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

Even nice Jewish boys and girls are caught in opioid epidemic


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.”

Brother can you spare a dime?


I give money to homeless people who ask me for it. Always have. I figure if someone has the courage to ask a stranger for help, I will help them. I always keep cash in both my glove compartment and my wallet. A day does not pass where I do not help someone. Sometimes I buy people food, or toiletries. One time I bought a lovely man a pair of shoes. I think kindness matters and when I give someone money and they offer me a blessing, it makes me happy every single time.

Last week I was asked for some help from a man on the street. I gave him a dollar and wished him well. He looked at the dollar and asked me, “Is that all you’ve got?” I was startled for a second and didn’t understand what he was saying. He looked me in the eyes and said, “Is that it?”. I told him to have a good day and left as my chin started to quiver and I burst into tears. It hurt my feelings and made me sad. It was as though the man felt disrespected, which wasn’t my intention.

I have had people ask me why I give money to those who are going to use to get high or drunk, but I never wonder what they’re going to do with the money. I can’t give them money with restrictions on what they can do with it. It is not personal, political, or judgmental. It is simple kindness. Who am I to judge anyone? I help when and how I can, so when this man asked if that was all I could do, it made me wonder if I should maybe stop giving money and instead just look away.

My friend George deals with homelessness every day as he works in law enforcement in an area of the city where there are a lot of homeless people. He has seen it all and helps save a lot of people. Not give them a dollar save, but actually get them off the street save. He thinks it is sweet I give everyone money, but feels it is only a matter of time before someone responded like this man. He never tells me not to do it, just to be aware not all people will appreciate it.

We view homelessness very differently. When I see a kid asking for money I want to invite them over to have a shower, get some clean clothes, and feed them a home cooked meal. George wants to find out why they’re there, investigate if they can go home, then give them tools to get off the street. For me, I want to put a Band-Aid on a gaping wound to fix it, while he wants to perform emergency surgery to stop the source of the bleeding. Both ways are valid to me.

How do I not help someone who asks? Even the guy who sits at the freeway off ramp wearing Beats headphones gets a dollar from me on occasion. He sits for hours in temperatures over 100 degrees, so why not give him a dollar? I am angry this one person could make me rethink giving money. He shouldn’t have that power over me. In all the times I have given out money, this is the first time I can remember experiencing something unpleasant in response.

I will continue to give money to people who ask me for it. Whether they spend it on food, a bottle of water, or drugs, if whatever they buy brings them a moment of happiness, or comfort, or quiet, then God bless them. There but for the grace of God go I. Everyone has a story to tell and everyone can appreciate a Band-Aid when it is offered to them. To the man who was unhappy with my gesture, I hope someone else gave you a bigger Band-Aid and you are keeping the faith.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vicki Abelson: Writer’s words link her heart to readers


Vicki Abelson stands at a podium in the front of her living room. She has blond highlights in her hair, which is decorated with multicolored feathers. Smiling as she talks, she makes eye contact with various members of the 50-person audience, made up mostly of women. 

They are here for the Women Who Write group, a monthly gathering involving readings, music and more that Abelson holds in her Los Angeles home. On this day, Abelson is talking about her recently released book, “Don’t Jump: Sex, Drugs, Rock ‘N Roll … and My F—ing Mother.” The fictionalized version of her life chronicles her time as a rock promoter in New York City in the 1980s, and, as the title promises, discusses a mother-daughter relationship. 

Abelson wrote the book because she wanted to tell her personal story. 

“It’s a story of redemption,” she told the Journal. “It’s about making the transition into being a person I didn’t think much of to being one who is of service to the rest of the world. Even though it’s a fictionalized memoir, everything the protagonist feels is real.”

Without the Women Who Write group — no longer limited to females — Abelson may not have been able to complete the book, which she began in 2001. Seven years later, after finding trouble getting stage time in L.A. to read her work, she founded the salon. 

Thousands of people now are part of Women Who Write. They gather once a month to hear readings from celebrity authors, such Carl Reiner, Robert Klein, Susie Essman and Cindy Chupack, and enjoy music from artists from bands such as Earth Wind & Fire and the Byrds. There also is a separate meeting in which women bring their work and receive critiques from one another. 

Abelson workshopped “Don’t Jump” at those latter events, and committed to writing for five minutes every day. At this point, she’s been emailing what she writes to a friend for more than 4,000 days. 

“Writing is part of my everyday life,” she said. “I couldn’t imagine not doing it.” 

Growing up in New York City, Abelson was surrounded by celebrities thanks to her to her father, who was a master of ceremonies in the Catskills. She always wanted to be like Johnny Carson and have the chance to interview celebrities. 

“We all dream of accomplishing great things, and we all have heroes,” she said. “I got to live my life brushing up alongside my heroes. A lot of them became friends. My story is an inside view from an outsider.”

In school, Abelson’s favorite subject as a child was English. She crafted poems, and then transitioned into joke writing and stand-up when she got older with the encouragement of her husband at the time. He worked for “Late Show With David Letterman” and Bill Maher, and he helped Abelson snag a gig booking and promoting a rock ’n’ roll club. 

“I’d get there and work the club when the music was happening. I’d go in and make sure the bands were on point and everything was running smoothly. I’d go to clubs late night and scout for new talent. It was an ’80s-fueled, rock ’n’ roll kind of crazy time,” she said. “It was wonderful.”

For eight years, Abelson was part of the New York City music scene, hanging out with the likes of Eric Clapton, Davy Jones and Carole King, who jammed at the club one night after doing an off-Broadway show. “That came full circle, because just a year ago her daughter, Louise Goffin, played in my living room for Women Who Write,” Abelson said. 

After her stint in the clubs, Abelson had two children — a daughter who is about to graduate from high school and a son who is finishing college — and took a writer’s course. She wrote her first screenplay in 1997, and then started the book a few years later. In 2015, it was released by Random Content, which is based in Beverly Hills and run by Reiner and Lawrence O’Flahavan. 

Abelson is currently developing “Don’t Jump” into a TV show, and she pens columns for the Huffington Post on the side. Through writing, she has found a way to show the world who she really is.

“Writing is connecting you, the reader, to my soul and telling you my truth,” she said. “I don’t like doing anything that doesn’t come from my authentic truth. It’s my way to express my thoughts and feelings, and link mine and the readers’s hearts.” 

Reputed Israeli crime boss extradited from California to Israel


Reputed Israeli crime boss Itzhak Abergil, currently incarcerated in federal prison in Lompoc, Calif. will be extradited to Israel to serve the remaining half of his 10-year sentence in his home country.

Abergil, 45, pleaded guilty in May 2012 to participating in a large-scale Ecstasy distribution ring, whose members killed an accomplice in Sherman Oaks.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Suzanne H. Segal signed papers on Monday, Nov. 18, authorizing Abergil's transfer to Israel, expected to take place in about three weeks.

In the original 77-page, 32-count indictment, federal prosecutors in Los Angeles charged that Itzhak Abergil, his brother Meir Abergil, and their associates ran one of the largest rings importing narcotics into the United States, working with two other drug syndicates, the Jerusalem Network and one California’s San Fernando Valley.

Initially, the Abergil brothers and an associate were extradited from Israel to the United States in early 2011, an action rarely approved by Israeli courts.

In this case, U.S. officials agreed that if the defendants were found guilty, they would not face the death penalty and would serve their sentences in Israeli jails.

The Los Angeles police department has been concerned with Israeli criminals in the city since the 1970s. “Israeli crime here tends to be quite sophisticated and hard to track,” said Captain Greg Hall, commander of the department’s Major Crimes Division, in an earlier interview.

Amy Winehouse died of bulimia, not drugs or alcohol, says her brother


While the “Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait” exhibit, opening soon at London’s Jewish Museum, will show the public a different version of the singer’s life than the one we saw in the tabloids, her brother has just come forward with a new angle on how she died.

While he doesn’t deny her very struggle with drugs and alcohol, that isn’t what killed her, says Alex Winehouse. Instead, he claims, it was bulimia that actually led to his sister’s death. (The coroner’s inquest listed alcohol poisoning as the cause of death).

“She would have died eventually, the way she was going, but what really killed her was the bulimia,” he told The Observer. “Had she not have had an eating disorder, she would have been physically stronger.”

According to Winehouse, she developed bulimia in her late teens, when all of her friends were doing it. “They’d put loads of rich sauces on their food, scarf it down and throw it up. They stopped doing it, but Amy never really stopped. We all knew she was doing it but it’s almost impossible [to tackle], especially if you’re not talking about it.”

Winehouse died in 2011 at age 27. Tragic, no matter how exactly it happened.

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.”

Fake medicine


Counterfeit Drugs Kill People and Fund Terrorism in the Middle East

Caveat emptor means “buyer beware.” Fake medicines are now a multibillion-dollar industry affecting people in virtually every country in the world, and the problem is getting worse. It has been estimated that up to 15 percent of drugs sold worldwide are counterfeit, and in parts of Africa and Asia it can surpass 50 percent. We are also vulnerable in the United States even though we have a better-regulated pharmaceutical system. 

This problem became epidemic in the late 1990s with the globalization of pharmaceutical manufacturing, the commercialization of the Internet and the relatively new drug Viagra. By 2002, hundreds of thousands of fake Viagra pills flooded the market, and today birth control pills, hormone replacements, diabetes treatments, weight-loss aids, cancer and transplant drugs, schizophrenia medicines and HIV therapies have all been counterfeited. The list goes on. The selling occurs mostly through online pharmacies worldwide, but the manufacturing appears to focus mainly in loosely regulated countries like China and India. Unfortunately, medications that come in injectable forms, like insulin, are even easier to counterfeit than tablets. One can just use sterile water or even tap water. 

To create an online pharmacy is rather simple. Get the active pharmaceutical ingredients from China, put together a Web page, and you are ready to go. It literally could take 45 minutes to create your own. 

