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. 

Pesach without wine

How can we have Passover without wine? This is a question that is asked of me each year as Passover approaches. I always answer that the blessing is over the fruit of the vine and grape juice is perfectly acceptable. I then ask a different set of questions.

Passover is the celebration of our leaving Egypt. It is not a historical event. Yet too many of us consider the Passover seder as a recollection of an historical event. We need to go back to the intent and direction of our haggadah to see ourselves as if we, too, were brought out of Egypt. We have to ask ourselves, “What is the Egypt/Narrow Place I have to leave this year?” All of us have these, be they substances like drugs and alcohol, behaviors like eating disorders, compulsive gambling, etc. We also get stuck in the narrow places of despair, hopelessness, why bother, etc. And we can get stuck in the narrow places of comparing and competing with others, basing our self-worth on our net worth and/or seeking to feel good from outside validation, like lists, who we hang with, etc. 

These are the Egypts that wine could come to blur for us during Passover. I would suggest that everyone abstain from wine and drink grape juice instead this year. I am asking you all to make this an Alcohol-Free Seder so that every person will:

• Look inside themselves and see the narrow places that are keeping them stuck in old thoughts and behaviors.

• Tell the story of their enslavements to others at the seder, and ask for help in getting out and staying out of these narrow places. 

• Offer suggestions to others to help them out of their narrow places. 

• Write down on a piece of paper what the narrow place is, and make these your korban Pesach, your Pesach sacrifice, and burn them all together so that you release your need to run back to Egypt.

• Be present and see how we can work together to get out our comfortable slaveries.

• Make a commitment to be of service to others who are still enslaved and look for the similarities in others. 

In doing this, we will make the seder relevant and we will build stronger relationships through transparency and authenticity. 

It will allow all of us to break our addiction to perfection. We Jews have been telling our story for thousands of years; this year let us make it our story so next year we will be free

Rabbi Mark Borovitz is the senior rabbi and spiritual leader of the Beit T’Shuvah recovery program and Congregation Beit T’Shuvah.

The Nimoys: A father and son, with space between them

When Adam Nimoy was growing up, he felt alienated from his famous father.

Leonard Nimoy’s work as the Vulcan Mr. Spock on “Star Trek” and his numerous other film and TV projects on both sides of the camera provided a comfortable West Coast lifestyle for his baby boom family.

But the younger Nimoy said the time-consuming work also deprived him of the steady presence of his father, and when they did share time together, he quickly learned that he had to share his dad with the rest of America.

Given the loyal and obsessive reputation of “Trekkies,” Adam could be forgiven for looking at them as his father’s other family.

“There were times I thought he gave more time and attention to his fan base,” said Adam Nimoy, who has written about that experience and of his adult life in a self-proclaimed “anti-memoir,” titled “My Incredibly Wonderful, Miserable Life: An Anti-Memoir” (Pocket).

He’ll discuss the book Sunday, Sept. 28 at the West Hollywood Book Fair in West Hollywood Park as part of a panel on overcoming addiction. Both Nimoys have openly discussed their struggles with alcohol and, in Adam’s case, marijuana, which he began smoking as a teenager and used regularly through adulthood before entering a recovery program almost five years ago.

The ambiguity of the book’s title stems from the fact that Adam Nimoy would be seen by many as blessed in having a successful, famous father and an entrée into Hollywood life that later opened doors for his own directing career.

But the younger Nimoy describes a father who, like the stoic but dependable starship officer he portrayed, was often distant, putting the greater good of sustaining his family ahead of seemingly extraneous bonding and warmth.

“There’s a lot of Spock in Leonard, no doubt about that,” Adam Nimoy, 52, said in a recent interview in New York.

Leonard Nimoy grew up in the ’30s and ’40s in a Russian Jewish immigrant family in Boston, the son of a barber and a homemaker for whom Hollywood and its trappings seemed as distant as another planet.

“He’s not unlike a lot of Depression-era people, obsessed with generating income,” Adam Nimoy said. “I have friends who have dads cut from the exact same cloth.”

