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Rabbis taking a leading role in discussion of addiction in Jewish community

Rabbi Allan Finkel

According to Rabbi Allan Finkel, there has been a long-standing pattern of denying the existence of addiction within the established Jewish community.
As recently as 1995, Temple Shalom’s new spiritual leader reported, a study of addiction in England’s Jewish community concluded that the problem didn’t exist in the community. It has only been within the past 25 years that Jewish communities in North America have taken the problem seriously and been making efforts to help community members struggling with addiction.
Finkel addressed the issue at a presentation on Tuesday, January 14, at the Asper Campus Adult Lounge as part of a series of Rady JCC-initiated monthly talks featuring local rabbis speaking about contemporary issues.





To begin with, Finkel provided an overview of addictive symptoms including increased usage over time, inability to cut back, withdrawal issues and deleterious effects on your work and family and social relationships.
And while substance addiction – to alcohol, narcotics and prescription drugs – may be what first comes to mind when thinking about addiction, Finkel pointed out that there are many other forms of addiction – such as gambling, sex, Internet use, shopping and food to name some others.

Finkel cited a 2011 study that suggests that almost of half of all Americans (and, most likely Canadians) struggle with some form of addiction. He referred to other recent studies that indicate that not only are there biological and psychological factors that predispose individuals to become addicted, but also social and environmental issues.
He referenced the findings of Dr. Gabor Mate who, while working with patients in Vancouver’s downtown East Side, concluded that 100% of female addicts were sexually abused as children.
Finkel quotes Mate as writing that “all addictive behavior can be traced back to childhood trauma. Not everyone who is traumatized becomes an addict, but everyone who is addicted was traumatized.”
Finkel quoted a second unnamed author who wrote that “most addicts, no matter what kind, have experienced some sort of trauma when they were young”.
And where Jews are concerned, he listed several unique factors that may be factors in addiction, such as the effects of the Holocaust on children of survivors (as is Finkel himself), also the huge pressure on children from peers and parents to excel in school and become professionals.

Finkel cited a 2018 study of drug addiction in the Orthodox community which noted factors such as “failing to live up to parental expectations, as well as sexual, physical, verbal or emotional abuse” and “failing to fit into the mainstream yeshiva structure.
And for years, addictive behavior, he added, has been kept out of sight in Jewish communities in part because of Jews’ long history of exposure to anti-Semitism and the resulting desire not to give the anti-Semites any more ammunition.
There are also cultural and social pressures to keep the family together at all costs.

Finkel noted that the first rabbi to speak publicly about addiction in the community was Chassidic Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski in the early 1970s. He is the founder and Medical Director Emeritus of Gateway Rehabilitation Center, a not-for-profit drug and alcohol treatment system in western Pennsylvania, cited nationally as one of the 12 best drug and alcohol treatment centers in America, and one of the top 100 rehab centers for alcoholism and drug abuse.
Finkel added that the Reform movement began raising awareness of addictive behaviours within the Jewish community in the early 1980s. It was only two years ago, though, he noted, that the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly agreed with the thesis that “modern science and medicine has demonstrated that addiction is a chronic relapsing brain disease rather than a moral failing” and came out in support of the 12 step program.
As to overcoming addiction, Finkel described “five uniquely Jewish approaches for spiritual healing”. For example, Reform Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, in partnership with Dr. Stuart Copans, created “the 12 Jewish steps to recovery “to demonstrate the Jewishness” behind the 12 steps to encourage Jews struggling with addiction who may be concerned that the 12-step program is too much a Christian program.

Finkel also talked about the Jewish concept of “tshuva” (or spiritual change), the focus on healing in our synagogue services (where we pray for “refuah sh’lemah”, a complete recovery in body and spirit for friends, loved ones and ourselves).
Then there is JACS (Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons and Significant Others) which helps people recovering from addiction in a nurturing Jewish setting. JACS was founded in 1975 and grew out of the work of the Commission on Synagogue Relations of the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies.
JACS (which has been active in Winnipeg – 204 478-8591- for several years) “encourages and assists Jewish alcoholics, chemically dependent persons and their families, friends and associates to explore recovery in a nurturing Jewish environment.
JACS also promotes knowledge and understanding of the disease of alcoholism and chemical dependency as it involves the Jewish community and the effects of alcoholism and drug dependency on Jewish family life.
Finkel cautioned that addicts can’t be forced to seek help. “We can’t cure or control other people,” he pointed out. “We can only heal ourselves.
“We were all born into this world in God’s image. It is our experiences with the world around us that has moved us off that special place.”

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