Shocked by the number of untimely deaths of young people in the Jewish community, Rabbi Zvi Gluck, the director of Amudim, which deals in crisis intervention, decided several months ago to start keeping count of the number of deaths due to addiction, abuse and mental illness among young Orthodox Jews. When I first spoke to him two weeks ago, the figure was 65 fatalities since Rosh Hashana. Just one week later that number had jumped to 67.
Amudim reported the statistics as 21 suicides, 41 drug overdoses and 5 alcohol related deaths in member of the Orthodox Jewish community, ages 35 and under, in the tri-state area
When he first founded Amudim two years ago, there were those who berated Gluck for speaking out about the crises that were decimating our young people in droves; he was making a chilul Hashem by raising these issues in a public forum, they told him. Others simply didn’t believe him. Today Gluck finds that armed with hard numbers, his detractors are far less vocal.
“It is no longer possible to make believe that certain things that are killing our kids are not happening,” said Gluck. “Whether it is victims of sexual abuse, whether it is suffering from addiction, or it is mental illness, these are issues that we must confront.”
The fact that these issues exist within the Jewish community is, unfortunately, not new. What is novel is that faced with incontrovertible evidence of their existence, the Jewish community is finally starting to discuss these problems and trying to find ways to solve them, simply because they are so widespread.
“I don’t know any family that doesn’t know someone, either in their immediate family, their extended family or a neighbor, that has suffered from one of these things,” said Gluck.
The number of organizations addressing these crises within the Jewish community continues to grow. Far from duplicating each other’s efforts, these many agencies are addressing the full spectrum of the issues, from awareness to prevention, to referrals to treatment services to rehabilitation and beyond, all across the globe. A recent crowd-funding campaign spearheaded by the Brooklyn based Our Place brought 18 organizations together in a one day effort to raise money for those facing extreme difficulties. 4,203 people collectively raised $2,553,429 for various agencies including yeshivos, drop in centers, rehabilitation programs and summer camps.
Ruchama Clapman is the founder and executive director of MASK, which has been providing a wide array of services to those dealing with difficult issues for almost 20 years. In addition to running a “hope” line providing referrals to therapists, agencies, counselors and inpatient and outpatient rehab and mental health clinics, MASK has also run parent support groups and in-school programs. The goal for all of these efforts is the same: fostering emotional wellness in our children.
“The message that we have learned over the years is that parents need to realize that prevention is the key,” said Clapman. “Issues start early on and are compounded daily in pain, suffering and shame.”
MASK has case managed over 16,000 families and 24,000 in community programs since its inception and Clapman said that the issues often stem from trauma that may have occurred earlier on.
“A child who is bullied in sixth grade can experience pain so great that it can create issues later,” said Clapman. “You may not necessarily see it when they are younger, but peace of mind is difficult for trauma victims and they inevitably act up later to escape their pain.”
The importance of focusing on elementary school-aged children who have low self esteem, ADHD or learning disabilities or have experienced something traumatic, be it bullying or death of a loved one, cannot be overstated, according to Clapman.
“Common forms of acting out are the addictions, all of them, such as drugs and alcohol, internet addiction, pornography, criminal behavior, and relationships,” said Clapman “Over time many of these young adults are rejected, whether for behavioral reasons or for being academically underproductive and they are left to the street, which just reinforces these behaviors and exposes them to additional dangers.”
Parenting has become increasingly difficult, noted Clapman, and well-raised children from even prominent families can inadvertently be exposed to unprecedented threats, forever altering the course of their lives. In many cases, parents are often the last to find out that their children are facing serious problems.
“As parents, we do the best we can but times are changing,” said Clapman. “The message to everyone is that we are not immune. Nobody is immune in today’s society.”
Yitzchok Weinreb knows that lesson all too well. His son Gershon struggled for years to cope with the trauma of a difficult divorce and turned to drugs at a young age. He died last year of a drug overdose at the age of 26.
“We have to get the word out there,” said Weinreb. “We are losing them a lot and not just to drugs. We need to wake up and smell the coffee before it is someone in your own family and realize that this is a major problem among Jews.”
Having been molested as a child, Weinreb fully understands the difficulties that face anyone who has experienced trauma.
“I live with this day in and day out,” observed Weinreb. “This happened to me from age 11 to 15. I am 52 and I still go to bed every night and wake up every morning with it.”
Because of his own experiences, Weinreb finds that many abuse victims relate well to him, though he fully acknowledges that the road to recovery is long and bumpy.
“I tell people that I have gone through what they have gone through,” said Weinreb. “There is light at the end of the tunnel and they can get through it. It may be very hard, but suicide is not the way to solve anything. With help from the right people, even those who have experienced terrible trauma can still enjoy a full life.Sandy Eller