The difference: “If I have a conflict with him, I have to go back out on the street and deal with a public that adores him.”

The book is not, however, the tell-all memoir about “Life With Spock” that publishers and agents wanted him to write.

ALTTEXTRather, it’s a glimpse of how Adam Nimoy grew up with a famous name, inherited his father’s alcohol problem, met lots of interesting and famous people, and dabbled in law before becoming a successful TV director and starting a family, only to see his life come crashing down.

Leonard doesn’t escape some lumps, but neither does he absorb the brunt of the blasts. Adam takes responsibility for many of the failings of his life, including the end of his directing career because of on-set volatility he attributes mainly to his addictions. The deterioration of his marriage is harder to track from the details in the book, but the younger Nimoy makes clear that his wife and two teenagers urged him to reconcile, and that he persisted with the separation and divorce. The dust settled with both sides on good terms.

“I told her we’ll always be family,” he said. “We’ll always have a close relationship.”

Father and son share many traits and experiences, having both gone through divorces (Leonard divorced Sandra Zober in 1987 and is now married to actress Susan Bay) and worked as directors.

“We’re both similar in the sense of our ambition and desire to work and accomplish things,” Nimoy said.

One trait they don’t share is a desire to be in the spotlight, something Adam soured on during the inevitable media intrusions into his family life as a child.

“That’s one of the reasons I didn’t go into acting,” he said. “The idea of celebrity for its own sake was not something that appeals to me.”

Adam’s life these days includes 12-step meetings, dates and teaching directing at the Los Angeles campus of the New York Film Academy. Father and son have gone over their differences, and Adam took his father’s acceptance of the book, read before publication, as a gesture of atonement of sorts. Adam’s daughter, Maddy, is attending Bard College in New York and his younger son, Jonah, is finishing high school in Los Angeles.

Both Leonard and Adam Nimoy and their families are affiliated Jews active in the community. Adam became a bar mitzvah at Adat Shalom in West Los Angeles, where his mother’s parents, Archie and Ann Zober, were founding members. His children went to Hebrew school and celebrated their b’nai mitzvah at Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Irmas Campus.

In the memoir, the younger Nimoy writes of the importance he felt of not only providing his children with bar and bat mitzvahs but making those occasions meaningful as well. He implored them to not only learn their Torah portions but to delve into their contemporary meanings.

“I come from Orthodox grandparents on both sides,” he said. “That’s a major factor in my life. I find it attractive, and it speaks to me, as well as my dad, so it’s a big part of my experience and something I want my kids to appreciate.”

Nimoy said spirituality and belief in God helped him in his recovery. “You have to believe in a power greater than yourself. A lot of addicts have trouble with the concept of God, because they think they’re the center of the universe. I’m a believer.”

Nimoy said he is working on another nonfiction book, which he declined to discuss, and he is continuing to teach. He’s contemplating a return to directing — “it’s fun being behind the camera” — but he’s happy with things the way they are.

“My dad fulfilled the immigrant’s dream of making it big for himself in America and becoming extremely successful,” Adam Nimoy said. “My journey was different. I’ll never come close to touching the kind of fame and fortune he’s created for himself. On the other hand, I feel very happy with my life, which is much smaller than his.”

Adam Nimoy will sign copies of “My Incredibly Wonderful, Miserable Life” Sunday, Sept. 28 at the West Hollywood Book Fair, West Hollywood Park, 647 N. San Vicente Blvd. The Book Fair runs 10 a.m.-6 p.m.

Drug abuse debate: Legalization, medication or therapy?

On a wall at Beit T’Shuvah’s sanctuary there are plaques with the names of those connected with Beit T’Shuvah who have passed away. One of those names is that of Josh Lowenthal, a former resident who died on June 11, 1995.

The Jewish Journal recently ran a story about “One-Way Ticket,” Rita Lowenthal’s memoir about her son, Josh, who was addicted to heroin from the age of 13 until his death from a self-administered overdose 25 years later. Lowenthal’s moving account of her son’s life punctures the myth that addiction can’t happen to Jews. It can, and it does.

