Community Life and The Addiction Crisis in The Orthodox Community

The Orthodox Jewish community in America has achieved many things once believed impossible. For one, we have built vibrant, knowledgeable, growing, and confident communities. It’s important to remember that this didn’t always seem as though it would be so.


A respected 1952 study found that “only twenty-three percent of the children of the Orthodox intend to remain Orthodox. Earlier, in 1818, the Attorney General of the United States, William Wirt, predicted that Jews would be indistinguishable within 150 years. President John Adams anticipated that Jews might, in time, “become liberal Unitarian Christians.”


And yet, our communities are not only here but are thriving. History has proven our ability to achieve the “impossible” over and over again.



But We Have Failed as Much as Anybody with Substance Abuse

There are some areas where Orthodox communities have not achieved success. Given our ability to resist many negative social trends that have overwhelmed the rest of society, we might have hoped that the opioid epidemic and widespread substance abuse would pass us by, but this has not happened. There’s no need any longer to cite statistics; the secret is out.



It Starts with Community

I believe that the reasons for our failure become clear when we look at the key reason for our success in so many other fields: community. Judaism is a model for how to grow tight-knit communities. These communities are not just one of our plus points, but the secret of our success. It is the feeling of togetherness and mutual support that give the individual the strength to apply the hard work required to lead a Jewish life in the face of all the obstacles the modern world presents.



Our Communities Have Failed to Confront Substance Abuse

When it comes to drug use, our community structures have proven powerless to help. Drugs are a powerful acid, dissolving the bonds of community that exist to support members of the community experiencing difficulties.



One reason for this is the powerful sense of stigma and shame that still surround drug use. Families who have a member struggling are too likely to try and cover the issue up, dealing with the issue “in-house” instead of turning to the community for help.


However, as awareness of the spread of drugs within our community increases and stigma subsides, a more fundamental problem remains.



Addiction Offers an Alternative Community

Addiction and the lifestyle that accompanies it inevitably draws its victims out of the community and raises boundaries that keep them isolated. Much as some may want to help, an addict is drawn into a different world, and a different community – that of fellow drug users and alcoholics. This alternative community provides the same feelings of support and togetherness, but it draws its members not toward greater levels of achievement, but further into dependency and despair.


The deep sense of loneliness that exists in the heart of every addict creates a need for a community that is especially strong. To help people trapped in drug abuse, we need to harness that need for community and channel it in a positive direction.



Working Towards a Solution: The Therapeutic Community

The need for community can be met in a rehabilitative community, where people seeking to escape addiction provide mutual support. The bonds of friendship and understanding that people who can empathize with each other’s experience give each member the support needed to rise out of addiction. Studies show that the shame and frustration often encountered in addiction can be overcome through the experience of seeing the same struggles in others.


Within a community, seeing the imperfections and struggles of others fills us with a greater sense of compassion towards others and, moreover, towards ourselves. Without community, we may feel alone or judge others harshly. However, living within close proximity to others helps us appreciate the limits of our own collective humanity. Surrounding ourselves with a network of supportive individuals enhances our psychological well-being. Simply knowing that others are available to help us can give us the strength to confront life’s challenges.



Finding That Community

While our communities continue to work towards achieving that environment conducive to treatment, treatment centers are a great option The problem is finding a community-based treatment facility that is appropriate for an observant Orthodox Jew. Apart from the obvious problems of Kosher food or keeping Shabbos, for which solutions can perhaps be found, there is the more fundamental problem of the non-Jewish nature of the community of recovering addicts.


One option for finding this community is Retorno, the world’s premiere Jewish organization for the treatment and prevention of addiction. Individuals seek recovery alongside a community of people on the same journey toward sobriety. Substance abuse corrodes community and dissolves the most basic bonds of mutual responsibility that bind us. Retorno helps our young adults regain their footing and find their way back to sobriety, family, and community.


Ultimately, our communities from America to Europe to Israel must do a better job of supporting rehabilitation from drug addiction.


Rabbi Eitan Eckstein and Shoshana Schwartz
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