Accountability for these “pharmacies” is virtually nonexistent. Of 10,000 Internet drug outlets surveyed by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy, 97 percent were out of compliance with legal or patient safety standards.

Historically, drug smugglers are often penalized by way of imprisonment if the drugs in question are heroin or cocaine. But those who produce or smuggle counterfeit medicines, by contrast, often face lax enforcement and light punishment. Some governments look at drug counterfeiting as a trivial offense. After all, everybody likes cheap “Viagra.” Recently, the pharmaceutical industry has persuaded several governments to stiffen regulations against fake drugs because counterfeit drugs can kill. Most are poorly made, containing the wrong dose of the active ingredient or a totally different ingredient, such as antifreeze or arsenic. Drug resistance against bacteria can occur because of ineffective antibacterial medications, particularly in Africa and Southeast Asia; it is estimated that up to 30 percent are fakes. The United Nations estimates that roughly half of the antimalarial drugs sold in Africa are counterfeits. The World Health Organization estimates that at least 100,000 people per year, mostly in poor countries, are killed as a result of fake medicines. It is estimated that the global market for fake medicines could be worth over $200 billion per year.

Although the United States has the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to watch over us, according to the commissioner at this organization, 80 percent of the ingredient manufacturing sites for FDA-approved drugs sit outside our country — located in one of the 300,000 facilities in 150 different countries. These small companies export FDA-regulated products into the United States. Clearly, there are many weak points along this odyssey from which to steal or introduce adulterated and counterfeit products. You may recall that in 2007, 149 people died as a result of contaminated Heparin.

There have been some recent reports suggesting that terrorist organizations in the Middle East are using fake medicine to fund their heinous activities against Israel.

The Rise of Counterfeit Cancer Medication

The counterfeiters have recently moved from fake Viagra to making counterfeit cancer drugs, probably because of the larger profits. These illegal manufacturers have become more aggressive, as a vial of the cancer drug Avastin sells for $2,400 compared to $10 to $20 a tablet for Viagra. Although speculative, I also believe these very immoral thieves feel that the patients with cancer will probably die anyway, so no one can prove the fake drugs were causative.

The United States traced some of these drugs that originated from China, which then passed to Turkey through England, and then were transported to our country. These fakes contained starch, salt, cleaning solvents and other chemicals, but not the active ingredient, according to Roche, Avastin’s manufacturer. Bogus copies of the breast-cancer drug Tamoxifen also have entered our shores in recent months.

In China, the manufacturers are licensed as chemical companies, therefore they are not subject to regulation or inspection, as in our country. It is rare that anyone is arrested or convicted for these heinous crimes against humanity. 

Where Do We Go From Here?

Over the past 10 years, there have been some collaborations between national and international public health agencies, such as the FDA and the World Health Organization. Many counterfeit and illicit drugs have been confiscated, resulting in the arrest of more than 80 people, as well as the elimination of more than 18,000 illegal online pharmacies. The pharmaceutical manufacturers and the FDA are developing new anti-counterfeiting techniques, such as handheld counterfeit detection devices designed to analyze chemicals and potential tampering of these medicines. Also, some pharmaceutical companies have put identifying markers on drug packaging, which can be scanned, somewhat like radio-frequency identification. Some are more covert, using UV fibers woven into the packaging, inks and images. More recently, nanotechnological markers in DNA are being incorporated into the makeup of the drugs themselves to help prevent drug counterfeiting processes. 

Unfortunately, these new technologies, to detect counterfeiting, do not eliminate the problem, but only minimize it. The FDA has recently discovered that counterfeiters target some consumers through social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. 

On an optimistic note, the government of Nigeria, where fake drugs are prevalent, has declared its intention to adopt a “war” against the counterfeiters. The Pharmaceutical Security Institute gives warning that this war will be hard to win. Hopefully, more obstacles developed by each country will raise the cost and complexity of manufacturing counterfeit drugs, thus the profit margin will diminish. Hopefully the “bad guys” may now choose to fake other objects instead of medication that cannot harm or kill anyone. 

Dr. Norman Lavin is a clinical professor of endocrinology and director of endocrinology education at UCLA Medical School.  He writes the Jewish Diseases blog at

Widespread khat addiction threatens Yemen’s future


Abdulmalik, a 13-year-old boy from Yemen’s capital city Sana’a, started chewing khat leaves at the age of seven. “My father would pass me small handfuls at weddings,” he told The Media Line. “But I didn’t start chewing every day until I turned 12 and started to work. Khat gives me energy for work.”

“I chew khat everyday,” he said proudly, exposing the pesto-colored glob of mush packed into his cheek. 

Indeed, each day after lunch, tens of millions of Yemenis from all strands of society devote at least three to four hours to the purchase and mastication of catha edulis, a tall-growing shrub native to the Arabian Peninsula and African Horn that produces an amphetamine-like high when chewed.

In patriarchal Yemen, the ritual was restricted to the province of men for millennia. In recent years, however, women and even children have picked up the habit in growing numbers. The World Food Program (WFP) estimates that 73 percent of Yemeni women today chew the leaves with some frequency, while some 15 to 20 percent of children under the age of 12 chew khat daily.

According to Hind Aleryani, an anti-khat Yemeni activist, the emerging trend of child khat use could spell disaster for the impoverished country of 26 million that just entered a fragile political transition following last year’s bloody, anti-government uprisings, which unseated 33-year autocrat Ali Abdullah Saleh. The WFP estimates that about 15 million person-hours per day are spent chewing khat in Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world. And 40 percent of the country’s water supply is channeled into the cultivation of the native shrub, despite the fact that Sana’a is on track to be the first capital city to run out of water.

“Whenever we talk about the problems of khat and its impact on the economy, agriculture, water, health and social life in Yemen,” she said, “we say that the only solution is a new generation that is not addicted to the drug. However, the problem is that the new generation has been addicted ever since childhood.”

Donald Burgess from Yemen’s UNICEF office echoed Aleryani’s concerns about addiction. “The habit of chewing khat can easily be picked up by young people as it has an important place in the tradition and social habits of Yemenis, and is not looked upon as something very serious,” he told The Media Line.

“The habit starts off as an imitation of the adults in the family and later develops into an addiction,” he said. Yet “despite the fact that an increasing number of children in Yemen are picking up the habit, there are no accurate statistical data or studies on the negative effects of khat on children.”

From the incidental data and indirect evidence that are available, it is clear that khat has a great impact on Yemeni families. According to WFP, “Households spend an average of 10 percent of their expenditure on khat – more than on health and education combined.”

That, according to Burgess, “acts as a supporting factor to the decreased appetite and loss of vitamins, minerals and fluids that khat induces in children, resulting in the development of fragile bones, pale skin, anemia, weight loss and decreased growth rate.”

Abdulmalik, for his part, said his daily khat expenditure averages about 500 Yemeni Rial (or $2.33), a significant amount in a country where almost half the population survives on less than $2 per day, according to the World Bank.

Another major side effect is decreased academic performance, explained Burgess. “Children who indulge in khat chewing tend to prioritize khat sessions over time spent on their studies,” he said. Following the khat session, he added, “lethargy and decreased interest towards any productive activity” set in, thus wasting more “precious time that could be used for studying or reading educational material.”

Fauzia, a 28-year-old artist who grew up in Sana’a, told The Media Line that it was forbidden for her and her friends to chew khat as children or even teenagers, “but now it seems to be more common for girls, though mostly in elite circles,” she said.

Up to the Next Generation

Aleryani argues that it is up to Yemen’s next generation to change old ways of thinking about khat. “The image of khat for many teenagers, especially boys, is a sign of becoming an adult and a man,” Aleryani says. “Their dream as kids is to grow up and chew khat just like their fathers, and recently this has become the case with women as well.”

Earlier this year, Aleryani spearheaded an anti-khat campaign on Twitter and Facebook, urging the new transitional President Abd Rabbu Mansur Hadi and his government to ban khat in public offices. Only one small gesture came from Minister of Education Dr. Abdulrazag Al-Ashwal, who ordered schools nationwide to promote a day of awareness about the drug’s effects. When asked by Aleryani to introduce regular lessons into the curricula, the minister said, “It's not possible now … maybe in the future.”

With about half of the country’s 26 million residents currently under the age of 15, Yemen’s population is expected to almost double over the next two decades, creating a whole new set of economic and resource challenges for the small Arabian Peninsula state. As long as the vast majority of Yemenis continue to view khat chewing as a sacred tradition, instead of an unhealthy addiction that is strangling the economy, devouring precious natural resources and weakening family ties, the future looks grim. 

Opinion: My war on drugs


When medical marijuana became legal in the state of California, I went out and got some. I say this not because I am cool, or like to get stoned — I’m not, and I don’t.

My hard drugs of choice are yerba mate, Famous Grouse and red wine. But within me there lives an inner Ron Paul, a cranky conservative libertarian who wants government just to lay off. That voice has long told me that one of the most foolish, destructive wars we have engaged in as a nation — among many — is the War on Drugs.

So one fine spring morning several years ago, hoping to do my small part for the cause, I headed to the Venice Boardwalk in search of a doctor.

The dispensary I chose was on the second floor of a two-story converted beach house. The waiting room of the clinic was filled with some of the healthiest young people I have ever seen — shirtless blond men with surfer bodies, young women overqualified for the cover of Shape magazine. We all sat with clipboards, filling out our medical histories, indicating our specific ailments.

I checked the box marked “back pain,” because, well, who doesn’t get a little twinge now and then?

The nurse explained that they only took cash and that an ATM (service fee $4) was located in the lobby. She then took me to meet the doctor. His nameplate said Dr. Christian Weinberg. He wore dirty white scrubs, white socks and sandals. He asked me to take a seat at his desk, flipped his laptop so the screen partially faced me, and said, “You gotta see this.”

It was the movie “The Gods Must Be Crazy,” about an African tribe thrown into turmoil by the discovery of a Coke bottle.