Another myth that Lowenthal would like to puncture is that if addicts only had enough willpower, they could kick the habit — that only weak-willed people can’t pull themselves out of the addiction abyss.

A recent Newsweek cover story is called, “The Hunt for an Addiction Vaccine.” The article says that science views addiction not as a failure of willpower, but as a “chronic, relapsing brain disorder to be managed with all the tools at medicine’s disposal,” and that the National Institute for Drug Abuse (NIDA) is developing and testing compounds that could prevent or treat addiction.

NIDA scientists have concluded that there are three kinds of self-control: putting off present gratification for a later reward, processing sufficient information before making a decision and being able to change responses that have become automatic.

It should come as no surprise that addicts score poorly in all these categories. In other words, addicts’ brains are wired to opt for immediate rewards, to leap before they look, and to keep repeating accustomed behavior in a rote manner. The medicines in development would change the addict’s responses in all three areas.

Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, has a different focus: He objects to what he calls the massive failure of the global war on drugs. Like a growing number of responsible voices, Nadelmann argues for drug legalization, or at least decriminalization.

In a recent article in Foreign Policy magazine, Nadelmann makes the case that the war on drugs cannot be won — he cites “mountains of evidence documenting its moral and ideological bankruptcy.” He writes that U.S. administrations have let rhetoric and ideology drive policy, and that in countries that have adopted a different way of dealing with drugs and addicts — Britain, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland — the result has been “a reduction in drug-related harms without increasing drug use.”

When asked about this, Beit T’Shuvah staff and residents uniformly say that legalization and pharmacological addiction treatments are beside the point. Their attitude is that addiction — defined in their Web site as the “obsessive pursuit of drugs, alcohol, food, sex, money, property and/or prestige” — is not about drugs, it’s about the issues that lead to drug use, issues that also lead to other self-destructive behavior.

One long-time Beit T’Shuvah resident, a middle-age man with an MBA and a background in the entertainment industry, said that “you can solve your drug problem and still not be any closer to an effective life. The point is to find out what the problems underneath are: not living your life effectively, not living it with truth. The problem is not the drugs.

“You can legalize drugs, you can find chemical ways of neutralizing the effects of drugs, but the end result will be the same: the root problem will still be there, and the person who has that problem will suffer in a different way. If it’s not drug addiction, if it’s not incarceration, it’ll be family dysfunction or abuse or other issues. These are all manifestations of a deeper problem, just as drug addiction or alcoholism is a manifestation of a deeper problem. And it’s that deeper problem that has to be treated.”

Lowenthal agrees that addiction’s deeper problems should be addressed: “Anyone who has been shamed and punished for addiction needs understanding and support.” But she points out that the situation with illegal drugs, as opposed to alcohol or prescription drugs, makes users subject to the law: Her son was in and out of San Quentin and other prisons because he stole in order to maintain his addiction. “Try getting a student loan, a job, or sympathetic in-laws after serving time in prison,” Lowenthal says.

If her son had lived in a society where heroin use is not a crime and where it’s cheaply available, then he probably wouldn’t have stolen, she believes. He probably wouldn’t have gone to prison over and over, and he might not have chosen to take his own life at the age of 38.

Richard Lewis, comedian from heaven

The husband from hell. The uncle from hell. The comedian from hell. Richard Lewis is fully aware he has problems. And by the end of his set, his stand-up audiences know he has problems.

Known as comedy’s “Prince of Pain,” he is a comedian who feeds off his own neuroses and is doing his best to keep stable. A recovering alcoholic, Lewis has been sober for 14 years — an experience he wrote about in his 2000 memoir, “The Other Great Depression” (Public Affairs Books, $14.95), which has been reissued with a new afterword that reflects his progress as he continues to struggle with addiction.

Much has changed since the book’s original release seven years ago. The 60-year-old comic has gotten married, and he’s a regular on the HBO comedy series “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” With younger audiences coming to see his stand-up, Lewis decided it was time to update the book for a generation that follows blog posts about Amy Winehouse’s travails while blithely singing along to her hit “Rehab.”

