The tragic irony of drug and alcohol addictions in the Orthodox world is that aspects of religious life actually accentuate the problems.
One is easy access to booze. Lou Abrams, a social worker working with Observant Jews With Addictions, noted in an August 2017 New York Jewish Week story that the regular presence of alcohol at simchas and kiddushes, and a frequent lack of adult supervision, increases the risk of addictions.
“Alcohol is a big gateway,” said Abrams. “Rarely does someone start taking opiates before they started experimenting with alcohol or marijuana.”
Another is our tendency to shun people who deviate from regular behaviors. In the same Jewish Week article, Mushky Zulauf, a Crown Heights community member who’s lost a few friends to addiction, asserted that these “bad behaviors”—like partying and substance abuse—are really “a desperate cry for help.”
A third factor is the “Mi K’Amcha Yisrael” (“Who is like your nation, Israel?”) worldview, which can lead to a stubborn resistance to the fact that “regular” world problems can and do affect the frum world. Jeffrey A. Berman, M.D., medical director of the SOBA College Recovery alcohol/drug rehab program in New Brunswick, New Jersey, calls this denial within the frum world about substance abuse “terminal uniqueness”—an insistence on Jewish invulnerability to common societal problems that has led to deaths. And Dr. Berman is well suited to recognize this phenomenon.
A member of a Jewish community in Bergen County, Dr. Berman was instrumental in establishing addiction medicine as a recognized subspecialty of the American Board of Preventative Medicine in 2016. He has over 25 years of experience treating people with addictions and also serves as medical director of the Discovery Institute for Addictive Disorders in Marlboro, New Jersey. As medical director of SOBA College Recovery since 2015, he estimates that 20-25 Orthodox Jews have already been through the program.
Another New Jersey leader in the field of addiction recovery who noticed a dire need for a specialized program for Orthodox Jews in Central New Jersey is Shmuel Bieler, RN.
A member of Teaneck’s Orthodox community, Bieler is a registered psychiatric nurse who serves as head of the Addiction and Crisis Stabilization Unit of Gracie Square Hospital in Manhattan. Bieler approached the head of SOBA College Recovery, Isaac Glasman, and suggested that SOBA form a specialized program for Orthodox Jews. Glasman approved the idea and appointed Bieler as director. Bieler started working with Dr. Berman, and the Shalvah program was born, opening in late October 2018.
Shalvah allows Jewish addicts to receive the highest quality treatment without sacrificing their religious practices. With help from Rabbi Baruch Goodman at Rutgers-Chabad, Shalvah provides strictly kosher food (under a variety of standards including chasidishe shechita, chalav Yisrael and pas Yisrael) for all meals and offers amenities of observant Jewish life for SOBA’s in-patient residences such as kosher kitchens; mezuzot; Shabbat timers; and daily, Shabbat and Yom Tov minyanim within walking distance.
SOBA College Recovery’s Shalvah program utilizes a two-part approach to help addicts recover their normal, functional lives. An initial inpatient rehabilitation phase, typically lasting three to four weeks, includes a clinical interview and full psychiatric assessment. This phase is designed to help clients break their addictions and identify the underlying causes. During this part of the program clients live under close supervision in the program’s Winston House.
After completing rehab, clients transition to a clean and sober living program that typically lasts 60-90 days. In this phase clients live in the Morrell St. Apartments and gradually ease back into regular life. Clients manage the responsibilities of their shared home and manage the treatment of their addiction, while also setting the foundations for maintaining good health, completing higher education and securing stable employment.
The goal of the Shalvah program is to enable clients to have a complete rehabilitation into their families and communities, while also bringing home the awareness that they have a disease that can be treated and the tools (like sponsors and 12-step programs) to help them stay clean and sober.
Bieler pointed out that before entering rehab, clients must first conquer common misconceptions—“that it’s really not a disease, that an addict has a simple choice to leave their dysfunctional life and that they earned the stigma of an addict.” Shalvah helps clients recognize the disease and provides the tools to manage it and achieve a full life.
Shalvah’s leaders find their efforts deeply rewarding. “We are saving people’s lives with this work,” said Dr. Berman, who cited multiple success stories that show that addicts can retake control.
Bieler added, “Too many Jewish people suffer and often die from the disease of addiction without ever knowing that there is a way out. There is a way out for those who are ready and willing. The disease of addiction can’t be cured but can be arrested, one day at a time. Shalvah can be the first step, a life-saving step, where the sick and suffering addict breaks the vicious cycle of active addiction and begins to live a productive and happy life.”
For more information on Shalvah and SOBA College Recovery, visit https://sobanewjersey.com/shalvah-an-orthodox-jewish-drug-rehab/.
By Harry Glazer