“Yes,” I said. “Great movie.”

We both watched for a good five minutes, until Weinberg glanced over my form. He asked me if I’d tried other treatments for my back pain. As he asked, he stared me in the eyes and nodded his head slowly up and down.

Following his cue, I said, “Yes.”

He asked me if anything had worked. He shook his head from side to side.

“No,” I said.

“Have you tried marijuana at some point in the past?,” he asked.

“No,” I started to say but saw him nodding this time, so I said, “N-n-yes?”  

“And it helped?”

Now I caught on.  “Oh, yes,” I said, watching him nod vigorously.  “It saved my life.”

“Excellent!” The doctor signed my form, shook my hand and returned to the movie. The nurse met me in the hallway and escorted me to the dispensary, a pot-choked room with rows and rows of brown glass bottles and a TV screen with prices for medicines with names like “Cherry Bomb” and “Venice Skunk.”   

Since that time, critics of the medical marijuana law have cited its rampant abuse, while defenders have raised incontrovertible evidence that pot really does have significant medical uses and should be legally available to those who need it.

But this debate is really just a sideshow in the ongoing debacle known as the War on Drugs.

I reflected on my own small attempt to join the front lines, legally, when last week I watched the documentary “The House I Live In,” at an April 5 screening at Creative Artists Agency (CAA). The movie won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, and its director, Eugene Jarecki, was in town to drum up support for it and for changing drug laws.

You are going to hear about this movie. It is a powerful piece of agitprop, and the case it lays out against the drug war is damning.

As the film reports, President Richard Nixon declared the “War on Drugs” in 1971. Some 40 years and 44 million arrests later, Jarecki says in his spare and moving narration, we’ve lost more than a trillion dollars, and yet drugs are more available than ever before, sold by younger and younger kids, and the purity level is higher.

America has become the world’s largest jailer, with 2.3 million people behind bars, five times the rate of other developed countries. Between a quarter and a third of those in jail right now are there for drug crimes.

The war’s ultimate cost are the thousands of lives, the vast human potential, destroyed through severe sentencing, civil-asset forfeiture and lack of rehabilitation opportunities. The film indicts every president since Nixon, including Barack Obama, for failing to reverse a failed and unjust set of policies.

It’s not a perfect movie. Jarecki offers us no responsible opposing points of view — a pet peeve of mine. More foolishly, Jarecki, whose family escaped from Nazi Europe, makes the dubious choice to compare America’s history of draconian drug policies to the Holocaust. That ridiculous comparison undoubtedly will pull focus from the serious indictments the film makes. But these weaknesses shouldn’t damn the facts and stories he presents.

Following the CAA screening, several experts, including former law enforcement officials who now are part of the Drug Policy Alliance, spoke in favor of smarter drug laws. Despite Obama, the tide is turning, they say, as Americans of all political stripes see the true costs of this phony war.

“So many officials know this is the right thing to do,” said professor Michael Romano, of Stanford University’s Three Strikes Project.

The gods may be crazy, but must we?

Israelis investigated for drug trafficking in Colombia


At least eight Israelis described as former military personnel are being investigated for drug trafficking in Colombia.

The men, who are also being investigated for money laundering and the exploitation of minors, have been monitored by police for the past year, Colombia’s prosecutor told local media on Sunday, the El Tiempo newspaper reported.

The Israelis, based in the Caribbean city of Taganga, say they are legitimate investors and their papers are in order. They also are accused of links to a group of drug traffickers called the “Los Urabenos,” which reportedly is part of a different investigation.

Phone calls among the suspects that were intercepted by police must be translated since they are in Hebrew, according to El Tiempo.

At Beit T’Shuvah, they sing a song of ‘Freedom’


“How long must I roam, to find my way home …”

Natalie sings the lines tentatively, tugging at her black T-shirt, her voice soft and sweet.

But soft and sweet won’t cut it for a drug addict trying to work her way back into her family on seder night.

“This is your story. Stand up for it. What are you afraid of?” director Laura Bagish urges her.

Natalie, who asked that only her first name be used for this article, plays the lead role of Shira in “Freedom Song,” a Passover-themed musical produced by Beit T’Shuvah, a Jewish residential rehab facility in Culver City. The actors are all alumni and residents of Beit T’Shuvah, and at a late-night rehearsal in the facility’s lunchroom, which also serves as both auditorium and synagogue, they are feeling the pressure of the three shows they will be performing before Passover.

Playing a lost daughter feels particularly familiar to Natalie: She is 18 and was addicted to heroin when, three months ago, she left Beverly Hills High School to check herself into Beit T’Shuvah.

As the cast cheers her on, she sings with more depth, but she’ll have to get stronger before her first performance, just days away.

“Freedom Song” was written nearly seven years ago, based on the real-life stories of Beit T’Shuvah residents. Conceived as a one-time production, the 45-minute, edgy musical has played continually since then to thousands of people at synagogues, schools and other organizations across the country.

The show serves as a form of therapy for the actors, but it is also a catalyst for the audience. After each performance, the cast holds a dialogue with the audience, and nearly always someone from the audience comes forward with an addiction story of their own.

“It’s amazing that the play is such a vehicle for people opening up, for cutting through the denial and allowing people to speak in a way that seeing a didactic seminar about addiction just wouldn’t do,” said Beit T’Shuvah’s Cantor Rebekah Mirsky, a former country singer who co-authored the script.

The actors use the Passover story as a lens through which to view their own journeys, and in turn reflect back to the audience a new way of internalizing the Passover story: What are you a slave to? Do you retell your foundational story and pull meaning from it, or do you hide your truth from yourself and from others? Do you truly understand what it means to live free of deception? 

The staging juxtaposes a 12-step meeting with a family seder. The music, a mash-up of original theater tunes, Jewish liturgy and forceful pop, with interludes of rap, plays as a constant underscore for dialogue that weaves itself into the music.

As the story unfolds, the audience learns that the seemingly happy family members on one side of the stage are enslaved to their idea of normal, while hiding truths about themselves. The addicts on the other side of the stage share their tales of deception and self-sabotage — tales that each new round of actors writes into the script to reflect their true journey. The addicts, the audience learns, have grown to understand that owning their narrative is the only road to authentic living.

The show highlights the haggadah’s imperative for storytelling. Even if the story is shameful — 200 years of slavery, 20 years of addiction — telling it can be a powerful tool not only for an ongoing process of national rediscovery, but for deep and difficult self-improvement.

“For people who have had to be secretive, who have been ashamed of themselves and been hiding in many ways from themselves, this is really powerful,” said Beit T’Shuvah director Harriet Rossetto, who founded the program in 1987. “The message to addicts often is, ‘If anyone really knows who I am, they won’t love me.’ And I think that is what our people get — that sense that I can be me, and tell my story, and people will still love me.’ ”

Ira S., a 53-year-old who worked in the entertainment industry, is recovering from decades-long drug and alcohol abuse (he asked that only his last initial be used). He moved into Beit T’Shuvah in 2008 and now works there as a counselor. He plays Grandpa in “Freedom Song.”

“I’m not the kind of person that people see a lot. When I first came here, it was all about trying to get by without being on the radar. I was trying to hide more than being present, and that was a part of me that needed to change,” he said in an interview.

He said he was reluctant to join the cast and froze his first time on stage. But, now, he credits “Freedom Song” as being a major part of his recovery.

“I feel like I belong to something. I never felt like I belonged before,” he said.

Beit T’Shuvah is the only rehab residence in the country to integrate Judaism and the 12-step program. Its 120 beds, plus 30 outpatient slots, are always full. Two off-site residences house clients who are well into recovery, and Beit T’Shuvah recently purchased another building, next door, which it will use for its popular Shabbat services and an expansion of outpatient offerings, possibly including a drop-in center. Its prevention curriculum has reached thousands of teenage and middle school students.

While Beit T’Shuvah self-reports an impressive success rate of 65 percent, 85 percent of “Freedom Song” participants stay clean, according to Beit T’Shuvah’s Rabbi Mark Borovitz, who is married to Rossetto. The show allows for deep artistic expression and gives the participants responsibility and the sense that people are counting on them, Borovitz said.

“They know they’ve touched someone, which I’ve heard them say again and again was a bigger high than ever getting loaded was,” Rossetto agreed. “And when you give up your external high, there is a void, and if you don’t fill that with some other highs, it’s very hard to stay sober.”

Watch the trailer below.

Camarillo Chabad awarded $635,000 to fight drug abuse


Chabad of Camarillo, located just outside the planned senior community of Leisure Village, is receiving a federal grant of $625,000 to prevent teen drug abuse in Ventura County. It will also receive $10,000 in county funds to focus specifically on prescription drug abuse.

Rabbi Aryeh Lang is leading a coalition of local law enforcement officials, educators and civic organizations in an effort he calls Saving Lives. His team is sponsored by the Drug Free Communities Support Program in conjunction with the Office of National Drug Control Policy and Mental Health Services Administration.

The loan, which will be distributed in yearly increments of $125,000 for five years, has been awarded to coalitions around the country since the late 1990s. Chabad of Camarillo was one of 169 groups awarded the loan out of more than 500 that applied this year.

“It’s not just the government giving money,” Lang said. “We will be raising money to match those funds locally and independently.”

“We like to fund groups that are motivated, organized and enthusiastic,” said Dan Hicks, prevention services manager of Ventura County’s Alcohol and Drug Program, which is administering the county’s $10,000 reimbursement loan to the rabbi’s coalition. The county will hold the coalition accountable by requiring substantiating documentation of spending, according to Hicks.

Chabad runs a drug rehabilitation center in Los Angeles and other cities, and Lang said he received training at the Los Angeles center.

Referring to his group’s mission and challenge, Lang said, “The real power relies on the group’s ability to mobilize people.”

He said his coalition will work to curtail the overuse of prescription drugs, including those in the average home’s medicine cabinet, and teen abuse of alcohol and marijuana.