“My career in stand-up has mushroomed greatly, thanks to ‘Curb,’ and there are a million younger people who are now college age and drinking,” Lewis said. “Being sober, I’m able to literally help other people save their lives.”

Lewis’s alcoholism surfaced in his 20s and 30s, driven by feelings of self-loathing. After completing several well-received TV comedy specials and landing a role opposite actress Jamie Lee Curtis on the sitcom “Anything But Love” in 1988, he was convinced he had his drinking and drug use under control.

“The more successful I got, the more convinced I felt that I could become even more successful if I had a few more drinks before I performed,” he wrote.

The highs and lows that fed his comedy began to blur, and Lewis walked away from stand-up and acting for almost three years as he continued drinking.

“My career was in suspended animation. Nothing worthwhile was going on, and I was too depressed and too addicted to booze by this point to make things happen on my own,” he wrote.

In 1994, he entered a hospital emergency room, hallucinating from a cocaine overdose. After interventions and rehab, Lewis sobered up and reached a turning point when he was able to stand in front of a roomful of addicts and admit, “I’m Richard, and I’m an alcoholic.”

“I needed a higher power in my life to help me in sobriety, which led me to become more and more spiritual. I can’t be the captain of my own ship,” Lewis said in a phone interview.

In the book’s new afterword, Lewis revealed that while he feels better about himself on a physical, emotional and spiritual level, his sobriety is still a day-to-day challenge. “The cold hard truth is that if I take for granted the progress I have made, I’m a goner,” he wrote.

Born the same year as the infamous “UFO crash” in Roswell, N.M., Lewis insinuates that his psychological and emotional problems could have resulted from the fact that he’s “not from this earth.” But his sense of disconnect could just as easily be attributed to his Jewish upbringing in New Jersey.

Lewis’ father worked as a kosher caterer, and the comedian said in an interview that the family’s refrigerator was regularly stocked with leftover melon balls rather than cold cuts. His mother, an actress, played most of Neil Simon’s Jewish mothers in the local community theater.

Lewis was the star of the youth basketball team at the local Jewish community center, and at sports camp in 1963, 12-year-old Lewis met a tall, gangly kid: Larry David.

The two became fast friends a decade later, after they recognized each other as struggling young comics at New York’s famed Improv club.

Lewis says he became a comedian to fill the void left by his father’s death in 1971. The more he talked about his neurotic family onstage, the more popular he became.

While he can’t exorcize the memories of a childhood filled with emotional abuse and arguing parents, Lewis said he has learned he shouldn’t dwell on things he cannot change.

“Resentment is like drinking poison and hoping the other person dies,” he said.

To complement the book’s reissue, a DVD documentary follows Lewis during his original tour for “The Other Great Depression” in 2001. “Richard Lewis Naked” (Peaceful Chaos Productions Ltd., $19.95) offers a behind-the-scenes look at the stress and pressure of traveling from city to city for readings, signings and television interviews. Lewis said it was the hardest three or four months of his life.

“We were working on a bunch of stuff, almost unbearable, and she captured it,” he said of longtime friend and publicist, Michelle Marx, who shot the footage.

And much like Lewis’s stand-up routines, the documentary captures the humor that springs from the comedian’s stress as he prepares for on-camera interviews with “The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart and “Today” co-host Matt Lauer.

In addition to the documentary and the reissue of his biography, Lewis is also proud of another achievement. In October 2006, “The Yale Book of Quotations” recognized Lewis for creating the phrase, “the ______ from hell.”

Lewis claims to have created the line in the 1970s, fitting it into his stand-up act as he complained about the many people in his life who have caused him grief and annoyance — the waiter from hell, the doctor from hell, the landlord from hell.

However, “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations” rejected Lewis’ claim, which inspired his character’s quest for immortality in Bartlett’s in the third season “Curb Your Enthusiasm” episode “The Nanny From Hell.”

According to a 2002 Entertainment Weekly (EW) article after the episode aired, Bartlett’s first began hearing from Lewis’ camp about “the ______ from hell” quote in the early 1990s.

