Breaking Down the Shame: Jews and the Myth Around Addiction

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail

As the drug and alcohol scandal surrounding Toronto’s Mayor Rob Ford continues to garner obsessive news coverage and public wisecracking across social media, one family in Agoura Hills, California isn’t laughing.

In August, Rick and Joyce Isaac lost their 19-year-old son, Josh, to heroin - the final chapter in a year-long story of heroin addiction - following addiction to other substances for some years earlier. I learned about Josh last week from the Facebook page of the family’s rabbi.

Rabbi Paul Kipnes had posted a link to The Liberty Crew, a fundraising project launched by Josh’s family and friends to help free individuals and families from addiction. Peer closely into Josh’s face - pictured on the site as a toddler and as a teen, handsome, with a huge smile, and try to spot a heroin addict.

“In my head, it used to be the down and out, thin, poor, street-living man in his 30s and 40s. That was the image I had” of a heroin addict, Josh’s father Rick told me in a phone interview. “That is sad in and of itself, and I don’t want to diminish that. I believe these are good people inside of this addiction, but it felt like the Other. The face has now changed. There are young, wonderful people who are struggling now, who I know are just good-hearted, wonderful people, who are more recently, in the last few years, caught up in this.”

In many cases, Rick notes, some other issue, like a mood or a learning disorder and the sense of shame associated with it, precedes the drug use. “The shame, if not resolved, can create a deeper need to deny that they have a problem, and then solving it becomes more complex.” he adds, “Children need to get to a point where they can problem solve for themselves, otherwise they are going to turn to self-medicating.”

“Insidious” is the word Rick uses when describing addiction. “Not being an addict, it’s somewhat hard to understand. It’s kind of like, why don’t you just stop? Why are you doing something that at some level you know is not good for you? Depending on the drug and situation, especially when you get into opiates, the allure and interest and pleasure that you get; it just takes over your thought processes, your choices, to the point where you risk dying, he says. "Every use of heroin could be your last.”

'You’re not going to find a job where you can sleep in all day'

By a twist of fate - he was hospitalized with near heart-failure after a drug incident - “Mark” (a pseudonym, as I’m following the Alcoholics Anonymous guidelines forbidding the use of full member names in the press) was luckier. After 14 years of addiction to “heroin, alcohol, and anything water soluble,” Mark, a resident of North Hollywood, has been clean and sober now for two and a half years. Mark’s parents attend the same Temple as the Isaac family, and I approached Mark after seeing him reach out to the Isaacs to lend a hand with their addiction awareness initiative.

“Alcohol and drugs filled the hole that I had, in a way that nothing else was able to. They were a cure. They helped me for a long time, until they stopped helping, which they always inevitably do.” Mark made his way to Beit T’shuvah, a Jewish residential treatment house paired with a congregation in Los Angeles. There, it was the “sense of community” that kept him engaged.

Today, at age 31, Mark manages Transcend Sober Living, a residential, transitional home. Rehab allows patients to “break from the real world” and work on their issues, he explains; but once they leave rehab, they need to learn to cope with the demands of reality. He shows residents how to learn to “live a responsible life - to wake up at 8:30 in the morning instead of 12 noon - because you’re not going to find a job where you can sleep in all day.” Mark adds: “I’m the warning sticker on the package. But I’m also the sign of what happens when you do decide to change your life.”

Lose-lose situation

For “Jake,” (another pseudonym, and, full disclosure: a relative of mine), growing up in the tight-knit Jewish community of Winnipeg, Canada in the 1940s and 50s, it was a 25-year road of alcohol abuse. Jake started drinking at 15. “There was a hole in my belly. I felt inadequate. I was the second shortest guy in school. At first the drinking makes you feel good: your Chevy looks like a Cadillac; you feel like Johnny Cool. Then, it destroys you.”

It was a conversation that Jake had on November 15, 1983 while drinking at a bar he frequented that set his life on a new course. That day, the 41-year-old was awaiting a Supreme Court of Canada ruling on a disability claim case. A large sum of money hung in the balance. When a friend suggested that with the possible financial award he would be able to live large, Jake had an epiphany. “If I won the case, I realized that I would drink myself to death; and if I lost the case, I realized I would drink myself to death.” Leaving his final drink, he took the bus to the local hospital. There, he was directed to a treatment center where he spent the next three weeks.