Swimmer Jaben kicked off Israel’s Olympic team


The only U.S.-born Jew on Israel’s Olympic team has been kicked off after failing two drug tests.

Swimmer Max Jaben, 22, who was slated to compete in the 200- and 400-meter freestyle events in Beijing, tested positive for the anabolic steroid boldenone in separate tests.

Jaben, a native of suburban Kansas City who made aliyah last summer, denies ever taking the drug.

“I’m extremely upset,” he said after his second test came back positive. “I cannot believe that this happened. There has obviously been a mistake somewhere.”

—Jewish Telegraphic Agency

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.

Briefs: Drug and immigration bust at kosher meat plant, Israel says no Hamas truce without Schalit


Feds: Drugs Made at Kosher Meat Plant

Federal authorities charged that a methamphetamine laboratory was operating at the nation’s largest kosher slaughterhouse and that employees carried weapons to work.

The charges were among the most explosive details to emerge following the massive raid Monday at Agriprocessors in Postville, Iowa. In a 60-page application for a search warrant, federal agents revealed details of their six-month probe of Agriprocessors. The investigation involved 12 federal agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the departments of labor and agriculture.

According to the application, a former plant supervisor told investigators that some 80 percent of the workforce was illegal. They included rabbis responsible for kosher supervision, who the source believed entered the United States from Canada without proper immigration documents. The source did not provide evidence for his suspicion about the rabbis. The source also claimed to have confronted a human resources manager with Social Security cards from three employees that had the same number. The manager laughed when the matter was raised, the source said.

At least 300 people were arrested Monday during the raid, for which federal authorities had rented an expansive fairground nearby to serve as a processing center for detainees. The search warrant application said that 697 plant employees were believed to have violated federal laws. Agriprocessors officials did not return calls from JTA seeking comment.

Israel Signals Possible Truce With Hamas in Gaza Hinges on Freeing Kidnapped Soldier

Israel signaled that any truce with Hamas in Gaza would be conditioned on the release of captive soldier Gilad Shalit. Egyptian mediator Omar Suleiman held high-level talks in Israel on Monday about a Hamas proposal for a six-month cease-fire in Gaza accompanied by a lifting of the economic embargo on the territory. Israel, which had previously rebuffed the idea, appeared to be conditioning acquiescence on Hamas first freeing Shalit, a soldier it has held since June 2006.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s office said after his discussions with Suleiman that Shalit was a “central factor” in “reaching a security arrangement in Gaza,” though Israel would remain firm on its other demands that Palestinian arms-smuggling and attacks also cease completely.

Poll Finds 59 Percent of Israelis Want Olmert Out

A narrow majority of Israelis believe Ehud Olmert should resign over suspicions of financial misdeeds, a poll found. According to the survey in Monday’s Yediot Achronot, 59 percent of Israelis want the prime minister to step down in light of a police investigation into his ties with a U.S. financier at the heart of bribery allegations. Thirty-three percent back Olmert’s decision to stay in office, and the rest are undecided.

Olmert has denied wrongdoing in the Morris Talansky affair. However, the poll found that 60 percent of Israelis do not believe the prime minister’s public assertions that he never took bribes, while 22 percent do.

The scandal appears to have hit Olmert’s already low approval ratings. According to Yediot, which in February found that 18 percent of Israelis thought Olmert was best suited to be prime minister, that figure is now down to 10 percent. By contrast, 37 percent of Israelis want right-wing former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in power, while 20 percent favor Labor Party leader Ehud Barak, another former premier who is now Olmert’s defense minister. But Olmert’s centrist Kadima Party could see surprising success against Netanyahu’s Likud if the prime minister were replaced by his senior deputy, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, and elections were held today.

According to the Yediot poll, a Livni-led Kadima would take 27 percent of the votes against 23 percent for Likud and 15 percent for Labor. The survey had 500 respondents and a 4.5 percent margin of error.

Rescuer of Warsaw Ghetto Children Dies

Irena Sendler, who smuggled some 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto to safety during World War II, died Monday in Warsaw. Sendler, who was later arrested and tortured by the Gestapo, was 98. Between October 1940 and April 1943, Sendler and a team of about 20 volunteers smuggled the children out in boxes or suitcases. She then placed them with Polish families. As a social worker, Sendler visited the ghetto regularly.

In 1965, she was among the first people named by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations. She also was made an honorary Israeli citizen. Sendler was nominated last year for a Nobel Peace Prize.

She lived in relative obscurity until about eight years ago, when a group of students from Uniontown, Kan., learned about her wartime heroism and wrote a play about it. The play has been performed in North America and Poland.

Kabbalah Museum to Open in Jerusalem

A museum devoted exclusively to Kabbalah will open in Jerusalem. The Jerusalem Kabbalah Museum — the only museum devoted exclusively to Judaism’s mystical tradition, according to its founder — is scheduled to open June 25. It will display such artifacts as amulets, garments and historical manuscripts; provide education, including personal Kabbalah training, and offer tours of Israel, focusing on sites of kabbalistic interest.

Founding director Rabbi Chaim Dalfin, the author of “Soul Journeys” — a book about Kabbalah — said the museum is targeted at both Jews and non-Jews. While “Kabbalah ma’asit,” or practical Kabbalah involving incantations, is esoteric knowledge that Dalfin said institutions “should stay away from,” he said the new museum will present “teachings that are open to anyone.”

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency

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 (“

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.

One day at a time, one person at a time


A life-size soft sculpture of a cleaning woman scrubbing the floor marks the entrance to the office of Harriett Rossetto, founder and executive director of Beit T’Shuvah, and serves as a metaphor for Rossetto’s vision: to give addicts a chance to scrub their souls and rejoin the world of “normies” — what addicts and alcoholics call normal people.

A social worker, in 1984 Rossetto took a job doing outreach to Jews in prison. “I was very captivated by the prisoners I met,” she says.

In response to those experiences, Rossetto founded Beit T’Shuvah in 1987, and in 1999 moved the Jewish rehab center into its large, current quarters in Culver City. At any time, the place is home to between 110 and 120 addicts and alcoholics, men and women of all ages, nearly all of them Jewish. It feeds and houses them, and it provides spiritual, therapeutic and rehab groups that are also attended by outpatients.

The rules are strict at Beit T’Shuvah: no drugs or alcohol, no computers or cellphones during the first few months. And how and when one can leave the facility is regulated. Residents, particularly the newly arrived, are separated from the world that led them to addiction and prison.

Nevertheless, each resident is treated according to his or her unique needs. “We individualize everyone’s program,” Rossetto says. “The bureaucratic notion that what we do for one we have to do for everybody always infuriated me. This place runs on the idea: ‘Let’s find out who you are.’ Mark [Borovitz] would call that ‘What is your soul that is different from everyone else’s soul?'”

“Mark was an inmate in state prison when we first met. He wasn’t a rabbi at that time. I had just started Beit T’Shuvah, and one way or another we hooked up and we’ve grown this place together — and we’re married to one another. He does the spiritual part, and I do the psychological part, but we don’t really distinguish those things. Judaism is a path of healing here; the interpretations of the prayers and the Torah are related to one’s inner life and to recovery.”

“There’s nothing ethereal about what we do,” adds Borovitz, “nothing philosophical. It’s all about: How do I live as a decent human being? How do I live not giving in to my thoughts and desires and feelings? How do I instead choose the high road and live a life of purpose, meaning and decency? And we use Judaism as a basis for that.”

“No one is exempt from addiction,” Rossetto says. “Addiction happens regardless of money, religion, class, social status, education or any other factor. It’s the great equalizer. The people here, [nearly] all of them being Jewish, are in a community where the similarities outweigh the differences. What happens is that people come here and they connect. They connect in a way that would not happen in the outside world.”

“Addiction is a condition in which there is chronic relapse,” Rossetto says. “It’s very difficult to give up the thing that makes you feel the best in the world. And a different way of living is very challenging. Untreated, the success rate is about 15 percent. Here, we have a success rate of between 60 percent and 70 percent.” The figure is based on surveys carried out by Beit T’Shuvah.

Rossetto is fond of the Talmudic saying that if you save one person, you’ve saved the world. “The reason we’ve been successful,” Borovitz adds, “is because it’s not just treatment. It’s also a spiritual path and a community. People come back and take cakes for sobriety anniversaries, they have baby-namings here, weddings — we do it all.”

“There is no other place like this in the world,” Rossetto says.

Peers give Orthodox teens lesson in drug use and abuse


“We were a group of kids who were dying inside, but we didn’t know it. We just thought we were a lost cause.”

With these words, Koby, a teenage yeshiva drug user, sets the level of earnestness and intensity on a new video that he and four of his friends produced under the auspices of Aleinu Family Resource Center, the Orthodox Davening Under the Influencearm of Jewish Family Service, an agency of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

The video will be the centerpiece of “Davening Under the Influence,” a program of Aleinu workshops for parents and educators on Feb. 18 that will feature Dr. Joshua Lamm, medical director of an Orthodox adolescent addictions center in New York. The workshop will delve into parenting issues and is meant for all parents, not only parents of children who are already at risk.

Aleinu is focusing on drug use and high-risk behavior among teens this year through workshops and Shabbat of Awareness, which in the past has stirred community understanding on topics such as sexual abuse and Internet issues. Alcohol abuse also came up this year because of incidents involving 150 yeshiva kids who drank excessively this past Simchat Torah.

For many years, at-risk behavior and drug use among yeshiva high school students has been an open secret, but only in recent years have kids and their families had anywhere to turn.

While most of the efforts so far have focused on boys, the problem is prevalent among yeshiva girls as well.

Aish Tamid, an independent organization that runs classes, support services and social outlets for hundreds of teens, opened its doors about seven years ago under the leadership of Rabbi Avi Leibovic, an attorney and product of local yeshivas.

