September 20, 2018

Even nice Jewish boys and girls are caught in opioid epidemic

Left: Beit T’Shuvah co-founder Harriet Rossetto speaks at a luncheon fundraiser in 2016. Right: Amy Green, 28, went from being addicted to heroin to directing the mind and body program at Beit T’Shuvah, where she previously recovered from her addiction. Photos courtesy of Beit T’Shuvah

Sitting in her car in Orange County as she prepared to buy heroin from her drug dealer in 2015, Amy Green called out to her Creator.

“I was like, ‘I need help. I can’t. I’m scared,’ ” she recently recalled. “I said this out loud. I was talking to God out loud. I’m like, ‘God, I can’t do this, I can’t.’ ”

She paused, took a breath and continued, her voice soft and toneless.

“But I did, for the next eight months,” she said in an interview with the Journal.

For Green, now 28 years old, the use of a prescription painkiller to treat a sports-related injury had quickly morphed into a full-blown addiction that progressed into her use of black-tar heroin. The downward spiral was something she never could have envisioned as a Division I college athlete in soccer and track from a well-to-do Santa Clarita family.

Opioids are now poised to overtake car accidents as a leading cause of accidental fatalities in the United States — with 90 deaths a day from overdoses, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Last week, President Donald Trump said he planned to declare the opioid epidemic a national emergency, which would open the way for more federal funds to fight it. And though the crisis often has been characterized as ravaging rural areas and small towns, which provided much of Trump’s support in the November election, the powerful class of painkillers is also on the rise in urban Jewish communities.

In other words, nice Jewish boys and girls are no more immune to the epidemic than anyone else. In fact, for those living in affluent, tight-knit communities, the problem can be compounded by the pressure to keep up appearances.

“It was really scary, and I didn’t want to be doing it anymore,” Green said of her drug habit, “but I didn’t know how to reach out for help, because it was really shameful.”

Harriet Rossetto, co-founder of Beit T’Shuvah, the West Los Angeles addiction treatment center with an almost entirely Jewish clientele where Green is now an alumna and employee — she directs its mind and body program — confronts the stigma of opioid addiction on a regular basis.

“Jews are not exempt,” Rossetto said. “It’s part of our denial system that we often feel exempt from these kinds of social problems.”

Four of every 10 residents at Beit T’Shuvah’s Venice Boulevard campus are there because of opioids. Rossetto said the opioid addicts she encounters generally fall into two categories: Patients in their 30s, 40s and 50s who progressed from prescribed painkillers into addiction, and patients in their teens and 20s who used opiates like heroin as a way to numb emotional pain caused by trauma, sexual abuse, learning disabilities or other factors.

The prevalence of Jewish opioid abuse is evident at other treatment centers in the Los Angeles region as well.

At the Chabad Residential Treatment Center in the Miracle Mile, two-thirds of the residents — most of whom are Jewish — are there for opioid abuse, and they have tended to be younger in recent years, said Donna Miller, the center’s director.

Clare Waismann, a certified addiction treatment counselor and founder of the Waismann Method for opiate detoxification, said the detox program she runs at a non-Jewish-affiliated Orange County hospital (she asked that it not be identified), has been fulfilling more requests for kosher meals than ever before.

The problem is an increasingly fatal one.

Adina Stern, a Beit T’Shuvah resident, can rattle off the names of young Jewish women she has known who have died of drug overdoses. The most recent casualty was Malky Klein, a 20-year-old Chasidic woman whose death on June 24 ignited a flurry of coverage in Jewish media and beyond.

Stern, 20, is the youngest of 10 children from an ultra-Orthodox family in New York City. Her childhood was marked by trauma and sexual abuse, she said, and she started using heroin when she was 12. In the course of multiple recovery programs and relapses, she met other young women much like herself, with similarly troubled pasts.

“The common denominator among all the girls who are struggling with addiction and the girls who have died is really just being taught that we, as who we are, are not good enough,” she said. “We didn’t have our own identities so we became drug addicts. That was our identity. We were the bad girls of Brooklyn.”

The pressure of community and family expectations is not limited to the Orthodox.

Rusty, 29, a Beit T’Shuvah alumnus and employee who asked that his real name not be used, said he grew up in a Calabasas community where neighbors competed to display signs of their affluence. He attended a Reform synagogue, where he was confirmed, and felt he was a role model for younger kids in the congregation.

After his father died in 2008, a friend offered him the painkillers OxyContin and Fentanyl to help numb his psychological and emotional pain. He soon became addicted. And when he couldn’t get those drugs, he moved to heroin, he said.