“He had his lawyer get in touch with me, and they sent a couple of tapes,” Bartlett’s general editor Justin Kaplan said. But “I spoke to people who had been at Yale before the time of his first taped broadcast, who said [the line] was a common idiom.”

Orthodox Alcohol, Drug Abuse Rising

Peter Gould had his last drink on Purim night seven years ago — or, more accurately, his last drinks.

“I drank more alcohol in a day than a human body can handle,” he said, relaxing on a puffy couch in Baltimore in jeans, sneakers and a black knit kipah.

At the time, Gould — not his real name — had been a functioning alcoholic for years, and his body could tolerate a lot of booze. He listed the staggering litany of alcoholic beverages he consumed that Purim, a holiday some Jews mark by drinking to excess: Three bottles of amaretto, two bottles of wine, one bottle of champagne, a fifth of Scotch and a fifth of bourbon.

“And then I drove home with my kids in the car,” he recalled.

He made it home fine — after all, he was used to driving drunk.

Gould may be an extreme example, but he isn’t unique. Alcohol and drug addiction exist in every sector of American Jewry, but addiction and recovery specialists say Gould is part of a growing problem in the Orthodox community — a problem that, because of the pressures and particularities of an observant Jewish lifestyle, has hit the Orthodox in different and sometimes more troubling ways than other segments of the Jewish community.

“The Orthodox community really does have a need,” said Adrienne Bannon, executive director of Baltimore’s Jewish Recovery Houses, two centers in suburban Baltimore for recovering Jewish drug addicts and alcoholics. Some residents require kosher food and are placed with local families for Shabbat meals. “I thought most of the addicts and alcoholics filling this house would be long-estranged from religion, but it isn’t true,” she said.

Part of the problem, experts say, is that, for years, people couldn’t and wouldn’t believe that drugs had found their way into Orthodox groups. But they had. They say the emphasis in some ultra religious Orthodox communities on finding marriage matches for young people, coupled with the community’s traditional reluctance to air its dirty laundry, leads families and schools to cover up addictions. They call this “the shanda factor”: Who wants to marry a drug addict or even a drug addict’s sibling?

As a result, addicts often don’t receive treatment until their addictions have reached crisis proportions. Those involved in treating these addicts say that until recently, members of the Orthodox community received treatment on average two years later than addicts in society at large — two years during which their dependencies have time to grow, worsen and become harder to beat.

Solid numbers on addiction in the Orthodox community are hard to come by. In the past five to 10 years, the community has begun to more aggressively and publicly address the issue, but it still elicits silence and shame. Anecdotal evidence suggests the problem is getting worse, experts say.

Some describe a chicken-and-egg question: Is the number of Orthodox addicts growing or — because community efforts have made treatment easier, more available or more acceptable — are a greater number of addicts seeking help?

Experts say both might be true.

“What has opened people’s eyes is that, first of all, there’s been much more talk about the problem,” said Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski, founder and medical director emeritus of Gateway Rehabilitation Center, a nonprofit drug and alcohol treatment system in western Pennsylvania. “Unfortunately, there have been several young deaths from overdoses, and these were not covered up and they raised the alert of the community.”

Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, an expert in chemical addiction in the Jewish community and author of “Twelve Jewish Steps to Recovery: A Personal Guide to Turning From Alcoholism and Other Addictions” (Jewish Lights, 1991), noted that the Orthodox aren’t the only members of the Jewish community with addiction issues.

“Alcohol and drug abuse is about an issue of individuals feeling an emptiness inside of themselves, and they’re self-medicating, trying to fill that hole and get rid of the pain they feel,” said Olitzky, who also is executive director of the New York-based Jewish Outreach Institute. “Alcohol and drug abuse, for similar reasons, impact upon members of the Jewish community from one side of the spectrum to the other.”

Recovery communities for Jews like those in Baltimore are few and far between, but many communities are making efforts to fight abuse by forming support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous societies, treatment centers and clearing houses for referral services. The religious streams also have made efforts to address the issue and inform their constituents about it.