In the last few years, Aleinu has also ramped up its activity in this area. The organization holds seminars in local yeshiva high schools to talk to students and faculty about drug use. Fourteen middle and high schools have signed on to Aleinu’s mandatory drug policy, which outlines when and how yeshivas should refer a student for drug-use assessment, while remaining supportive and nonpunitive, and what paths of treatment, if any, might be recommended. Failure to comply with the recommendations — or distributing or selling drugs — could result in expulsion from school.

Last year, Aleinu started Issues Anonymous, where about 25 high school-age boys who have abused drugs or alcohol and are now committed to sobriety meet to support each other, hang out and work through the issues that led to their high-risk behavior.

As part of their healing process, the boys produced this video, which will be aired at the workshops Feb. 18 and will be available for other educational programs.

“This is not about placing blame…. This is about taking responsibility, to raise awareness in the Jewish community,” the boys begin in the video, each one adding another thought to the sentence. “We know that we can’t make this never happen again, but if we could just help prevent one beating, one less alcoholic binge, one more good day at school, one less drunk driver, one less overdose to prevent more cases of ending up here,” they say, as the scene flashes to a cemetery.

The video is dedicated to the memory of Yitzchak Meir Mermelstein, a young man who died of a drug overdose.

“What they are saying is see us, look at us, interact with us, care about us — see what it is like to be on the inside of us,” said Aleinu director Debbie Fox.

It is a video that every parent should see, because the issues the boys bring up are hauntingly universal.

One boy speaks of never feeling satisfied with what he had, though his parents gave him everything. Another talks of something as simple as not being able to keep up during davening, of always feeling different. School was never fun, one boy says.

A third says he had a vibrant and close-knit extended family, but his parents were clueless. And yet another talks of never getting along with his parents, while another says his father beat him.

With remarkable candor and self-awareness — and with the blessings of their parents — five boys share how and why they descended into drug abuse.

One boy shared shots with every cousin and uncle at his bar mitzvah.

A 9-year-old was handed a joint on Simchat Torah. Jewish summer camp was a good place for another boy to get hooked. Many of these kids have become sophisticated at “pharming,” scavenging prescription drugs at home and at friends’ homes. They talk of praying and studying Torah while high.

“We have a lot of alcohol out in the open in my house — vodka, whiskey and scotch — because my parents never thought that would be me. They trusted me,” one says.

They urge parents to be vigilant about their kids’ behavior — if they are sleeping too much, locking themselves in their rooms or experiencing mood swings. Always know with whom your kids are hanging out, they warn.

They urge parents to talk nicely to their kids, to have real conversations and to be proud of even small accomplishments. And they urge kids who are struggling not to push away the help.

They have some harsh words for teachers and rabbis, as well.

“The rabbis never noticed when you were depressed or on drugs or using or suicidal, but they noticed when you weren’t wearing a kippah. Rabbis can’t help me now,” one of the boys says.

Fox says the video is being released in two versions — one for parents and one for rabbis. The one for parents does not include some of the harshest indictments of the rabbis, because Fox wanted the rabbis to be open to receiving the message without feeling they were under public attack.

A group of Los Angeles rabbis was overwhelmingly receptive to the video when it was shown at a luncheon a few weeks ago.

At-risk youth; Much more Mathout; Donkeys vs. Elephants — the beef goes on


Custody Battle
 
Wendy Jaffe’s cover story on divorce focused primarily on the custody battles while neglecting alternative forms of dispute resolution, such as mediation, which can lead to far more peaceful results (“Who Gets the Shul?” Oct. 6).
 
In my role as a divorce mediator, I have worked over the years with scores of Jewish couples who are separating or divorcing to help them negotiate issues concerning their Jewish life and the Jewish life of their children. Couples in mediation are able to reach agreement on synagogue membership, synagogue dues and religious school fees, b’nai mitzvah costs, the wording on b’nai mitzvah or wedding invitations, as well as how they will share time with their children for holy days and festivals.
 
Not only is mediation less expensive than litigation, but the process results in far less acrimony and battle. Divorce, while maintaining shalom bayit, is indeed possible.

Rabbi Jeffrey A. Marx
Sha’arei Am — The Santa Monica Synagogue

 
Maher Hathout
 
It would have been irresponsible to stand by when a man is honored, even though he uses anti-Israel, anti-Jewish propaganda and participates in rallies that support terrorist groups, as he did at the Federal Building on Aug 12, where he was a keynote speaker and participants chanted, “Long Live Hezbollah” (“Controversial Muslim Leader Gets Award,” Sept. 22).
 
Hathout never distanced himself from them, nor, after his nomination, did he try to reach out and allay our understandable concerns. Instead, he lashed out, labeling us “un-American” fringe groups that oppose free speech or dislike Muslims. Hathout is free to say whatever he likes, but this extremist, divisive rhetoric and behavior should not be any city’s model for human relations.
 
We were not alone. Only four out of 14 commissioners voted for Hathout, with five abstaining and four absent. Steven Windmueller, dean of Hebrew Union College and a 1995 Buggs [Award] honoree, returned his award, stating that the [County Human Relations] Commission’s selection of Hathout stained the legacy of the award’s namesake.
 
There has been no “pressure” on us from “Jews in high places,” and we have not backed down. As rhetoric about the Middle East continues to escalate, the endgame of our protests is to send a strong message about desirable standards of discourse for Los Angeles, to educate the public about extremist rhetoric and to raise questions about who is a “moderate Muslim.”
 
We succeeded. We hope that Muslim, Jewish and Christian leaders everywhere were paying attention and will strive for balanced, informed discourse as the standard for people singled out for special recognition.
 
Roz Rothstein
Director, StandWithUs

 
At-Risk Youth
 
I would like to applaud The Jewish Journal and Julie Gruenbaum Fax for courageously highlighting Aish Tamid and other programs in Los Angeles that offer “troubled teenage boys a way to curb self-destructive behavior” (“Orthodox Youth Not Immune to High-Risk Lifestyles,” Sept. 29). The topic of troubled teens is one of the most pressing and concerning issues facing our city, and it is important to supplement the article with a few additional facts and comments.
 
Firstly, while the core services and programs provided by Aish Tamid are tailored for troubled teens, we have also witnessed that not only troubled teens regularly attend and participate, but that there is a craving for our services by many different types of students. It is correct that our programs have been designed and appeal to troubled teens and/or students who have tried or are using drugs, but most Aish Tamid students are not druggies, and it is important to clarify this important distinction for the sake of all of our student participants.
 
It is also significant to note that the issue of at-risk youths is not restricted to only the Orthodox community, but that it affects all teens and young adults in our city, irrespective of their religious upbringing.
 
The article began with the mention of an Orthodox boy who overdosed on drugs, but many of us recall reading a little more than a year ago about the unfortunate death of a Los Angeles boy who was raised in the local Conservative schools and synagogues of our city who also died from a drug overdose.
 
In fact, after being mentioned and quoted in your 2005 article, Aish Tamid received a flood of phone calls from parents and school principals within the Conservative and Reform movements who confirmed that their children and/or students where facing the exact same challenges that was attributed to only Orthodox students in your recent article.
 
It would be naive of us to conclude that only Orthodox students are challenged with religious expectations, community and family pressures, academic and educational obstacles, questions on personal relationships, uncertainties on professional career options and, of course, the immense social influences of sex, drugs, alcohol, gambling and other self-destructive habits.
 
These are the challenges of all teens and young adults, not just Orthodox, and the Aish Tamid programs and services, especially the Pardes/Plan B alternative high school program, have been designed to provide resources and support to all Los Angeles teens, young adults and their parents, irrespective of their religious affiliation.
 
Rabbi Avi Leibovic
Founder and Executive Director
Aish Tamid of Los Angeles

 
Politicized Reports
 
Joseph M. Lipner makes several interesting points in his op-ed (“Israel Should Probe Accusations of War Crimes,” Sept. 29), particularly on the subjective nature of terms such as “war crimes.”
 
Unfortunately, his piece is marred by incredible naiveté regarding human rights NGOs. Claims that Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International “appear to be acting with good motives” toward Israel, or that they can be expected aggressively to take the side of civilians in any military conflict are not grounded in reality. They reflect the halo effect these groups cultivate to escape accountability.
 
Research carried out by NGO Monitor shows a different story. Amnesty and HRW released highly politicized reports and statements throughout the war. Amnesty published a scathing 50-page report focusing entirely on Israel’s actions, while hundreds of rockets fell on Israeli civilians daily. HRW even denied Hezbollah used Lebanese civilians as human shields.

Rabbi Carron brightens prisoners’ darkest days


Daniel, a blue-eyed 24-year-old who was a few credits shy of finishing his undergraduate degree at UCLA last spring, is now an inmate in unit 131 at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in downtown Los Angeles.

When Rabbi Yossi Carron arrives for his meeting with Daniel — not his real name — an unseen guard in a concrete and black glass bunker releases the latch on the sliding steel door that connects the youth’s dorm pod to the unit’s deserted common area.

On the far side of a thick glass wall, other inmates sleep in their bunks or drift aimlessly beneath the harsh white lights overhead.

Daniel looks awkward in his pale green prison outfit. He has gained 20 pounds since he was convicted three months ago on a charge of dealing methamphetamine, and he’s clearly uncomfortable in his skin.

Carron wraps Daniel in a quick but firm embrace.

“How’s it going?” Carron asks with one hand on Daniel’s slumped shoulder and another on his cheek.

The pair settle into plastic chairs at the corner of a table decorated with a stenciled checker board. From his pants pocket Daniel pulls a small ziplock bag that holds a pencil stub and two sheets of paper covered front and back with Daniel’s dense, neat handwriting. With guidance from Carron, Daniel is working through the recovery movement’s Fourth Step: making a “fearless and searching” inventory of his life.

As Carron scans the sheets of paper, Daniel hunches forward, his elbows on his knees.

“I’ve really had to look at my relationships — friendships and sexual relationships — in this step,” Daniel says. “It’s kind of shocking to see how much I’ve needed other people to feel complete.”