Rusty completed college and earned a master’s degree while battling his addiction. As long as he was able to keep up appearances, he said, he didn’t see his substance abuse as a problem.

“It’s not like I was strung out in the gutter,” he said. “I had it all together on the outside, and then having this massive secret created this split where the only way I could survive was to dissociate entirely because I had to present a certain way to everyone else.”

He said his desire to save face kept him from seeking treatment.

“It was hard for me to reach out for help because it’s just not something that’s discussed, and there’s this implicit shame around it,” he said.

Rusty said he has seen the shame around drug abuse in L.A.’s Jewish community reduced by the growth of prevention and treatment programs and addicts’ increased willingness to discuss their problems.

Morris Treibitz, a resident at the Chabad treatment center, agreed that there is now less stigma around drug abuse. “You can’t deny how many people are dying anymore,” he said while sitting in the center’s chapel.

He encouraged parents to be more open with their children about drug abuse.

Treibitz, 42, a native of New Jersey, has come by his wisdom on this topic through bitter experience. He said he first started using heroin in prison after he was convicted for armed robbery at the age of 21, and his drug habit led to other convictions and prison terms.

Owning up to an addiction is a small price to pay to avoid incarceration or worse, he said.

“You can’t save your face and your tuchus at the same time,” he said. “You have to choose one or the other, and if you’re going to try to save your face, you’re not going to make it. You can’t do it.”

The road from addiction to the chuppah

Yehoshua Lowy, a former cocaine and heroin user, said he weighed 127 pounds and had track marks up and down his arms when he entered the Los Angeles-based Chabad Residential Treatment Center in 2010.

On Nov. 23, the 29-year-old New Jersey resident celebrated five years of sobriety, having gone through the six-month program at the nonsectarian rehabilitation organization for men that mixes psychotherapy, a 12-step recovery regimen and optional religious activities. 

But he had an additional reason to celebrate: About three weeks earlier, on Nov. 9, he married Leeav Waldman in an East Coast ceremony. More than a dozen of his peers from the Chabad program were at his wedding, as was a staff member from the rehabilitation center. 

“Quite simply, I would not have a life without Chabad. I would not be where I am today because I would not have a life, and it’s an amazing, amazing place,” he said during a phone interview while on his honeymoon at Catalina Island’s Hotel Metropole. “I’ve developed strong friendships and strong relationships that will be forever, that are real, are true, and I can’t thank them enough.”

After finishing at the rehabilitation center, located in the Miracle Mile district, Yehoshua developed a plumbing business before deciding that finding a life partner was the next step in his life. 

“The next stage was trying to get serious about finding a girl that was nice and someone I could settle down with,” he said. 

With this in mind, he moved his business to the East Coast. About six months ago, he met Leeav, and today they live as husband and wife in Teaneck, N.J. 

“We’re Jewish,” he said. “We move very quickly.”

Four Jewish weddings involving graduates of the Chabad Residential Treatment Center have taken place since Oct. 21, according to Donna Miller, director of the center.

Witnessing Chabad clients’ personal journeys culminate under the chuppah is particularly rewarding for Miller. She said she makes it a point to attend as many weddings of the center’s graduates as possible. (She was unable to attend the Lowys’, but it was her connection to the Catalina hotel — her family owns it — that enabled the couple to stay there for their honeymoon.) 

She said such marriages demonstrate how much clients have grown as part of their rehabilitation.

“They come here not in the healthiest state of mind, relationship-wise, and not connected to their roots. [They’re] kind of angry at things in their past, sometimes really broken, and, having gone through the program and putting their life back on track and focusing on building their life and career and staying connected in recovery, they meet great women,” she said. 

Another such success story is Pico-Robertson resident and 2013 treatment center graduate Ben Lev, 37. He was arrested three times for drug possession — he said he has a history of abuse with cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine — before he entered into the Chabad facility, where he completed the six-month program. Afterward, he lived in the center’s sober housing.

During his treatment, he met his future wife, Me’irah, through one of the facility’s staff members. Me’irah was based on the East Coast and was video chatting with the Chabad center’s program manager, who was an old friend of hers, Lev said. Soon the two were video chatting, as well. They were married Oct. 25 in Monsey, N.Y. — Miller was among the attendees — and today, the two live together in Los Angeles. 

“I think being at Chabad and the experience I had there really prepared me for the next chapter in my life, which, to me, was this marriage. There is no way I could have been ready for it otherwise,” said Lev, who works as a video editor and who continues to give back to the treatment center by going on hikes with current clients, as well as donating funds.

“Really, it’s just an opportunity for me to give back to a community, to a place that has given me so much,” he said.

Despite her job title, Miller said her work is more akin to the jewelry business, and that Chabad’s program is a gem that cultivates gems. 

