Disbelief and denial are two words that can describe the alcohol and drug problem in the Jewish community, and that is a problem in itself.
Have you given much thought to this issue? Most of us haven’t. It’s not until we are personally affected that we become concerned. We must not let it to get to that point.
As chairman of the Assembly’s Committee on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, I have been afforded a view of drug and alcohol problems on both a statewide and a local level. In most communities the evidence of drug abuse and overindulgence in alcohol is obvious in criminal activity, emergency room visits, employment statistics and dysfunctional families. To look at those communities is to know that drugs and/or alcohol are an issue. Our community is different; many of those abusing alcohol or drugs are not only functioning well but maintaining either high grades or business success.
Last December, in conjunction with the Orthodox Union, I brought together thirty local rabbanim, social workers, doctors, psychologists, counselors, program directors and attorneys who work with community members experiencing alcohol and drug problems. The roundtable discussion provided the experts with a forum to share information. Such problems as shul-hopping for simchas serving alcohol, excessive drinking at Kiddush Clubs and helping oneself to another family member’s prescription painkillers found in a medicine cabinet were highlighted.
The experts all agreed that there is a growing problem of drug and alcohol abuse in the Jewish community and expressed a collective frustration that there were too few resources to respond. The perception of our community being alcohol- and drug problem-free extends all the way to the halls of the legislature. When I talk to my colleagues, they have trouble believing there is a need for funding prevention and treatment programs in the Jewish community.
Another obstacle to dealing with the alcohol and drug problems head-on is the shame these problems cause in the Jewish community. Whether it’s just embarrassment or the fear of difficulty with a shidduch in the future, drug and alcohol problems are often kept behind closed doors by families, shuls and organizations.
This only serves to exacerbate the problem. There should be no shame in dealing with either an alcohol or drug problem. We must all understand this and come together as a community to provide support for our neighbors dealing with alcohol and drug issues. They need our help. This is important for the individual as well as for the community.
It was because of the unique circumstances surrounding the alcohol and drug problem in the Jewish community that I recently invited Commissioner Arlene Gonzalez-Sanchez, who heads the New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services, to participate in a roundtable discussion, cosponsored by the Orthodox Union. I thought that it was important for our state’s top alcohol and drug official to see and hear firsthand our concerns and needs.
On May 3 the commissioner joined more than twenty practitioners and rabbis from our community at the Young Israel of Midwood. The roundtable participants told the commissioner that the false notion that no alcohol or drug problem exists in the Jewish community often results in individuals with problems not receiving the treatment they need and the community as a whole not getting its fair and needed share of resources for prevention and treatment programs.
“The level of denial still needs to be addressed…it’s tripping us up,” one social worker said, while a program director added that she can “walk down any block in Flatbush and point out houses on each block with a kid or two at risk.”
Commissioner Gonzalez-Sanchez was told about the need for culturally sensitive treatment and prevention programs: “Being an orthodox Jew in recovery is much more than having kosher food.” A drug counselor shared a story of an Orthodox client doing well in an out of town secular drug treatment program who called in distress because she suddenly felt a rekindling of spiritual feelings.
Commissioner Gonzalez-Sanchez understood. “The Office of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Services,” she said, “remains committed to providing quality health care that is comprehensive and sensitive to the specific needs of the individuals we serve. I look forward to continue working closely with Assemblyman Cymbrowitz to address the issues facing the people of this community.”