Carron lays the sheets of paper on the table and gives Daniel his full attention.

“It’s still hard, though,” Daniel says, turning his gaze up to meet Carron’s. “I mean, none of my friends have come to see me.”

Carron leans toward Daniel.

“You’re an extraordinary guy, all by yourself,” he says. “I don’t show up for any other reason than I want to.”

Daniel blushes but doesn’t look away.

“Chances are a lot of these people are connected to the parts of your life you want to change,” Carron says. “Am I right?”

Daniel looks down at his hands and nods slowly.

Sitting up, Carron drums a finger on the pages to draw Daniel’s attention to his inventory.

“This is going to be the greatest Rosh Hashanah of your life,” Carron says, “because you’re sober and you’re not lying to yourself or anyone else.”
Daniel sits up and looks squarely at Carron. He takes a deep breath and says, “You make me feel very special.”

With any luck, Daniel will be spending Rosh Hashanah on the outside. It’s likely he’ll soon be making the transition from jail to the recovery program at Beit T’Shuva, a nonprofit that works with at-risk youth.

For the members of Carron’s patchwork prison shul who are still behind bars come next week, however, there will be a holiday Shabbat at Men’s Central Jail, across the street from Twin Towers. Most of the Jewish inmates who participate will be bussed in from one of the five additional jails Carron serves in Los Angeles County. Some of the 70-odd men in Carron’s shul will have to stay away, however, in lock-down or solitary. Others are considered too high-risk to move.
“We’ll have between 20 and 40, including volunteers,” Carron says. “All things considered, that’s a pretty good turnout.”

Carron, a former bandleader at the Beverly Hilton, might seem an unlikely host for such a party.

A decade ago, Yossi Carron was called Jeff. He was a successful 40-something musician with a daughter in grade school, plenty of money in the bank and a nagging sense that something was missing in his life.

“It was all good, but I just wasn’t having fun anymore,” Carron says over braised tofu at a Chinatown restaurant the day before his meeting with Daniel.

The lightbulb over Carron’s head began to flicker when he was asked to serve as the first cantor at the then newly formed Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood. The job was a good fit for Carron, who has an impressive voice to match his musicianship. Still, he’d never paid much attention to the flow of services before. But as he threw himself into his new role he began to realize he was feeling deeply fulfilled by the experience.

“I was sticking Post-Its in my siddur,” he says. “Pretty soon I needed to know more, so I started taking classes at Hebrew Union [College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR)].”

As he continued to follow the thread of his curiosity, Carron’s enthusiasm began to blossom into a calling.

One day Rabbi Denise Egger at Kol Ami told Carron, “You should be on the bimah.”
In May 2003, Yossi received his ordination from HUC-JIR.

“I thought I’d have a normal shul,” Carron says. “You know — with ladies organizing bake sales and that sort of thing.”

But not long after his ordination, the Board of Rabbis of Southern California offered Carron a part-time job as a chaplain in the Los Angeles County prison system. The task seemed thankless — the job’s responsibility covered three jails and two hospitals, but there was only enough money to pay for a chaplain’s services one day a week.

“It was frustrating for the person who had the job before me, and I could tell it was going to frustrate me,” Carron says. “But for some reason I wanted it, and I’m the kind of person who pushes to get what he wants. So finally the board came up with the funding for a second day, and then the job seemed do-able to me.”

Carron’s daughter was in high school by that time, and he didn’t want to have to uproot her to take a job somewhere else. So Carron said yes.

Shedding Light on a Dark ‘Rising’


The film “City of God” shed light on a long-neglected subject, the Third World conditions and inescapable warfare existing in Rio de Janeiro’s slums. Now comes “Favela Rising,” a documentary that not only limns the tragedy of the favelas, the Brazilian ghettoes, but also tells the inspirational tale of Anderson Sá, a black Messiah figure who founds a reggae music club that offers a nonviolent alternative to their rampant drug and gang activity.

Winner of the International Documentary Association’s Best Feature Film for 2005, “Favela Rising” comes to Los Angeles on Friday, Aug. 4, at the Regent Showcase Theater.

Co-director and producer Matt Mochary says he “never thought of himself as a storyteller.”

He has gone through a number of mini careers, including Outward Bound mountaineering instructor, venture capitalist, technology entrepreneur and surfer, yet has always maintained an altruistic side and still runs his family’s nonprofit, the Mochary Foundation, which has brought enrichment programs to underprivileged youth in Miami and New York.

Shortly after he completed a five-week film class at the New York Film Academy, Mochary traveled to Brazil on a Hewlett Foundation grant. There, he visited the favelas and discovered the charismatic Sá, who with his eyeglasses, soft beard, tie-dye shirt and skullcap looks like a cross between Malcolm X and a Rastafarian shaman.

Mochary, whose great aunt lives at Beth Emek, a kibbutz in northern Israel, was then selected to participate in a two-week immersive master class in filmmaking run by The Jewish Federation’s Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership, which is now in its eighth year. In Israel he not only rediscovered his Jewish roots, but also was able to cull through 200 hours of footage shot by him and co-director Jeff Zimbalist and sketch out the narrative arc for his movie, the transformative story of Anderson Sá.

While the ramshackle shanties stacked on top of one another in the Rio hillside may seem familiar to filmgoers who have seen “City of God,” “Favela Rising” explores the myths of the sea, its paradoxical healing and destructive qualities.

Despite some harrowing footage, the documentary, which is being released by ThinkFilm, has the ethereal dream-like quality of a Shakespearean romance. There are many shots from up high, as if from the heavens. Throughout the film we see a lone kite, flying above the slums, a peaceful link in the airspace above rival favelas, whose cartels ordinarily do not allow any kind of trespass. The kite is flown by a little boy, which reminds us that, from 1987 to 2001, almost no media attention was focused on the murder of 3,937 minors in Rio de Janeiro, roughly eight times the total of minors killed during those same years in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, a region whose suffering has not gone unnoticed.

“Favela Rising” opens Aug. 4 at the Regent Showcase Theater, 614 N. La Brea Ave., (323) 934-2944.

Our First Cover: Bobbi Fiedler


Bobbi Fiedler, who rode an anti-school busing platform to political prominence, stood out as the potential vanguard for Jewish conservatives when The Jewish Journal profiled her as its first cover story in February 1986. Fiedler had served on the Los Angeles school board (1977-1981) and won election to Congress (1981-1987). In The Journal’s first year, she was running for the U.S. Senate, a campaign that fell short.

The Journal recently caught up with the still-active Fiedler, 69, between civic activities. She’s a member of the San Fernando Valley Coalition on Gangs, the LAPD’s Devonshire Division advisory council and the community enhancement committee that works with the Mission Hills police station. A registered Republican, the Northridge resident has two children and five grandchildren.

Jewish Journal: Tell us about some of your current work with law enforcement agencies.

Bobbi Fiedler: The San Fernando Valley Coalition is trying to prevent gang membership and drug use. We’re assisting a variety of agencies in trying to find and help the at-risk kids before they actually get into gangs or involved with drugs.

The enhancement committee is trying to improve the quality of life in North Hills — recommending various locations that have problems with lighting, with the broken-window syndrome, with homeless encampments. These are the sort of community problems that tend to deteriorate a community if not attended to.

JJ: You came to prominence through your opposition to mandatory busing. Would Los Angeles be better off if the fight over busing had never happened?

BF: Yes, unquestionably, because a large number of mothers, as an example, had to go back to work to pay for their kids in private school. And a large number of families would not have left the city and would have continued to enhance its economic base. Yes, it would have been a lot better had we not had to fight that fight. But we did, and ultimately we were successful in court and in creating magnet programs with voluntary busing, which meant expanded educational opportunities for students.

JJ: How do you feel about possible mayoral control of the Los Angeles Unified School District?

BF: I understand the public’s frustration with the quality of public education. The school district has problems — no question about it — and I think Mayor Villaraigosa’s very well meaning. But the mayor has a big challenge on his plate as mayor, and he also has another big challenge in having a leadership post with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. I don’t think it’s feasible for one person to be able to control those two things and the school district.

JJ: What would you suggest as far as amending who’s in charge?

BF: I would let everyone in the city vote for all seven school board members, instead of just the one in their area, as it is now. At-large elections were how it used to be. Going back to that would make it more difficult for the teachers union to be in control.

The school district is on the right track as far as pushing for achievement levels that are much higher than they’ve been in the past. I would say the worst thing that happens in the school system is the lack of expectations for children who come from a minority background.

JJ: How has Congress changed since you were there?

BF: There are always a lot of good people in elected office, but there is much more partisanship. Today there are Americans who are abject enemies because they are in opposing parties, and the whole country is terribly polarized as a result of their bad example.

Howard Blume is the former managing editor of The Jewish Journal.

 

Beth Emet Works to Save a Mother’s Life


The 200 closely knit families of Burbank’s Temple Beth Emet, heeding the precept that all Jews are responsible for one another, are accustomed to providing aid and comfort quietly and inconspicuously. But the congregation has been galvanized to very public action by news that the mother of fellow congregant Roni Razankova’s mother, a citizen of Macedonia, has contracted liver cancer and needs urgent medical attention in the United States.

“I’ve never seen my congregants move like this,” Temple Beth Emet Rabbi Mark Sobel said. He reported that Razankova’s predicament — a single woman alone in Los Angeles, newly connected to her Jewish heritage and newly inaugurated as an American citizen, trying to save her mother’s life from 7,000 miles away — has resonated with temple members.

In fact, as soon as Razankova shyly confided the news just before Mother’s Day, the 50 religious school students began rolling out butcher paper and writing get-well wishes to mail to Macedonia to Rachel Razankova, 64. At the same time, the rabbi and the congregation, with the full support of the board of directors, brainstormed ways for their not particularly wealthy congregation to raise money. They created the Rachel Fund and, in about a week, with people taking shifts to photocopy, fold, stuff and stamp, succeeded in mailing out more than 500 letters explaining the situation and seeking contributions from synagogues throughout California and across the United States.