Today, at 71, Jake still attends weekly AA meetings, where he sponsors a handful of other members - as well as supporting meetings of Jewish Alcoholics and Chemically Dependent Persons and Significant Others, or JACS. This week marks thirty years of continuous sobriety for Jake. 

Purim doesn't have to be about booze

There is a myth that Jews don't abuse alcohol, says Ivy Kopstein, an addictions services coordinator at Jewish Child and Family Service in Winnipeg. It may have stemmed from a feeling of group pride and solidarity, she explains, due to "wine [being] a religious symbol that is first drunk early in life, and [the existence of] family traditions and views about the appearance of being drunk.”

More broadly, this denial “may go back to [feeling] as a people that we’ve been persecuted for so long that we don’t want to admit we have faults,” she suggests. Kopstein is helping to plan a conference in Winnipeg in March called "Opening Doors: Conversations About Addiction." The title is telling.

Today, while the myth is being challenged by the many Jews who find themselves in treatment - and by the many Jewish institutions, counselors and spiritual leaders dedicated to them - there remains shame and stigma in the Jewish community around addiction.

Groups like JACS seek to address this stigma head on. They draw heavily on recovery books with a Jewish bent, by authors such as Rabbi Kerry Olitzky and Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski.

Rabbi Paul Kipnes, the Isaac family’s rabbi at Temple Or Ami in Calabasas, California, has been active in recovery counseling, running retreats and teaching Reform rabbinical students the skills to counsel recovering addicts for over twenty years. Kipnes is adamant that rabbis should be breaking down the shame and stigma - he uses the Hebrew word busha - surrounding addiction.

Rabbis should be including recovering addicts in their mishe berach prayer - the public prayer for healing, he says. We should be challenging the “halakhic myth,” as he calls it, that Jews are mandated to get drunk on Purim. The phrase “until one doesn’t know the difference between Mordechai and Haman” could be understood as "the world turning upside down," he says. "That could be an intellectual thing, a social thing, it doesn’t have to be a booze thing.”

Every year, Kipnes notes, he helps two to four people, often in the ages of 20-25, to get into recovery treatment programs. And his geographical region, he stresses, is wealthy and beautiful. But like everywhere else, “we’re struggling.”


Every story of overcoming substance abuse is unique, but all seem to involve a commitment to alter one’s entire perspective of life. Perhaps this is why Dawn Moore, an associate professor of law at Carleton University, told the National Post she was not convinced rehab is the answer for Mayor Ford’s problems. “Rehab is not going to solve it because there was an arrogance that we were all brought up to hold on to about our own entitlement and our own invincibility, which to my mind - and I don’t know Rob Ford personally - is a huge part of this story.”

Perhaps this is why the conventional wisdom about addiction recovery, embodied in the ubiquitous 12 step program, stresses a full-life overhaul, a personal sense of accountability, and what in the Jewish tradition we might call cheshbon nefesh - accounting of the soul.

For Mark, this personal overhaul included rebuilding trust with his parents, who initially bailed him out of jail, before they shifted to a tougher love approach - an approach which Mark now respects.

Jake is forthright about the emotional growth he has experienced since the fateful day when he first sought treatment. “Though I was 41 when I stopped drinking, I had the emotions of a 15-year-old.”

Jake describes the 12-step program as transformative: "When I stopped drinking, for the first while, I still thought like the Jake that was drinking. But then my whole value system changed.” It takes a while, he acknowledges, “to change your instinctive thinking, what you did, how you hurt other people, all the wreckage of the past. And we have to make amends for those things.”

At thirty years sober, Jake is reflective. “I came in a schmuck and I hope today, I’m a bit of a mensch.” 

Illustration. 'The shame, if not resolved, can create a deeper need to deny that they have a problem.'Credit: Dreamstime

Click the alert icon to follow topics: