prison budget has not supported a visiting rabbi. Though the women say they trust and respect CIW chaplain Father Neil Fuller, Sable is their only regular connection to Jewish life.

Sable, a social worker who visits prisons across the state as a "religious volunteer," says the hardest part of her work is convincing those outside the system that Jewish prisoners are worthy of their help. She points to the sincere efforts of the Shalom Sisterhood, evident at the seder table, to improve their minds, bodies, spirits and lives.

"I would stake my life on it," Sable says. "These women would not commit another crime. They’re upstanding citizens and they’re still here." She wants to offer more to them than twice-monthly visits. "We’re working on doing some shonda-busting," she says.


You don’t have to go to prison to find a Passover seder with a contemporary interpretation of the Exodus. With the service itself encouraging us to place ourselves in the sandals of the Israelites, Passover is uniquely suited to tie together history and personal experience. All around Los Angeles, Jewish and non-Jewish groups offered fun, thought-provoking, inspirational, celebrational seders that take off from the Exodus into a new land of celebration.

At Temple Beth Hillel in Valley Village, the freedom vibe rings in from West Africa at the popular Reggae Passover. Alan Eder & Friends bring their "Songs of Freedom," joined by African dancers and choirs from the temple and Parks Chapel A.M.E. Church.

If you prefer gourmet to reggae, Wolfgang Puck has it covered — Spago’s seder, with braised Morrocan lamb and tarragon gefilte fish, has become a tradition in its own right, and proceeds go to charity.

The seder may focus on women’s issues, as at Temple Judea in Tarzana or the National Council of Jewish Women. Or reading a haggadah together might aim to bring singles to the Promised Land of their beshert, as did a Passover dinner this year at Meet Me Café. Perhaps the most popular "new order" for Passover is the interfaith seder, of the type Leo Baeck Temple held this year, where members of any community can recognize elements of their own historical struggles in the retelling of the Passover tale.

Whatever the community, whatever the goal, the story of Passover can speak to anyone who has struggled, anyone who has been set free. In congregations and communities across Los Angeles, Passover celebrants are saying, "We’ll leave the door open." — Mike Levy, Staff Writer

Recovered Lives


John Ostland spent 11 years, off and on in prison because of his drug addiction. He would steal anything of value to get money for his habit.

Four years ago, he found Chabad’s residential drug treatment center. Now, Ostland works at the center. Sober and self-confident, his work includes making bank deposits for the center.

In a large,nondescript white building at the corner of Olympic and Hauser boulevards, Chabad’s 42-bed facility houses recovering addicts from across the country. They come from the East Coast, Canada and South America to heal here. From wherever they come, the trip is worth it — Chabad boasts a recovery rate of better than 90 percent. In 25 years, Chabad has produced more than a few John Ostlands.

Only in the past three years has Chabad found this level of success. As the program has come into its own after years in cramped quarters, Chabad found and purchased the large building on Olympic. Now they have enough beds for addicts in the first stages of recovery, along with a sober-living facility for “graduates” of the program to stay within the supportive environment as they return to jobs and possible tempting situations.

Chabad’s Rabbi Yossi Cunin credits the center’s success to the unique and highly practical three-part program of Jewish values with optional Jewish study, an Alcoholics Anonymous-style 12-step program and moral-development counseling.

“I mostly come by just to chat, to give these guys the feeling that the outside world cares,” Cunin says. “As much as they like to, they can make use of my knowledge.”

He adds that soon after Chabad began trying to help drug addicts, “they recognized that it was beyond their own capability, just for them to express religious aspects it wouldn’t cure them, that they would need a professional therapy, 12 steps, whatnot, to get them through. If you really want to help them, you have to be able to deal with these addictions that they have.”

Part of the help addicts get comes from Clinical Director Donna Miller. She leads individual therapy sessions with the residents, stressing what she calls moral development.

“I’m a lot about values, and filling that spiritual void that drugs have been filling,” she explains. “What are you here for? Is it the party, to get the girl, to get the Porsche? Or are you here for another purpose?

“That’s where a lot of Torah values come in, because they reinforce that. What are we here for? We’re here to fix ourselves and help others. How do you do that? Acts of kindness and appropriate communication,” Miller says.

The individual therapy sessions can work for an addict with a lifetime of religious study or none at all. “I love to incorporate love of Torah and Jewish values in with therapy,” says Miller.

