Jewish Journal


April 1, 2004


Ex-Addicts Relate to Passover's Message


On an alcohol-free St. Patrick's Day in the tranquil, grassy courtyard of a Westside recovery house for Jewish drug addicts, a former addict displayed his battle scars from 17 years of relentless freebasing, mainlining, snorting, bingeing, shooting up and coming down. The ex-addict's arms are pocked with small, pink mounds of leathery flesh -- reminders, he said, of, "places where I've missed shooting heroin."

For Jewish addicts forever negotiating the psychological and physiological cliffs of recovery, sobriety especially can fulfill Passover's promise of redemption.

"Whenever I think about Passover and redemption, I always think about this one kid who came from jail the day before Passover," said Rabbi Nina Feinstein, a spiritual counselor at the 120-bed Beit T'Shuvah, the Jewish-based addiction treatment center on Venice Boulevard near Culver City. "We were talking about Passover, and he raised his hand and says, 'I know this sounds corny, but yesterday I was in jail, and now I'm free.'"

Beit T'Shuvah is part of trend in recovery circles to have faith build on successful 12-step programs, such as the spirituality based Alcoholics Anonymous. The treatment center was praised in President Bush's March 3 speech at Staples Center. While Aaron P and other addicts have an almost religious commitment to attending daily AA meetings, being sober in a Jewish setting makes recovery more familial and holistic.

"I've filled this hole in my soul," said ex-heroin addict Rio Glenn, 30, who works on Beit T'Shuvah's alternative sentencing offender program. "This year, I'm truly grateful for being alive."

Further west, Young Israel of Venice is importing a new recovery tool for Southern California Jews from the New York-based group JACS (Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically dependent persons and Significant others). The local JACS chapter saw about 100 people attend a recent Shabbaton in North Hollywood. A winter retreat is being planned, and about a dozen people showed up recently on four consecutive Monday nights for the Orthodox synagogue's weekly, anonymous "12 Steps and Judaism" discussions.

"It's all word of mouth," said Young Israel Rabbi Zvi Hollander. "For anybody in a 12-step program, there's a lot of disconnect often between spirituality and Jews. Many meetings end often with the [Christian] 'Lord's Prayer' and are held often in the social halls of churches, and therefore people who are Jewish in the 12-step program sometimes wonder how they can be a good Jew in the 12- step program. We have to know that Judaism is full of the spirituality; take that [Alcoholics Anonymous] spirituality and keep it in Judaism."

At the 65-bed Chabad Residential Treatment Center in West Los Angeles -- which last month hosted Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel Yona Metzger during his Los Angeles visit -- director Donna Miller said Passover for addicts means that "before God reached His hand out to help, we had to ask for help, and that's a big part of the 12-step program."

Jews' bondage in Egypt also is an effective metaphor for breaking addiction's grasp. "For people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol, that is their personal Egypt," Beit T'Shuvah's Feinstein said. "When they can become sober, they feel that sobriety is their freedom, just as freedom is the foundation of all of our lives."

Feinstein also uses the lesser-known but pivotal biblical story of Nachshon, the head of the tribe of Judah, who in rabbinic Midrash commentaries is described as the first to enter the Red Sea as Moses tried unsuccessfully to part it.

 "He walked into, and he went up to his neck, and it looked like he was going to drown," she said. "And suddenly, the sea parted. And that's a great model for people learning to deal with addiction. You have to take that step of faith and walk that way."

For about three months, Aaron P. has been clean and sober at Beit T'Shuvah, where every bedroom has a donor-dedicated mezuzah. This will not be his first sober Passover, but the first making him feel like he has a clear shot at staying clean and finding Jewish wholeness.

"I was never proud to be a Jew," said Aaron P., at 36 a high school dropout and computer consultant. "They do really fun seder stuff around here."

Aaron P. now totes around a Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel book. He said it has taught him about "seeking truth and never getting there; the concept of it all being about the road and not the destination."

As he watched a white puppy wrestling with a black sheepdog in Beit T'Shuvah's courtyard, Aaron P. said, "I've never been this happy. I've never been this free."  

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