“These guys who come in [are] a little shmutzy — it means ‘dirty’ — but if you polish it, that diamond shines.” 

Wedding: Bridge to reconciliation

I got married June 30 at the Chabad Residential Treatment Center. 

Yes, you read that correctly. I didn’t get married at the Four Seasons but at a drug and alcohol rehab facility on the corner of Olympic and Hauser boulevards. It was the most un-orthodox Orthodox Jewish wedding a girl could have. 

Aside from the fact that it took place at a rehab, the attendees included the following: Orthodox Jews, gay men, transsexuals, sober folks, residents of the rehab and people who don’t fit into any of those categories. 

Who would have guessed that this would have proved the means to reconnecting me and my husband with his estranged family?

You see, my husband and I were two former stray dogs who ran loose on the proverbial highway of life. We’re both recovering addicts — I have eight years and my husband has 10 years clean and sober. The reason we decided to get married at the treatment center was because that is where my husband was for the first two years of his sobriety, and we wanted to give back to a place that had given so much to him.

We had such a vast array of guests because we’re both underdogs and understand the misunderstood. We see the beauty in the abnormal. But mostly, we believe in second chances, and we were fortunate enough to get them.

Both of our lives had been burned to the ground before we met. I was a drug addict in an unhappy marriage to a man who hadn’t touched me in more than six years, had just been fired from my job, was homeless and sleeping in my car. My now-husband had gotten into some serious trouble with the law and got a nudge from the judge to get his life back on track. He entered the Chabad treatment center in 2003 suffering from multiple addictions. We met after he heard me speak at an AA meeting.

The severely destructive paths that we were on all but decimated our relationships with our families. Unfortunately, he caused a lot of shame to his family through his behavior while drinking and using — he was arrested and had to be bailed out of jail by his parents — and they became estranged. 

His brother and sister couldn’t bear witness to his unraveling, so they cut him out of their lives. His parents were in shock, so they kept their distance, not really knowing what to do. Then there was my family, who was not supportive of my choice of partner because of his troubled past as well as my horrendously embarrassing first marriage to a questionably gay man. 

What finally swayed my family is meeting my love for the first time. They saw what a transformed, wonderful and good man he is. He has this calm inner light that shines brilliantly. I believe that light is God-consciousness. 

I found this quote by Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach recently, and I believe it defines who my husband is:

“Every Jew must firmly believe that inside him there resides a pure soul. Regardless of what his situation may be, even if has strayed from the right path, the inner essence of his soul — which is a portion of God — remains pure and unsullied. … From this tiny center of the soul that has not been tainted by evil, the transgressor derives the strength to do teshuvah (repentance), make amends for his failings, and soar to the loftiest spiritual heights.”

My husband has soared to his highest self by working a stellar recovery program for 10-plus years now, repenting and redeeming himself. Most importantly, he has a strong connection to his higher power. 

For years, my love would write letters to his brother and sister, trying to make amends. Those letters went unanswered for 10 years. When we got engaged, he decided the time was right to try again for reconciliation. Much to his and my surprise, both his brother and sister responded to his calls and e-mails. It wasn’t much, but it was something. 

We had no expectation that they would attend the wedding, but at the last minute they showed. It was a miracle — my husband’s entire family came to our wedding. His mother, father, sister, brother and cousins all flew to Los Angeles from back East. 

The door to forgiveness was open, and they all walked through. Seeing my husband’s brother — a man who previously said he would never speak to him again — joyously dancing the hora in front of us made me cry for days. 

His sister was so grateful that the wedding gave her family a chance to reunite. I kept looking over at my mother-in-law, who sat with her entire family surrounding her, in tears. She never thought this day would come. It was a special day and what seemed like the hottest day of the year. The love radiated as strongly as the sun.

Everyone who attended the ceremony commented on how intense it was because it was healing on so many levels. My husband’s family relationships are finally mending. It goes to show you: Never give up hope. Miracles happen. It is only when you open your heart that you will be able to reach out and begin to build a bridge of reconciliation.

Mara Shapshay is a blogger, writer, performer and stand-up comedian.

Welcome to rehab city

At 9:30 a.m. on a recent Tuesday morning, six men in their 20s and 30s were sitting on leather chairs in a cozy, dimly lit room in a nondescript Miracle Mile building, sharing with one another and two therapists their progress in transitioning from a life of addiction to what they hope will be a clean future.

Some of the men wore gym shorts, others jeans. Some sat up straight, engaged in the conversation. Others looked down at the floor. One shifted somewhat restlessly in his seat, appearing to want to doze off but speaking eloquently when it was his turn.