Still, a miracle may be needed. Obtaining a humanitarian visa, which is necessary to bring a foreign citizen to the United States for medical care, is not easy. Razankova, 40, who lives in Valley Village and works as an office manager for an insurance company, must show that she can pay for her mother’s medical treatment, estimated at $50,000 to $100,000. And while donations are coming in — including $100 from Congregation Har Shalom in Fort Collins, Colo., and $25 from an individual in Burke, Va. — to date only $10,000 has been raised.

Meanwhile, an attorney and fellow congregant, who wishes to remain anonymous, is volunteering his services to help expedite the visa. In a two-pronged approach, he has prepared a packet of necessary documents for Rachel Razankova to take to the United States Embassy in Macedonia, part of former Yugoslavia, and has sent a duplicate packet to the State Department in Washington, D.C. At the same time, the office of Rep. Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys) is requesting a visa from the U.S. Embassy in Macedonia.

The time element is crucial. Liver cancer moves aggressively, and Rachel Razankova is not able to get the treatment she needs from the single oncology clinic in Macedonia; it is severely overcrowded, underequipped and lacking in adequately trained personnel. Roni Razankova said that her mother was diagnosed with stomach cancer two years ago and, suffering what may have been a severe allergic reaction to the chemotherapy drugs given her, sank into a 24-hour coma and almost died.

Dr. Marina Vaysburd, a hematologist/oncologist at Cedars-Sinai Outpatient Cancer Center and Medical Center, has reviewed Rachel Razankova’s available records and made multiple unsuccessful attempts via e-mail and telephone to consult with her doctors in Macedonia. Vaysburd has agreed to see the patient once she comes to Los Angeles, to confirm the diagnosis, an important first step, and help as much as she can. “I am trying to save my mother’s life,” Roni Razankova said.

She was a lawyer and part-time journalist in the city of Stip, Macedonia, and moved to Los Angeles nine years ago, attracted to the freedom and different lifestyle. Her move here also marked the beginning of a spiritual journey, as people began to ask about her religion, a question she never encountered in secular and communist/socialist Macedonia.

“I was raised to believe in government and country, not God,” she said.

She was intuitively drawn to Judaism before discovering that her family was Jewish on her mother’s side. For the past six years, she has studied with Sobel, becoming a dedicated member at Beth Emet and, recently, a religious school teacher for fourth- and fifth-graders. Without family in the United States, she has adopted — and feels adopted by — her synagogue.

“Temple Beth Emet is the best temple I have ever seen in my life,” she said. “I’m going to be there forever.”

For more information, contact Rabbi Mark Sobel at Temple Beth Emet, 600 N. Buena Vista St., Burbank, CA 91505. (818) 843-4787.

 

yeLAdim


Mighty Glad to See You!

It was great seeing so many of you at the Israel Independence Day Festival on May 7 (we hope you enjoyed the fans). Be sure to check out our yeLAdim page on June 30, as we will be printing many of the essays you wrote for our 20th anniversary!

Kein v’ Lo:

Parental Spying?

There’s been a lot of talk in the news about people listening to other people’s phone calls, and some people say parents need to check what their kids are doing online and who they are chatting with — because not everyone on the Internet is telling the truth. Should parents be allowed to do that?

The Kein Side:

  • A lot of kids don’t talk to their parents, and the parents want to make sure their kids are safe from drugs, alcohol, bullies and other things that can hurt them.
  • It is your parents’ house, and you have to live by their rules — when you have your own house, you can have your own rules.

The Lo Side:

  • Parents need to trust their kids — otherwise how will the kids ever learn to be responsible for themselves?
  • It is invasion of privacy to listen to their phone calls and look at someone’s things when they aren’t there.

We want to know what you think. E-mail your thoughts to kids@jewishjournal.com, with the subject line: Parents.

We’ll publish your opinions on a future yeLAdim page.

Pages & Picks

This month’s pick is the very cute “Kvetchy Boy” by Anne-Maire Baila Asner — the latest from Matzah Ball Books.

Kvetchy Boy joins his friends Noshy Boy, Shluffy Girl, Klutzy Boy and Shmutzy Girl in bringing Yiddish expressions to young Jews (don’t worry, each book includes a glossary of words) and teaching everyone about being a better person:

Even at his birthday party, Kvetchy Boy kvetched and kvetched.

“This ice cream made my cake soggy. I hate soggy cake,” said Kvetchy Boy.

“But Kvetchy Boy,” said Noshy Boy, who loves to eat. “The cake tastes even better that way.”

Kvetchy Boy didn’t agree.

If you haven’t seen your favorite Yiddish expression yet, don’t worry — there are more books on the way, including some for grown-ups like “Mrs. Mitzvah” and “Bubby” and “Zaida Kvelly.” You can even buy T-shirts with the different characters on them!

For more information, visit

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:

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• 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

Interest Increases as Deadline Nears


Susie Tiffany of Beverly Hills suffers from a rare blood disorder and needs monthly infusions of blood components, which her insurance company ultimately declined to cover. She hoped the government’s new prescription drug benefit would help her out because, despite her ZIP code, she’s a low-income senior.

But the possibilities, were baffling: an array of private insurance plans that covered different things, explanations on the Internet that included terms she never had to know before, additional complexities depending on a person’s income and a confusing interplay of state and federal agencies.

However, Tiffany was able to find assistance in her case from Jewish Family Service. A social worker helped get Tiffany’s treatment covered by new state funds intended to help seniors with the transition to the new federal system.

“It’s a good thing that I had a good social worker,” said Tiffany, 65, who lives in a Beverly Hills city subsidized apartment building for low-income seniors.

“There are quite a number of options, and it’s overwhelming,” said Susan Alexman, director of senior services at Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles.

In Los Angeles County, insurance companies have offered 47 different plans for seniors seeking to enroll in the new federally funded benefit. The plan’s May 15 deadline means seniors must sign up without delay or face increased fees for late enrollment.

For some seniors, the financial stakes are high. But while interest is picking up, for most of the past year, social service groups have had few takers when they’ve tried to help.

“It’s strange, but our office has not had any calls on that,” said Deborah Baldwin, public benefits supervisor at Bet Tzedek Legal Services, when asked in March.

At the Fairfax District office of the National Council of Jewish Women, a Democratic congressman’s field staffer set aside four hours over two days in late January to discuss the new Medicare Part D drug plan with seniors. Hardly anyone showed up.

“Just three,” the staffer told The Jewish Journal. “People are putting it off.”

Health care activists, community workers and groups, including Jewish Family Service, have been holding numerous Part D awareness meetings, especially this spring.

“This has been going on for a year and a half,” said Anita Chun, community education coordinator at the Center for Healthcare Rights in Los Angeles. “Now people are paying attention.”

A Part D meeting in March in West Hollywood, put on by Jewish Family Service, attracted about 120 seniors. Attendance also picked up for a March meeting at Temple Isaiah in Rancho Park — after a sparsely attended February session with social workers and experts.

Some seniors said they expect to come out OK under the new system.

“The health program that I belong to enrolled everybody in it beforehand,” said Encino retiree Janet Siskind. Her Blue Shield 65 Plus coverage gets her quarterly refills of the three to four pills she needs. Siskind’s combined prescription fees will increase, but only by about $10 annually.

“I’m in good hands with this,” she said. “It’s something I can afford.”

Siskind’s San Fernando Valley chapter of the Na’amat women’s group held a recent Part D meeting for 25 people.

“We figured, ‘Well, it hasn’t started yet, perhaps it’ll get easier as time goes along,'” she said. “It hasn’t really been explained too thoroughly.”

With so much Part D information online, many seniors are at a disadvantage, because of their discomfort or unfamiliarity with the Internet.

California’s Medi-Cal program, which had covered poor and low-income seniors’ prescription costs, stopped providing service on Jan. 1, when Part D took over. Yet there were startup problems, which included state and federal computers being unable to interact. Many poor seniors were suddenly being asked to pay full price for medications. The reports of hardship prompted Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Legislature in mid-January to push through emergency prescription drug funding for low-income seniors until May 15.

“It makes the state the payer of last resort for the prescriptions that they need,” said Schwarzenegger spokeswoman Julie Soderlund.

But only until May 15, which could force Tiffany, suffering from the blood disorder, to navigate the system again.

“Good old Part D, the insurance policy that was gonna change it all,” she said. “It’s gonna take some time for me to get happy about it.”

David Merritt, project director at the Center for Health Transformation think tank in Washington, D.C., said that despite such glitches, Medicare Part D transition problems nationwide have been relatively low, with Americans not upset over Part D the way they are over high gas prices.

“Anytime you have a massive policy shift from one system to another system, you’re going to run into problems,” he told The Journal. “The vast majority [of seniors] had zero problems enrolling or getting medication.”

But to Jews dependent on Medicare for affordable drugs, “it’s unfair for seniors to be expected to maneuver through this incredibly messy web,” said Rabbi Zoe Klein of Temple Isaiah. “Health trumps every other problem in your life.”

“They’re basically saying they’re confused, and they want someone to walk them through it,” Klein said.

 

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.

Avi Leibovic: Guardian Angel of the Streets



 

Stand on any corner in Hancock Park or Beverlywood, says Avi Leibovic, and within 10 blocks you can find Orthodox teenagers engaged in weekly poker games, drug use, underage drinking and reckless sex.

Not much has changed since Leibovic was a teenager in L.A.’s Orthodox community 15 years ago.

Now 32, a lawyer, rabbi and father of six, Leibovic has made it his life’s mission to find these youth and to pull them back toward a life where they can envision a future with regular employment, a strong sense of self and a sincere love of Yiddishkeit.

Five years ago, Leibovic was approached by the prodigal son of a prominent Orthodox family for help and inspiration. Soon, their one-on-one Torah study grew into a larger group, made up mostly of recent alumni of Neve Zion, the yeshiva outside Jerusalem where Leibovic had formative experiences as a teen and young adult.

