October 25, 2001
Take 12 Steps
It would be hard to exaggerate the significance of The Jewish Federation's Addiction Conference held Monday at the Skirball Cultural Center. But to compare, think back to the Shechinah Conference held 20 years ago at Hebrew Union College, which helped consolidate and shape Jewish feminism. In its willingness to creatively address perhaps the biggest social issue of our time, the Skirball program is that big a deal.
In truth, it was not the "first" West Coast conference on the subject of addiction and the Jewish community. More than two decades ago, L'Chaim, an Alcoholics Anonymous-style organization for Jews, made a similar effort to bring a dirty secret of Jewish life out into the open at its conference. There have been alcoholics and drug addicts ever since Noah, just as there have been Jewish professionals trying to help us face our demons.
Nevertheless, the larger American zeitgeist of "recovery" makes this event historic. The 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, formalized more than 65 years ago by Bill W., are now the common parlance of millions, who gather together to share their experience, strength and hope to overcome personal obsessions deemed out of control. To nail the point, last year, California voters passed Prop. 36, allowing some drug offenders to participate in treatment programs including those using the 12 Steps, rather than jail.
Thousands of Jews consider themselves members of the "anonymous fellowships," including Gamblers Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous and Al-Anon, for relatives and friends of the addicted. These Jews speak the language of "powerlessness" and "Higher Power" and say the "Serenity Prayer" as often and as easily as they do the "Shema."
Until now, these Jews in recovery have met with their fellows, mostly in churches, often with twinges of guilt that they were somehow committing treason, if not embarking on a course of spiritual schizophrenia.
But on Monday, a host of community authorities, including many addicts themselves, rose to assert that the language of recovery is congruent with Judaism.
"All the principles of the 12 Steps were in Judaism 2,000 years ago," declared Dr. Abraham Twerski in a keynote speech titled, "Twelve Steps and Torah -- Is there a Fit?" Twerski, a white-bearded Orthodox rabbi who might have popped out of a Sholom Aleichem story, is a national authority on chemical dependency. He shocked many in the audience with his matter-of-fact quoting of 12-Step principles side by side with Talmud.
The day was an enormous breakthrough.
First, Jews can now feel free to walk the 12 Steps without thinking they are on the road with Jesus. These programs may not be exclusively Jewish in tone (the language of the program is a mix of Carl Jung, Buddhism and 1950s Christianity), but they are decidedly focused on Jewish purpose: overcoming the "evil inclination" and finding God's will.
Second, the Jewish community, by this conference, is admitting that it, too, is powerless over addictions. We can't hide from them, nor feel confident that our community alone can solve them. Drugs are everywhere, as the morning's keynote speaker, Ethan A. Nadelmann, insisted. And we can no longer pretend that the consequences of obsession with drugs, alcohol, sex and whatever are limited to an aberrant few, most of whom end up in jail.
Scoffing at Jewish addiction is an age-old sadistic tradition, represented at the conference by UCLA's professor Mark Kleiman."Jewish addiction is like Jewish basketball," Kleiman said. "There's not much of it, and it's not very good."
But this trivialization of individual and family crisis is, thankfully, no longer going to hold. Playing the numbers game to disprove a Jewish problem didn't stop divorce or homosexuality from becoming a reality. When the community is ready to accept a social condition, it does so.
Third, the Jewish community admits that it has something to learn from another spiritual discipline. Rabbi Paul Kipnes from Congregation Or Ami suggested that synagogues open their doors to 12 Step programs. He has created a six-congregation ad hoc Rabbinic Coalition to Support Jewish 12 Step Programming. This had to be an enormous first step.
In a day filled with mind-blowers, here is my favorite, from Twerski:
"I feel sorry for those who don't have addictions," he said. "They don't hit rock bottom. So they're missing out on some of the greatest ideas in life."