This was less group therapy than conversation. Noam (a pseudonym used, as with every recovering addict in this story, to protect privacy) talked about fighting addiction at a time when most of his friends are in college. An emotion that the 20-something often fights, which haunts many addicts and can lead to addiction itself, is shame.

“I guess I beat myself up because I’m an addict,” Noam said. “I come from a family where everyone’s successful.”

This is the Chabad Residential Treatment Center. It opened in the 1960s in Westwood before moving to Robertson Boulevard in 1972 and eventually to its current location in 1999 on the corner of Olympic and Hauser boulevards. Beginning with a handful of clients and a shoestring budget, the center now has an annual budget of about $1.4 million and treats approximately 100 people — all men — per month. 

It’s also one of only three Jewish recovery programs in the nation, one of only two Jewish inpatient treatment facilities — both of which are in Los Angeles — and the only all-kosher, holiday-observant rehabilitation facility in America. 

This last, unique quality facility helps attract not only recovering Jewish addicts from California, but also many from across the country. By word of mouth alone, the center has drawn thousands of people, including visits from actors David Arquette and Tom Arnold, who did not undergo treatment at Chabad but came to speak with clients who did.

Just a short drive away on Venice Boulevard sits the only other Jewish addiction rehab inpatient treatment center in the United States — Beit T’Shuvah, which houses an eclectic mix of male and female addicts trying to recover. Many of their counselors are former addicts who went through its Torah-intensive rehab program. It is run by Harriet Rossetto and her husband, Rabbi Mark Borovitz, and was opened in 1987 with a $50,000 annual budget. Beit T’Shuvah’s rapid growth (it’s budget is now $8.5 million) mirrors that of the increasing demand in the Jewish community for addiction rehab. 

Borovitz, a Conservative rabbi who received ordination at the University of Judaism, is an ex-convict who, in his previous life, served time in a state prison in Chino. His Los Angeles Times bestselling memoir, “Holy Thief,” chronicles his recovery from two addictions — crime and alcohol — and how immersion in Torah brought him out of his dark world. 

A key tool for recovery at Beit T’Shuvah, Borovitz said in a recent interview in his office just outside Culver City, is the ability for a highly flawed — even sinful — person to see himself in the Torah.  He cites as an example Jacob, traditionally viewed as a “tzaddik,” (a righteous person), but one who cheated his brother Esau out of his deserved birthright.

“I saw that I was Jacob,” Borovitz said. “I love Jacob. Jacob was a con man, a liar, a cheat and a thief. He’s just my kind of guy.”

Borovitz says he has redirected his salesmanship traits and charisma from conning people out of thousands of dollars to teaching God and wisdom to people searching for meaning and purpose.

A major segment of Beit T’Shuvah’s recovery program involves daily Torah study. Each client is expected to regularly attend these classes. This type of spiritual therapy goes in line with a core belief shared by Rossetto, Borovitz and the Chabad center of what underlies most addiction — a disease of the soul and an inability to harness the energy of the yetzer hara, the darker side of the human that can wreak havoc if not used properly.

The Chabad facility also offers daily Torah classes, but they are not mandatory and the program does not require its clients to take a religious path to recovery. In fact, about one-third of its clients usually are not Jewish. But those who freely choose that path while at the center tend to do better, said Rabbi Chaim Cunin, a spiritual leader at the treatment center and CEO of Chabad of California.

“While the program is kosher, while the spiritual tools are available to them, they need to come to it on their own,” said Cunin, whose father, Boruch Shlomo Cunin, informally founded the center out of his Westwood home in the 1960s.

He related one story of Andrew, a client who was recovering from drug addiction and wanted to leave the Chabad treatment center three months early because he impulsively felt he could find a deeper spiritual connection in his home community in Brooklyn. 

From the Torah’s perspective, Cunin recalls telling Andrew, his only religious obligation at that point was to save his life and complete his treatment. Returning to New York, where he fell into trouble in the first place and where there was no similar rehab facility if he started using again, would be “abandoning the principles of Torah and Judaism.” 

According to Cunin, Andrew stayed in Los Angeles, completed the rehab program one year ago, and has been clean since.

Donna Miller, the Chabad center’s director, said that a problem among some of her clients, many of whom grew up in Orthodox homes in New York, is that observance never “clicked” for them. And unfortunately, too many of their parents, horrified at their sons’ addictions, mistakenly thought that simply re-engaging in Jewish study would be a solution.

“Parents think that just by sending their children back to Torah classes or yeshiva that the underlying problems will get fixed,” Miller said. “The yeshivas are not equipped to address the underlying issues and to provide the kind of support and care needed to correct a drug problem.”