That group grew into Aish Tamid, a nonprofit that now has a staff of part-time counselors, therapists, social workers and rabbis that in the last five years has served 400 young men and teens.

At a recent free workshop in Excel that Aish Tamid offered in a mid-Wilshire office building, Leibovic is working the room, making sure everyone is set up and liberally slapping on warm handshakes, high fives and “Howah YOUs.”

He looks tired but energized, with rings of red around eyes that are the same color as his trim auburn beard. His large black velvet kippah sits low across his forehead.

Leibovic, a doting perfectionist, teaches Torah, runs a Friday night service and holds court at a “tisch” at his home, where dozens show up every Shabbos for songs and inspirational story-telling. His “guys” are anything from hard-core addicts to kids who just didn’t fit the yeshiva mold, and he helps them finish school, find jobs, go clean, reconcile with family or get back into Judaism.

Last year Leibovic took a sabbatical from his job in his family’s law firm to build Aish Tamid’s infrastructure, but he is now back at work full time. He sets aside every night from 5:30-8 p.m. for his wife and their 6-year-old triplets and three younger children.

And from 8 p.m. on, and often well into the morning, he’s there for his guys.

He can do it because he gets them. He knows their insecurities and their haunts. He speaks their language — from his dude-laced lingo with a Brooklyn accent to his knowledge of the latest music.

“If not for Avi, I would be wandering the streets of Brooklyn,” says Yitzy, a 17-year-old who now has a job and is working toward getting his high school diploma.

Leibovic has never taken a salary from Aish Tamid, and he admits the work is taking a toll on him and his family.

But he’s sticking with it.

“If you give the kids time and if you give them love, if you give them the opportunity to express themselves in a way that is not cookie-cutter, you see tremendous success,” he says. “Guys who have been written off by their schools, their family and their community, we find that we are able to rekindle their aish tamid [eternal flame].”

For information call (323) 634-0505 or email to info@aishtamid.org.

 

MORE MENSCHES

Jack and Katy Saror: Help Knows No Age

Joyce Rabinowitz: A Type Like No Other

Saul Kroll: Healing Hand at Cedars-Sinai

Jennifer Chadorchi: The Hunger to Help

Karen Gilman: What Makes Her Run?

Steven Firestein: Making Magic for Children

Yaelle and Nouriel Cohen: Kindness Starts at Home

Moshe Salem: Giving a Voice to Israelis

David Karp: A Guide for Unity in Scouting

78 and 79: A Matter of Life and Death


Like many California voters this week, Rabbi Hershy Ten, president of the Bikur Cholim Jewish Healthcare Foundation, is grappling with how to vote on the Nov. 8 ballot. Either Proposition 78 or Proposition 79 could directly affect his L.A.-based foundation’s efforts to provide health-related services and referrals to needy and uninsured. Either proposition could help by lowering prescription drug prices. But even for Ten, it’s hard to peer through the electioneering and rhetoric.

One thing’s certain: Ten realizes a lot is at stake.

“I know of a man within the last three months who suffered irreversible liver disease because he could not afford his medication,” Ten said. “We were called after he went into liver failure to assist him in receiving a transplant.”

The question before voters is whether the drug companies should regulate themselves, as laid out in Proposition 78, or whether the state should be granted authority to pressure drug companies into providing discounts, as specified in Proposition 79. If both initiatives pass, whichever receives the most votes becomes law.

In the contest of marketing, at least, the outcome isn’t a close call. The pharmaceutical industry has spent more than $80 million backing Proposition 78 (compared to $1.8 million from Proposition 79’s backers, most of it from consumer, senior and health groups).

Putting the hype aside, here’s what Proposition 78 would offer: Most Californians earning up to 300 percent of the Federal Poverty Level would be eligible for discounted drugs, including individuals earning up to $29,000 a year and families of four living on as much as $58,000.

But the salient feature of Proposition 78 is that it includes no state enforcement mechanism. In the case of Ten’s liver patient, it would be solely up to the pharmaceutical industry to select the relevant drug for a discount, determine the discount price (if any), and choose the length of time to maintain it.

There are no state-imposed consequences if a company chooses to keep prices high.

So if the process is voluntary, what’s to stop drug companies from lowering prices right now? Conversely, if drug companies aren’t lowering prices now, why would they under a voluntary plan?

The industry’s response is that Proposition 78 is needed if corporations are to lower prices as a group while also avoiding anti-trust violations.

“We feel we have an obligation to make our drugs affordable,” said Jan Faiks, vice president for governmental affairs and law with the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), the powerful industry trade group. Faiks added that voluntary (and legislatively sanctioned) drug-discount programs in 26 states demonstrate the good faith of drug manufacturers.

These voluntary programs in other states typically have stricter eligibility requirements, and critics say few meaningful discounts are being offered. California’s version, Proposition 78, is identical to the defunct Senate Bill 19, an Arnold Schwarzenegger-backed bill that was defeated by Democrats in the state Senate in early 2005. At the time, the governor estimated that SB-19 would provide prescription drug savings of up to 40 percent off retail, close to the price that HMOs pay for drugs. Proposition 78 proponents have adopted those figures as their own.

This isn’t the first time that this Republican governor’s public health policy has mirrored PhRMA’s interests. In October 2004, Gov. Schwarzenegger vetoed four bills that would have provided information for Californians on obtaining cheaper drugs through Canadian pharmacies. A few weeks later, PhRMA donated several-hundred-thousand dollars to Californian Republican legislative candidates.

Consumer advocates don’t like much about Proposition 78, including the anti-trust justification for why the industry argues that it is necessary. After all, there would never be a legal prohibition barring an individual drug company from lowering its prices. Nor is there any reason why drug companies would have to engage in illegal collusion to lower prices, said Doug Mirell, board member of the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), which is supporting Proposition 79.

Added Anthony Wright, executive director of the Pro-79 group Health Access: “No attorney general or judge would rule against them if they came together to lower prices. There’s no [anti-trust] precedent for it.”

Proposition 79 supporters contend that PhRMA’s real aim is simply to block Proposition 79 from taking effect.

Faiks of PhRMA’s doesn’t deny her group’s desire to thwart Proposition 79, but she insists that Proposition 78 is worthy in its own right.

Proposition 79, backed by consumer groups, unions and the American Association of Retired Persons, sets the discount rate for drugs lower than Proposition 78 (approaching the price Medi-Cal pays for drugs). It also includes patients earning 400 percent of the Federal Poverty Level rather than 300 percent. And it forbids drug companies from charging “unconscionable” prices for medication.

“There are 8 million to 10 million more people who will be benefited by Proposition 79 than Proposition 78,” Mirell said.

Perhaps most worrisome to PhRMA, however, Proposition 79 punishes companies who refuse to cooperate.

If negotiations with the state over discounts break down, the state could curtail that company’s business with Medi-Cal, California’s $4 billion drug discount program for the poor. Medi-Cal patients would have to receive so-called “prior authorization” by the state to use any drug manufactured by that uncooperative corporation. Under this system, the state would first try to find a substitute drug from a cooperative company.

In other words, under Proposition 79 the poorest segment of the population (on whose behalf the state bargains) would be used as leverage to lower drug prices for the next-poorest segment (who today have no bargaining clout).

Even under Proposition 79, Rabbi Ten’s liver patient would not have been guaranteed a different fate. There’s no mechanism, for example, forcing the state to drive a hard bargain for any particular medication. But if it did, the drug’s manufacturer would not easily be able to say no.

Each camp has its own collection of horror stories and feel-good episodes supporting its proposition. Proposition 78 is modeled closely on a voluntary program in Ohio. Consumer advocates modeled Proposition 79 on a program in Maine, one that PhRMA claims is not working well.

Faiks provided The Journal with a report, written by an independent Maine legislative committee, detailing patient frustration with various other systems of prior authorization. PhRMA also points to legal and administrative barriers, most prominently the likely opposition from the Federal Department of Health and Human Services.

“[The Proposition 79] program will never be approved,” said Faiks, who is well positioned to understand the leanings of the Bush administration, which has regularly sided with drug companies.

PhRMA provided The Journal with several letters from federal health officials to various state Medicaid administrators who, over the past several years, have attempted to expand Medicaid coverage to new groups (such as people with specific diseases or those who earn slightly-above-poverty wages). The letters suggest that President Bush’s administration is loathe to extend Medicaid funds or leverage Medicaid patients to benefit new groups unless a state has hard evidence that the expansion prevents these new clients from entering poverty and becoming eligible for Medicaid regardless.

Mirell, of PJA, asserts that technicalities will not cripple Proposition 79, at least not permanently.

“The Bush Administration will not be in power forever,” Mirell said. “Policies do change from administration to administration.”

Mirell also pointed to the “severability” provision of Proposition 79, which allows other provisions to survive even if some can’t be enacted.

“The fact that it may take some months of litigation to implement Proposition 79 shouldn’t scare people away from voting for it, when the benefits that could accrue are so much greater than Proposition 78,” Mirell said.

And the presence and influence of the industry Goliath shouldn’t dissuade the Davids of reform. “It doesn’t mean we should give up, saying they’re too powerful,” said Wright of Heath Access.

A late August Field Poll indicated that Californians largely support both measures: 49 percent voting yes and 31 percent no on Proposition 78; 42 percent yes and 34 percent no on Proposition 79. When the participants learned, however, that the drug industry is backing Proposition 78, opposition to that measure rose sharply.

“People need to ask themselves, ‘Do you trust the drug companies to voluntarily discount their own prescription drug rates?'” Mirell said.

That’s a question that voters are less likely to hear posed exactly that way, given the imbalance in campaign spending.

When he spoke with The Journal, Rabbi Ten was still trying to sort out the pluses and minuses.

“This requires further analysis,” he said. “It requires more information than is readily available through typical media outlets.”

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