“Twelve years ago, when I was going through addiction with my son, there seemed to be no indication in the Jewish community that it was a problem,” said Lisa Hillman, a former Baltimore-area broadcast journalist and author of “Secret No More,” which tells the story of her struggle with her son Jacob’s addiction. “We may be the chosen people, but we are chosen for addiction, too.”
Hillman was one of the community members sharing her family’s experience at “End the Shame, End the Blame,” a panel discussion hosted at Temple Isaiah in Fulton Nov. 13 that focused on the struggles of the family members of addicts. The previous week in Baltimore, Beth El Congregation hosted a visiting production of “Freedom Song,” a musical and theatrical performance where recovering addicts are given the opportunity to share their stories with the wider world.
There is a growing consensus within Baltimore’s Jewish community around two ideas: that Jews are not immune to the dangers of addiction; and that we assumed we were for too long and at too high a cost. Both “Freedom Song” and the panel discussion aimed to encourage open, honest conversations about the often stigmatized topic of addiction in our families.
A National Problem, a Community Secret
An estimated 10.3 million Americans aged 12 and older misused opioids in 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Health. In 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recorded 70,000 reported overdose deaths, more than half of which were opioid-related. The National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the National Institutes of Health, estimates that more than 155 Americans die of drug overdoses every day.
In his book “The United States of Opioids: A Prescription for Liberating a Nation in Pain,” Jewish author and lawyer Harry Nelson writers that shame is powerful force in the Jewish community, though it is particularly strong in the more religious segments.
“In the Haredi society,” he said in a phone interview, “we have a community that is the most socially connected, but also the most shame based, which has led to opioid deaths.”
At the same time, in the less religious communities, Nelson notes a different type of stigma stemming from the pressure to be successful. “If you look at other communities, Modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, we see reports of shame, we see communities of high performance and high expectations, and to participate actively in life there is enormous pressure on success. That leads to addiction and mental health problems,” he said.
Hillman concurs with Nelson’s observations.
“I didn’t know anyone in the Jewish community who was dealing with [addiction], I’d never heard it talked about by a rabbi, and I was approached by a Jewish publication to submit an article because, I was told, addiction in Judaism was rare,” said Hillman.
“Looking back on it, maybe what she meant was that admission of addiction in Judaism was rare.”
Ignorance is a problem in addressing addiction in the Jewish community, and so is denial. And it can come at the communal and the personal level.
On her website, Hillman shares her own initial experience of denial. “Addiction? Not my son. Not in my family,” she writes. “Denial moved in right alongside my child’s worsening disease.”
Speaking, and Singing, Truth
As a recovering addict who has been to some 40 different treatment centers, “Shoshana” Goldstein is more familiar than most with the subject of addiction and recovery. (Shoshana’s real name is not used here to protect her family’s privacy.)
“A lot of people in the Jewish community don’t like talking about the addiction,” she said, adding that it is viewed as a “shonda,” a shameful thing.
Goldstein is one of the performers in “Freedom Song,” a production organized by Beit T’Shuvah, a Los Angeles-based congregation and addiction treatment center.
Beit T’Shuvah founders Harriet Rossetto and Rabbi Mark Borovitz, a married couple, saw in music a new avenue for treating addiction.
“We see addiction as bondage,” said Borovitz. “We become slaves to both behaviors and substances, and becoming freed is a great challenge and an exhilarating experience. Just like crossing the Red Sea: the Bible says that after the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, they broke into song.”
When the Nov. 7 performance opened at Beth El, the costuming and placement of the actors on the simple set of clustered chairs reflected the bifurcation of an addict’s world in the Jewish community. On the right there was a Jewish family, dressed in white, celebrating a Passover Seder. On the left was an AA meeting, the attendees all in black. As the AA participants began their session, openly admitting their struggles to one another, the family next to them prepared for the holiday while whispering asides to the audience on their secret struggles with alcohol, pills, and other substances.
Both proceedings were soon disrupted by an interloper in a shirt of the opposite color: the family was visited by their eldest daughter, “Shira” (played by Goldstein), a recovering addict who was cast out for her actions. Meanwhile, “Norma,” the wife of one of the AA meeting participants, arrives at the meeting to see if she can reconcile with her husband.
In an interview the week after the performance, Goldstein, a Maryland native, shared that her personal story mirrors that of her character.
“My mother and father had to put me out of the house. I couldn’t stop getting loaded and it was bringing them a lot of pain,” she said. Goldstein is currently six months sober, and her father watched her performance.
When her father first saw her perform earlier in Florida, “it was a really big deal,” she said, “because it was me doing something positive in the world and being successful.”
Jewish Community Services (JCS), an agency of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, plays a key role in organizing community-wide addiction awareness events. JCS health educators have conducted more than 80 prevention education programs in public and independent schools, colleges and community organizations throughout the Baltimore metropolitan area.
Yet there are still stories that illustrate a continued misperception among community members that there is no where to go for help.
During the “End the Shame” event at Temple Isaiah, one of the opening speakers, Howard County Executive Calvin Ball, recounted a time a couple approached him for help with their child who was struggling with addiction.
We’re not Christian, Ball recalled them saying, and in our community, we can’t really talk about addiction. We’re afraid that we’re going to lose our daughter, they said, and we don’t know what to do.
At “End the Shame,” the audience heard from a number of people whose lives had been deeply impacted by their family members becoming addicted, including Hillman and Carol Shapiro, whose sister Tracy accidentally overdosed in January after “a quarter century battle with addiction.”
“I truly believe the best way to survive this uncharted journey is to be open and honest with the people you love, and having a strong support system throughout your journey,” Shapiro said.
JCS was involved in both the “Freedom Song” and “End the Shame Events,” said Howard Reznick, manager of JCS Prevention and Education, in an email interview following the event. “Similar community education events have been held twice yearly over the past three years with the onset of the opioid epidemic. With our congregational partners and with the support of Levinson Brothers, the Larry Samet Memorial Fund, the Carp Family Fund, the Maryland Faith Health Network, and others, JCS provided key organizing and coordinating roles to bring these programs to fruition.”
“From the anecdotal and post-program feedback surveys, many have been moved by the real-life stories that have been shared,” he said. “The awareness event at Temple Isaiah was the first such program in Howard County held in a synagogue with all Jewish presenters sharing their experience with loved ones who had struggled and how their own lives were acutely affected by that family experience. Resources and hope are shared and referrals made.”
Panelist Rabbi Yocheved Heiligman of Temple Sinai said Jewish addicts need a place “where Jews can go and feel comfortable in recovery with other Jews,” she said. She also floated the idea that Jews struggling with addiction might feel more comfortable opening up about their struggles in a synagogue that was not their own: “Maybe Jews from Baltimore will feel safe here [Temple Isaiah, in Howard County]. And maybe Jews from Columbia will be feeling safe in a synagogue in Baltimore, where they’re in a Jewish space, but not necessarily in their own backyard.”
In terms of local resources, Reznick shared that JCS now offers a “‘family navigator’ — a clinician to support and guide families who have a loved one who is chemically dependent.”
“Given the disorders chronic, relapsing and destructive nature, these families need lots of support for the long haul,” he explained. “Addiction treatment has become a big business, and the navigator who has no vested interest except that of the family, can advise and guide where the loved one might be referred to for their treatment.”
A Narcotics Anonymous group meets at Beth Tfiloh Congregation, said Reznick, and a newly formed group, Chayanu, has begun to make significant inroads in raising awareness of substance use and abuse issues in the Orthodox community.
“Fortunately, there are a number of quality treatment programs in the area, as well as 12 Step support groups in the community as well as outside of it where folks from the community are getting support,” he said.