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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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Shaarey Zedek renovation update

Shaarey Zedek renovations are now well underway. Here’s a video posted by Shaarey Zedek about the renovations:

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Winnipeg Council of Rabbis criticizes suggestion that Simkin Centre ought to offer non-kosher meals – as well as kosher meals

Rabbi Yosef Benarroch

We received the following letter from the Winnipeg Council of Rabbis in response to the suggestion that the Simkin Centre ought to offer non-kosher meals (Read story at🙂

Dear Bernie
We read your opinion piece on kashrut at the Simkin Centre with a certain amount of shock, as you advocated that the Simkin Centre not be a kosher facility. After a long discussion we had with food services at Simkin, it is clear that your statements about the quality of food are simply wrong. Residents at Simkin receive meals that are on par with all other similar facilities in Manitoba. The menu includes chicken both dark and white, meats including roast beef, ground meat, and much more. The only item not offered at Simkin that is offered at other similar homes is pork, which we hope you are not advocating for. 

In addition, every major Jewish organization in Winnipeg has a Kashrut policy in place. The reason for this is simple. Kashrut is a Jewish value — and for many, a core Jewish value —  and it is the responsibility of Jewish organizations to uphold Jewish values. How odd is it that Winnipeg’s “Jewish” newspaper would be advocating for treif food, and in your words  will “never give up the fight” to make sure it happens. A Jewish newspaper should be advocating for Jewish values, period. 

Finally, Kashrut allows the Simkin Centre to be an inclusive Jewish institution that accommodates the needs of the entire Jewish community. There are many residents and families that consider kashrut as an integral element in how they express their Judaism. They would have no other place to send their loved ones if the Simkin Centre was not Kosher.

The vast majority of Jews in Winnipeg want to see the Simkin Centre continue to be Kosher, and we hope you will either reconsider your position or not press a minority position onto the majority. We, as the rabbis of the Winnipeg Council of Rabbis, all endorse and fully support this position.

Winnipeg Council of Rabbis

  • Rabbi Yosef Benarroch, Adas Yeshurun Herzlia
  • Rabbi Allan Finkel, Temple Shalom
  • Rabbi Matthew Leibl, Simkin Center
  • Rabbi Anibal Mass, Shaarey Tzedek
  • Rabbi Kliel Rose, Eitz Chayim

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Bernie Bellan asks: If kashrut is so intrinsic to Jewish organizations in Winnipeg, why was the Rady JCC allowed to make its annual sports dinner non-kosher?

Bernie Bellan

Here’s a question for the Council of Rabbis – whose letter tearing a strip off me for daring to question the necessity of serving fully kosher meals to every resident of the Simkin Centre appears on this website: Have you ever considered the total hypocrisy inherent in your insisting that kashrut is vital to the Simkin Centre, while the Rady JCC some years ago abandoned the requisite that its annual sports dinner be kosher?
The sports dinner asks anyone attending whether they’d like a kosher meal (which is what I suggested the Simkin Centre could also do) and, from what I’ve been told, the number of individuals who respond in the affirmative can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
I don’t recall the council of rabbis kicking up a huge fuss over that change. But, to be consistent guys, (and by the way, only one of the five rabbis on that council is actually a subscriber to The Jewish Post, butI’m glad you’re all such vociferous readers), I expect you to demand that the Rady JCC sports dinner revert to being fully kosher.
After all, as Rabbi Benarroch so succinctly puts it in his letter: “Kashrut is a Jewish value — and for many, a core Jewish value —  and it is the responsibility of Jewish organizations to uphold Jewish values.”
I won’t hold my breath waiting for you to publicly demand that the sports dinner revert to being fully kosher. As I recall, the reason that kashrut was abandoned as a prerequisite for the dinner was because of the cost. So, when Simkin Centre CEO Laurie Cerqueti wrote me in an email,  “I know for this year as of the end of October we are over budget on food by $150,000. We must continue to fund any costs on food from our existing annual budget or through fundraised dollars,” I fully expect the council of rabbis – and anyone else who is adamant that the Simkin Centre remain absolutely kosher to join in a campaign to raise that $150,000 so that Simkin can remain kosher without cutting into other areas of operation. How about it, guys?
My point in advocating for Simkin to modify its kashrut policy was to be as realistic as the people behind the sports dinner were in recognizing that the cost of a full adherence to kashrut can be prohibitively expensive. But, the sports dinner still allows anyone who wants a kosher meal to have one. That’s all that I was advocating for the Simkin Centre. So, tell me rabbis: Where do you draw the line from one Jewish institution to another? Or, does the slippery slope that you’re on also have an off ramp that allows you to abandon principles when it’s expedient to do so?

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