A common concern shared by both Chabad and Beit T’Shuvah is the seeming ubiquity of alcohol in Jewish life. From Kiddush clubs to tisches to farbrengens (casual, religious social gatherings that often involve alcohol), alcohol in Judaism can, at least in a teenager’s eyes, seem synonymous with many of the joyous get-togethers in observant communities.

At the Chabad facility, a client is permitted to venture out to other synagogues on Shabbat and holidays, so Cunin said that nearby shuls are asked to be aware of who is in attendance, and to not serve any alcohol to someone who they know is recovering from addiction. 

Although no studies have been done on the incidence of alcoholism among Jews, recovery experts say that addiction to things like heroine, cocaine, alcohol, methamphetamine, painkillers, pornography, food and sex hits Jews just as hard as it hits any other group of Americans.

According to Dr. Abraham Twerski, an author and psychiatrist specializing in substance abuse, addiction within Judaism is “across the board.” He founded the Gateway Rehabilitation Center, a renowned treatment center in Pittsburgh, and thinks that addiction afflicts the Orthodox as much as it affects any other subset of Jews.

A common problem with recovery, Twerski told the Journal in a phone interview from New Jersey, is the insufficient time commitments that many rehab centers require. He said that most centers have programs lasting three to four weeks followed by a halfway house, but that it would be ideal to have longer treatment.

Zvi, a client at Chabad’s recovery center, said he moved in and out of short-term rehab centers and even paid $15,000 for a rapid 24-hour detox before he decided that quick fixes would never last and that to save his life he needed to be in rehab for at least six months.

Chabad requires a minimum three-month commitment, but encourages everyone to stay for at least six months before taking a job and re-entering society. For those who need more time after treatment, Chabad has “sober living” quarters, where residents are able to live independent lives within the confines of the treatment center.

At Beit T’Shuvah, residents are required to go through a three-month treatment program before being encouraged to transition back into the outside world. For residents who need it, there is a halfway home.

Even people who are clean for many years can never fully kick the temptation. In the addiction world, many clients have multiple stints in rehab centers. One reason they end up so dangerously flawed often comes from, of all things, a sense of perfectionism, according to Rossetto. Their thinking can be, she said, “If I’m not 100 percent perfect then I am completely unworthy.”

For many, she added, the sense that one’s worth is determined by material possessions is self-destructive, leading people who can’t achieve their material expectations to try to numb the pain, often with drugs or alcohol, sometimes with food or sex. For some people, especially workaholics, drugs provide a relief from the stress and intensity of day-to-day life.

Zvi described in detail his descent into his drug of choice — painkillers — and how using helped him handle the pressure of his high-powered finance job in Manhattan. Like many who are hooked on painkillers, Zvi started using them legitimately, as a way to make his recovery from a hand surgery less painful. Eventually, though, painkillers became an escape from the daily grind.

“I didn’t think twice. I just took them,” said Zvi, who grew up in New York and became addicted to Percocet and Vicodin shortly before his first child was born. Whenever he tried to kick the habit, he would fall ill, needing to take more in order to function day to day.

“It became over time like a 24-hour job because you have to make sure you have enough for the next day and for the week.”

After a downward spiral that included stealing from his family, going into significant debt, switching to heroin (which is cheaper than painkillers) and going in and out of short-term rehab facilities, Zvi was told that he needed a long-term inpatient program. And as an observant Jew, the only treatment center that fit his needs was here, on Olympic Boulevard, 2,800 miles away. 

Zvi’s predicament mirrors that of any observant addict in New York, Boston or Baltimore: Because not one Jewish in-patient rehab center exists on the East Coast — Techiya, which is in West Palm Beach, Fla., is a Jewish recovery track within a larger facility — recovering properly would require leaving one’s friends and family for many months. Twerski isn’t sure why New York, with its population of more than 1.5 million Jews, hasn’t created its own centers.

“Facilities should [have] developed out on the East Coast a long time ago,” he said. “They haven’t, but I don’t know why.”

In Los Angeles, the prevalence of addiction in the entertainment industry and in high-profile families — Jewish and non-Jewish — may have helped reduce the humiliation of coming out. Despite the stigma that keeps many addicts in the shadows, Rossetto said California’s culture makes admitting addiction — and thus recovering — easier. 

“There’s more openness about everything here, drug use included.” 

Zvi, who is expecting another child in the coming weeks, said he plans to move his family to California following his recovery. He doesn’t think the New York environment he’s known his whole life is healthy for him.

“I definitely think out here it’s a lot more ok to be a recovering addict than in New York,” Zvi said. “I feel like everyone is more laid back.”