But the Chabad program also serves non-Jews as well. More important than Jewish study is “a strong spiritual guideline and focus,” Miller adds.

The third figure in Chabad’s triumvirate of recovery is the center’s recovery manager, Eitan Garbi, whose task is to lead residents through the 12 steps to recovery, a path he has walked himself.

With his deep tan and open, casual manner, Garbi looks more like a surfing instructor than the caring counselor the center’s residents describe. But at 51, this cat is well into his nine lives.

Born in Givata’aim, Israel, Garbi came to Los Angeles in 1974 and soon built up a multimillion dollar import-export company. He lived in an eight-bedroom Beverly Hills mansion; a collection of luxury models cars in his office speaks of his early success.

But when friends introduced him to cocaine, he discovered the depths of dependency. In 12-years of spiraling deeper into addiction, losing his business and his family, Garbi maintained the popular lie: “I do drugs in Beverly Hills, so I’m not a junkie.” After getting clean with Chabad’s help, Garbi thought the program would be more effective with a 12-step program to counteract “the guilt, the shame and, most of all, the blame” he sees impeding many addicts’ recoveries.

Ostland has had the benefit of all three of the Chabad program’s recovery methods. “I didn’t have too much Jewish religion when I came here,” he says. He also lacked the sense of self-worth and being loved that can come with community.

“It’s the values and the conditions,” he says. “It gives you some sense of value, that you’re needed. It’s a good program.”

Like many who end up in the Chabad program, Ostland had tried other methods of quitting, but found something at Chabad that finally helped him stay sober. “The way everything fits together with Donna and Eitan, and Rabbi Cunin coming by, it’s just like a good family picture. It makes you feel as if you belong somewhere. I know I belong. I believe wholeheartedly that I can do anything I want.”

Jewish moral values, combined with a 12-step program and social counseling help both Jewish and non-Jewish addicts to lead productive lives. “It did more than help me.” Ostland says. “It saved me. It gave me a life again.”

For more information on Chabad’s program, call (323) 965-1365.

Take 12 Steps


It would be hard to exaggerate the significance of The Jewish Federation’s Addiction Conference held Monday at the Skirball Cultural Center. But to compare, think back to the Shechinah Conference held 20 years ago at Hebrew Union College, which helped consolidate and shape Jewish feminism. In its willingness to creatively address perhaps the biggest social issue of our time, the Skirball program is that big a deal.

In truth, it was not the "first" West Coast conference on the subject of addiction and the Jewish community. More than two decades ago, L’Chaim, an Alcoholics Anonymous-style organization for Jews, made a similar effort to bring a dirty secret of Jewish life out into the open at its conference. There have been alcoholics and drug addicts ever since Noah, just as there have been Jewish professionals trying to help us face our demons.

Nevertheless, the larger American zeitgeist of "recovery" makes this event historic. The 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, formalized more than 65 years ago by Bill W., are now the common parlance of millions, who gather together to share their experience, strength and hope to overcome personal obsessions deemed out of control. To nail the point, last year, California voters passed Prop. 36, allowing some drug offenders to participate in treatment programs including those using the 12 Steps, rather than jail.

Thousands of Jews consider themselves members of the "anonymous fellowships," including Gamblers Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous and Al-Anon, for relatives and friends of the addicted. These Jews speak the language of "powerlessness" and "Higher Power" and say the "Serenity Prayer" as often and as easily as they do the "Shema."

Until now, these Jews in recovery have met with their fellows, mostly in churches, often with twinges of guilt that they were somehow committing treason, if not embarking on a course of spiritual schizophrenia.

But on Monday, a host of community authorities, including many addicts themselves, rose to assert that the language of recovery is congruent with Judaism.

"All the principles of the 12 Steps were in Judaism 2,000 years ago," declared Dr. Abraham Twerski in a keynote speech titled, "Twelve Steps and Torah — Is there a Fit?" Twerski, a white-bearded Orthodox rabbi who might have popped out of a Sholom Aleichem story, is a national authority on chemical dependency. He shocked many in the audience with his matter-of-fact quoting of 12-Step principles side by side with Talmud.

The day was an enormous breakthrough.

First, Jews can now feel free to walk the 12 Steps without thinking they are on the road with Jesus. These programs may not be exclusively Jewish in tone (the language of the program is a mix of Carl Jung, Buddhism and 1950s Christianity), but they are decidedly focused on Jewish purpose: overcoming the "evil inclination" and finding God’s will.

