We, Jews and Jewish families, living relatively comfortable lives, find ourselves increasingly facing uncomfortable truths: that abuse of drugs and alcohol runs rampant through our community. Jews are not immune from the battle with the bottle or the pull of the pills. Though we talk about it less than some communities, alcohol and drug abuse – especially among teens and young adults – continues to ruin lives.
It is time to face facts: too many of our kids have access too much money, easy transportation and freedom from parental oversight that allows them to explore and get hooked on drugs and booze well before we adults even have a clue. For those who are searching for something, our high schools – secular and Jewish alike – provide ample opportunity to experiment and get hooked. It is happening too often with our “nice Jewish boys and girls.”
At Or Ami we talk about the difficult issues: sex, drugs, disease, death. Our Or Ami Center for Jewish Parenting strives to help our community face the future by talking about those subjects that often make us uncomfortable, and by bringing our Jewish values and healing tradition to the conversation. Sometimes we pass on valuable insights through eNewsletters; sometimes we gather parents for open discussions about the challenges we face parenting.
Recently, our Rabbinic/Education Intern Lydia Bloom Medwin gathered together our Temple Teen Night participants for a discussion on the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse. I watched in amazement as our students listened attentively, and responded inquisitively, to the experience of one Jewish mother whose “nice Jewish boy” overdosed on drugs. Read on…
Rabbinic/Education Intern Lydia Bloom Medwin writes:
“You Can’t Compete with Heroin, Mom.”
These words helped speaker and author Rita Lowenthal comprehend just how deeply her son had descended into addiction. Rita’s son Josh began experimenting with drugs at age 13. By age 38, he had died of an overdose. This made Rita a particularly poignant speaker at our Temple Teen Night session focusing on the issue of drugs and alcohol one Wednesday. Rita’s reflections helped us to begin to understand the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse, as well as the nature of addiction, as it functions in our own Jewish community.
Talking to kids about the dangers of alcohol and drugs requires honesty. So we began by admitting that Judaism is not a religion that forbids the pleasures of alcohol. On the contrary, we customarily use wine in our holiday and life cycle celebrations. We drink wine to make these moments special and to increase the joy. However, Judaism also understands that moderation and responsibility are the keys to drinking at Jewish celebrations. Clearly, our tradition understands that there is a difference between alcohol use and alcohol abuse.
Alcohol and drug abuse can be dangerous and is certainly illegal for our youth. Rita explained to a fully engaged group of seventh through eleventh grade students about the risks of even experimenting with these substances, especially for the type of people who are naturally adventurous. We learned that while some people might be able to try a drug and then never touch it again, so many others try it once and cannot stop abusing drugs until the day the substance kills them. As such, just trying drugs could mean a life sentence. That is what happened to Josh Lowenthal when, at age 13, his mother found that it was already too late. In and out of rehab and jail for twenty-five years, Josh went from devastation to healing to hope and back again in a vicious cycle. Josh, a bright and outgoing Jewish kid, was musically talented who was inclined to write poetry and listen to NPR. Still, as Rita so eloquently in her book, “One Way Ticket,” even her “nice Jewish boy” wasn’t immune to the realities of addiction.
Congregation Or Ami is a community where we talk openly about drug and alcohol use. At Or Ami, students can ask the difficult questions and receive honest answers and thoughtful advice. If one of our students or our families is in trouble with drugs or alcohol, they can turn to Rabbi Paul Kipnes (who has been trained in Alcohol and Drug Counseling and Spiritual Care), our Rabbinic and Education Interns and our temple family for help. Or Ami will always respond with an open mind and open arms. For many, Or Ami has already been the first stop on the road to recovery.
Drug and alcohol addiction is nothing new; its roots stretch back to Biblical times. Addiction is a disease that affects a great deal of people, and the Jewish community is not immune to its ravages. At Congregation Or Ami, we are working to understand (and teach) more about the nature of this disease. Simultaneously we support our families who are currently struggling with addiction and we celebrate with those who have found recovery through the Twelve Step Program.
Talking about that Dope-Smoking Elephant
Or Ami is committed to shining a light on this age-old problem. We have learned that when parents talk openly and calmly, kids hear what they have to say. With the support of Bruce and Wendy Friedman, and the Wolfson Family Foundation, Or Ami has been holding conversations – public and private – about the challenges of alcoholism and addiction. Each year Or Ami introduces another rabbinic student to the realities of addiction in the Jewish community and we provide him/her with opportunities to develop pastoral skills to address these challenges. As Lydia Bloom Medwin moves onto her new internship at UCLA Hillel, Rabbinic Intern Sara Mason will learn and teach about the dangers of addiction.
After the High Holy Days, our community will gather again under the auspices of our Or Ami Center for Jewish Parenting to learn from Beit T’shuvah, a Jewish halfway house in Los Angeles, about what we parents can do do help our kids combat the pull of the pills.
Until then, explore my blog article on Talking to Your Kids about Drugs and Alcohol, Part I. We parent more effectively when our eyes are open wide.
As always, I am here to listen, to strategize and to help, as we all walk the tightrope between parenting too much and parenting too little. I look forward to hearing your thoughts. Email Rabbi Paul Kipnes here.