The number of Jewish addicts is proportionally similar to the rest of America, Olitzky said, but Jews are overrepresented in Gamblers Anonymous, and many suffer from eating disorders.

Insiders say the Orthodox lifestyle offers another gateway into and cover for addiction: the frequent availability and consumption of alcohol at religious life-cycle events. Habits developed at these celebrations can eventually lead to alcoholism, observers say, and statistics show that individuals who abuse alcohol are more likely to use drugs.

A person can drink a l’chaim at a morning bris, or ritual circumcision ceremony, followed by another at an engagement party that evening. Later in the week, there may be a wedding, followed by a sheva brachot ceremony followed on Shabbat by a bar mitzvah — and alcohol often is available at each event.

Then there is the increasing popularity of so-called synagogue Kiddush clubs, which offer shulgoers schnapps, whiskey and other types of alcohol during and after services.

“Substance abuse is masked by religious practice,” said Rabbi Joel Dinnerstein, founder and director of Ohr Ki Tov: Center for Growth and Transformation, which runs Florida’s Jewish Alcoholism and Addiction Counseling Services. “See who goes for the herring and who goes for the schnapps — you don’t have to be an expert to see right in front of you.”

Gould went for the schnapps. And the whiskey. And the beer. And the champagne.

He spent his bar mitzvah party vomiting in a bathroom after drinking too much alcohol-spiked punch. By the time he was 31, Gould’s doctor told him that his liver “was reaching irreversible damage levels.”

The physician suggested that the test results may have been skewed by consumption of alcohol shortly before the test. He suggested that Gould not drink for two weeks and then return for another test. So he stopped drinking for a few days — until his brother-in-law got engaged and they headed out for a l’chaim; the cycle began again.

Veronica Rose, whose parents are affiliated with a Chabad synagogue, said that an abusive boyfriend drove her to drug abuse.

Rose, a pseudonym, started using cocaine five years ago in what she said was an effort to self-medicate her clinical depression. What started as recreational use soon became a full-blown addiction.

“I spent all of my bubbe’s inheritance on drugs,” said Rose, whose brother is an alcoholic.

When she took up with an abusive man, she turned even more frequently to drugs — cocaine to dull the pain, followed by marijuana or Ativan to come down from the high.

She began to think about cleaning up. Today she’s a resident at Tovah House, the women’s recovery home in Baltimore. She has been clean since Dec. 12.

Observers say it has become increasingly easy for youngsters to obtain drugs, even Orthodox ones.

“The problem in the yeshivas is the same problem as in the public schools,” said Daniel Vitow, headmaster of the North Shore Hebrew Academy High School on New York’s Long Island. “Our kids live in the same society and the same culture as everyone else.”

Where the problem is more acute, some schools have instituted drug testing for students. Some yeshivas eventually expel problem students, who are sent from school to school, their problems left untreated, chalked up simply to hanging out with the wrong group of friends.

“I think that the Jewish community has grown a great deal in its sophistication with regard to its acknowledgment of Jews and alcoholism and Jews as drug addicts, and there are some institutions that have been built,” Olitzky said.

But, he noted, “We still have a long way to go before we are fully prepared to wrestle with the challenges.”

Local Treatment Centers

David Finnigan, Contributing Writer

The Jewish community has two addiction treatment centers in Southern California

Beit T’Shuvah
8831 Venice Blvd.
Los Angeles
(310) 204-5200

Beit T’Shuvah is unique among addiction treatment centers nationally, because it requires its residents to use Jewish spirituality and teachings as part of their recovery. The coed, 120-bed facility usually is filled with residents on short-term recovery or long-term treatment programs lasting beyond 30 days.

Chabad Residential Treatment Center
5675 W. Olympic Blvd.
Los Angeles
(323) 965-1365

The 44-bed, male-only Chabad Residential Treatment Center close to the Pico-Robertson district uses general Torah teachings and principles to anchor its 12-step approach to addiction treatment, but the approach is broad enough for the facility’s Jewish and non-Jewish residents. A separate, second-phase “sober-living” building adjacent to the main center has room for another 25 patients.