Second, the Jewish community, by this conference, is admitting that it, too, is powerless over addictions. We can’t hide from them, nor feel confident that our community alone can solve them. Drugs are everywhere, as the morning’s keynote speaker, Ethan A. Nadelmann, insisted. And we can no longer pretend that the consequences of obsession with drugs, alcohol, sex and whatever are limited to an aberrant few, most of whom end up in jail.

Scoffing at Jewish addiction is an age-old sadistic tradition, represented at the conference by UCLA’s professor Mark Kleiman."Jewish addiction is like Jewish basketball," Kleiman said. "There’s not much of it, and it’s not very good."

But this trivialization of individual and family crisis is, thankfully, no longer going to hold. Playing the numbers game to disprove a Jewish problem didn’t stop divorce or homosexuality from becoming a reality. When the community is ready to accept a social condition, it does so.

Third, the Jewish community admits that it has something to learn from another spiritual discipline. Rabbi Paul Kipnes from Congregation Or Ami suggested that synagogues open their doors to 12 Step programs. He has created a six-congregation ad hoc Rabbinic Coalition to Support Jewish 12 Step Programming. This had to be an enormous first step.

In a day filled with mind-blowers, here is my favorite, from Twerski:

"I feel sorry for those who don’t have addictions," he said. "They don’t hit rock bottom. So they’re missing out on some of the greatest ideas in life."

Dirty Little Secret


“I am a recovering alcoholic.”

It’s a stark way to open a conversation — surprising, really, coming from Cheri Morgan, the vice chair of the United Jewish Fund Campaign (UJF) and wife of Todd Morgan, chairman of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

Even though her battle with alcoholism is long behind her, Morgan remains acutely aware of her condition and has no qualms about talking about it. Yet, she is way ahead of many in the Jewish community who are loath to identify addiction as a Jewish problem.

The Federation hopes to change some of those closeted attitudes by co-sponsoring The First West Coast Jewish Federation Addiction Conference on Monday, Oct. 22 from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the Skirball Cultural Center. The daylong symposium is open to health-care professionals, educators, community leaders and members of the public, and will address a topic that many in the community prefer to pretend is not their problem: alcohol and drug addiction.

“When I went through treatment 30 years ago, I went through an outstanding program called St. Mary’s,” Morgan told The Journal, speaking about a clinic in her hometown of Minneapolis.

Co-sponsors of the Addiction Conference are Jewish Family Service (JFS), a beneficiary agency of The 0Federation; Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) and Beit T’Shuvah, the only residential rehabilitation facility in the country offering a Jewish aspect to treatment, such as in-house rabbinical counseling and spiritual services.

Morgan, who will co-chair the conference with Annette Shapiro and Rita Lowenthal, said she wished that something like Beit T’Shuvah had been available to her when she had been wrestling with her demons.

“What was missing for me was the Judaism part,” Morgan said. “That they [Beit T’Shuvah] are healing through spirituality and Judaism is utterly important. I have gotten sickest in my life when I wasn’t connected spiritually.”

Morgan grew up in a prominent Minneapolis family that was, on the surface, the envy of her community. But behind the scenes, her father was dying of cancer. Morgan’s drinking started at 16, when her father was diagnosed, and accelerated when she was 18, following her father’s death. At the time, teenage alcoholism was not a topic of discussion in American society — and certainly not in the Jewish community.

When Morgan became pregnant, she decided to finally tackle the disease. With the support of her family, she entered treatment at age 24 .

“Even though it wasn’t verbalized at the time,” Morgan said, “there’s a name for what I was going through. It’s called alcoholism.”

If Morgan were going through this today, no doubt she would find many more young Jews in her rehab group.

Jasmina Moore and Catherine Bergmann, coordinators of JFS’ Alcohol Drug Action Program (ADAP), say that about 10 percent of the Jewish community is addicted — the same as the percentage of addicts in the U.S. population as a whole.

According to ADAP’s coordinators, many Jews in their 30s and 40s who have enlisted in the program say their alcohol abuse began in their teens, starting with drinking at home, including during Jewish holidays.

For three years, Moore and Bergmann have been using ADAP as a platform to bring the issue out in the open.

“Part of what we do is educate the families and the congregations that this is becoming a problem,” Moore said.

Beit T’Shuvah is only one component of the solution, say the conference’s organizers. Awareness, recognition of symptoms, and admitting that such a problem exists in our community are key points that the Addiction Conference intends to target.