Parental Dishonor

My Torah portion is the retelling and explanation of the Ten Commandments by Moses. A teacher of mine encouraged me to pick a commandment mentioned in my portion, and write about what it means to me. Five words instantly flew into my head: “Honor thy father and mother.”

You see, at this very moment, my mom and dad are suffering from alcoholism and substance abuse. They have both relapsed recently, and I was, and still am, coping with the loss.

My mother almost had 13 years clean and sober when she relapsed. She kept it quiet until early this summer. A family member called me and told me the news. I remember the exact words she started off with: “I need you to be an adult.”

After that, my memory goes a bit fuzzy.

I was devastated. After all this time, why did she relapse now? That’s all I could think about. Had she forgotten that she had a daughter to support? I felt like my life as I had known it was crumbling around me and I wasn’t sure how to handle it. I knew I had to deal with my family’s newest problem and be strong, but I still wished with all my heart that I could crawl in a hole somewhere away from the rest of the world and cry.

I was living with my mother near Seattle, although I am close to both my parents. I called my father in Los Angeles. He didn’t sound worried. He said that I was to be a good girl and that everything would be fine. He said that I would be fine. I didn’t feel fine.

After finishing school soon after that, I flew to California to stay with my father. Los Angeles had always been a haven for me. It was a place to recharge the batteries that kept me going during the year. It seemed that as soon as I stepped off that plane that day, I felt happier and more alive than I had been in those last few weeks at home. Upon reaching my father’s house, I wanted to stay there forever.

One evening, my father left for what was going to be a couple hours to play cards. A couple hours ended up being around 18, as he finally came home at around 5:30 the next morning. He had drunk alcohol while he was out — my dad had relapsed.

Now I felt really stuck. The silver lining to my dark cloud was that my father and Carrie would let me move in with them. Now, that wasn’t a possibility, as my dad had his own problems.

At this point, I was so confused I didn’t know what to do. I had never really dealt with these diseases firsthand. I never saw my dad when I was younger, when he was using, and my mother had been clean and sober since the November after I was born. For my mom to relapse was a huge deal, but for my dad to also, a little over two months from when my mother had, was overwhelming.

I was furious with my parents for doing this, and I was so scared about what would happen in the future. I didn’t even want to think about it all. How was I supposed to honor my mother and father?

The thing is, with my parents, there is so much to honor. One of the most important things my dad has passed onto me is the act of love and tolerance.

To me, this is one of the things I live by day to day, maybe more so than the average person. Because my mother is also a lesbian, I’ve dealt with some discrimination. People have openly told me that my mother’s lifestyle is evil. With advice from my father, I can forgive and accept their blindness in this situation. My dad is loving when loving someone can be tough and listens when it seems no one can hear. Those traits to me are important and make him a really wonderful role model.

My mother has taught me numerous things and has raised me to be independent. She taught me how to laugh at myself and my mistakes. She has been a listening ear and has helped me with my problems. She has been the best mom a girl could ask for, and a best friend to me throughout my life.

But we’re still stuck with that question. How do we honor our mothers and fathers? Better yet, how do we honor them when they dishonor themselves? There are numerous answers I’m sure. For me, I think honoring them would be to understand and be there for them. Children of addicts who aren’t addicts themselves need to remember what these diseases do to our parents. They muddle their brains and mess with their priorities.

When they relapse, we have to try to remember not to take it personally.

They don’t do it to intentionally hurt us. We can also remember what they teach us and follow in their admirable footsteps. When their own footsteps get shaky, we can also keep in mind that we can always make our own set of prints.

This ceremony is a bittersweet blessing. Now I’m going to have to be an adult. There will be more bumps in the road farther down this path, I’m sure, but I’m just going to have to keep my head up and keep going. Just like addicts on their path to recovery, I have to keep walking down my path to acceptance and support.

This essay was prepared from a bat mitzvah speech given by a 13-year-old last month.


Just Say No, Even on Purim

One is obligated to become intoxicated on Purim until one cannot distinguish between “cursed is Haman” and “blessed is Mordechai” (Talmud, Megillah 7b).