“We just cannot ignore it anymore,” Morgan said. “We have to make it safe to come out, because it’s a disease of denial.”

Denial and shame have been factors in keeping the subject out of the community, said Rabbi Paul Kipnes, spiritual leader of Congregation Or Ami of Calabasas. “For years, people didn’t want to talk about it,” said Kipnes, who will lead a lecture titled “Spirituality and Addiction.”

“We whisper about it, we don’t talk about it. It was a source of shame. The community was horrible, shoving aside Jews who needed to recover, and they wound up going to churches and other secular programs,” Kipnes said. “But the truth is that Jews are recovering from addiction. They fill up pews in our congregations and participate in our Jewish organizations.”

Here in Los Angeles, vices associated with the entertainment industry exacerbate the problem, Kipnes added.

“The Jewish community is so filled with healing institutions and our traditions are so filled with healing texts, ” Kipnes said. “We need to make this available to all who are going through difficult times.”

“I’m hoping that the conference will break through the silence in the community,” Kipnes said. ” I’d like to squarely position Jewish community and tradition as healing avenues.”

The conference will feature testimonials by former addicts and panels with people such as Beit T’Shuvah’s Director Harriet Rossetto and Rabbi Mark Borowitz, and JFS’s Murray Kane. Keynote speakers include Ethan Nadelman, founder of The Lindesmith Center, a nonprofit drugs policy foundation created by philanthropist George Soros; and Rabbi Abraham Twerski. Conference organizers expect about 200 attendees, including doctors, rabbis, social workers and psychologists.

To call this the “first” Addiction Conference may be something of a misnomer, since a similar Federation conference was organized in the 1980s by Marcia Cohn Spiegel. Perhaps the fact that two decades have passed between conferences indicates the depths of the community’s denial about alcohol addiction.

The Addiction Conference came about when PJA’s Lowenthal approached Carol Levy at The Federation.

“She was really looking for a place where there could be some political advocacy,” said Levy, vice president of the UJF Community Division, “and I offered to put something together through Federation.”

Unfortunately, issues of Jewish addiction were all too familiar for Lowenthal. Five years ago, her son, Josh, died of a heroin overdose at age 39. “He was the perfect bar mitzvah [boy],” she said, adding that her late son’s career as a musician was derailed by a life in and out of the prison system. “He went from shooting hoops in the suburb to shooting heroin in the ghetto in Pittsburgh.”

Lowenthal attributes some causes of addiction in Jewish culture to a perfectionist attitude that pressures children to become nothing less than lawyers or doctors. She wants the conference to bring this pressure to the forefront of the Jewish community’s social agenda.

“I hope it encourages and facilitates networking of interested people from different disciplines to address the problems from their own perspectives and link drug treatment practitioners, politicians, clergy, educators, law enforcement personnel and citizens,” Lowenthal said. “On a personal level, I hope that hearing from ‘nice Jewish families’ caught in this epidemic might encourage the thousands who mourn privately behind their shame to speak out.”

The Addiction Conference will also highlight political aspects of the equation, including talks by L.A. Superior Court’s Judge Stephen Marcus, who runs L.A.’s largest drug court and heads L.A. County’s Task Force to Implement Proposition 36, the Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act.

The proposition was passed by 61 percent of California voters last year to allow substance abuse treatment instead of incarceration for nonviolent, simple drug possession offenders.

Prop. 36 will cost $120 million annually over five and a half years. Its advocates maintain that this allocation for treatment is much cheaper than incarceration, and will save taxpayers $1.5 billion.

Clearly, the problem of substance abuse is now being recognized, said conference co-chair Shapiro, past chairperson of Jewish Community Foundation, which has contributed funding to Beit T’Shuvah.

“Only in the last seven or eight years has the issue come out,” Shapiro said. “The conference will give people an opportunity, make them aware, and teach them how they can help. It’s also for someone to learn what’s happening in the community.

“The Jewish community needs to look at this problem inside the community and to realize that Jewish people are not immune to these problems,” Shapiro said. “We’re people, like anyone else.”

Levy agreed. “All I know is that Beit T’Shuvah doesn’t have an empty bed.”

The First West Coast Jewish Federation Addiction Conference runs Oct. 22 from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the Skirball Cultural Center. For information, call (323) 761-8373; or register at www.jewishaddiction.com .