Purim is like the Jewish topsy-turvy day.

Unlike many Jewish holidays, which are marked by serious and meaningful customs like lighting the menorah or holding a seder, Purim’s main edict seems to be: have fun.

On the holiday that celebrates the downfall of the evil Haman and the saving of the Jewish people from destruction, adults and children alike dress up in costumes, put on satirical spiels and conclude the holiday by eating a festive meal — and getting drunk.

Now, concern over the rise in teenage alcoholism in the Orthodox community has led some rabbis and organizations to protest this last custom.

This year, the Orthodox Union (OU) and the National Council for Synagogue Youth (NCSY) have produced a brochure aimed specifically at teenagers to combat the issue of drinking on Purim.

The brochure is being distributed to some 10,000 OU synagogues and NCSY chapters throughout the country and can also be downloaded from the NCSY Web site (

The two-page pamphlet features cute diagrams printed in wine-colored text. It explodes the idea that you’re “supposed” to drink on Purim, and has catchy headlines that include “Breaking News: A nonalcoholic version of wine is now widely available! It’s called grape juice.”

“Purim in general is an amazing wonderful holiday but a lot of kids take it to excess,” said Rabbi Steven Burg, national director of NCSY. “It’s important to send a message in this brochure that this is not carte blanche. It’s not a Jewish frat party where it’s OK to get trashed in this 24-hour period.”

Burg said that Purim was chosen to launch the pamphlet because it’s a major holiday in the Orthodox community.

“Over the years drinking on the holiday has been taken to excess and I don’t even think we realize it,” he said.

But combating drinking on Purim is not the end goal of course; it’s putting an end to teenage alcoholism and all forms of substance abuse — a trend that’s on the rise, say those who work with teenagers.

Some current events have made the problem more pressing. In November 2004, 42 high school kids were arrested for drug and alcohol abuse at a party of a Livingston, N.J., yeshiva student. And, just last month, an Encino boy died from a drug overdose while in yeshiva in Israel, while four others were arrested there on drug dealing charges.

Many in the Orthodox community have recently demanded some institutionwide action against an often hidden problem among kids. And Purim — along with other religious events that encourage drinking — has also come under fire.

Last month, the OU called for an end to Kiddush Clubs — an ever-popular Shabbat morning custom where some synagogue congregants leave services during the haftarah reading for bite to eat and a drink or two.

Despite protests from congregants, some synagogues have taken action. Young Israel of Century City was among the first, sending out a letter to its members to say that a Kiddush Club “sets an inappropriate example for our children,” and citing a young man who said the beginning of his substance abuse began as a child with alcohol at his shul’s Kiddush Club every Shabbat morning.

Certainly, the rise in substance abuse among teens is not confined to the Orthodox community, but the OU’s new task force signifies that the religious community is taking notice.

The whole community is in denial, said Rabbi Mark Borowitz, the founder and director of Beit T’Shuvah, a Jewish rehabilitation house who himself is a recovering alcoholic.

“None of us have wanted to face this problem,” he said. “And the OU should really be commended for saying OK, we have this issue and we’re not just going to sit around and do nothing.'”

Borowitz says teenage alcoholism is on the rise across the board.

“Kids are looking for something to get out of themselves and that’s always problematic,” he said. “As things get worse in the world there’s more hopelessness and there’s more need to escape.”

Burg said that the community’s denial of the problem is melting — and that the OU’s new anti-drug task force will help. Under the banner of “Safe Homes, Safe Shuls, Safe Schools,” the new program will hold meetings, provide educational material and guest speakers throughout the country. In addition, NCSY has posted materials on its Web site discussing the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse. There is also a sign-up list for kids to publicly promise to avoid taking drugs and alcohol.

“We want our kids to have a clean, moral life,” Burg said. “And we need to bring a heightened awareness to parents to keep their eyes open. Teenagers are not adults. They still need love and a hug and understanding.”

Burg, who is hosting 150 teenagers this year at his house, will lead by example: this year he will only serve grape juice.