Jewish Journal

Dirty Little Secret

Conference hopes to shed light on Jewish addiction -- and the denial concerning it.

by Michael Aushenker

Posted on Oct. 18, 2001 at 8:00 pm

"I am a recovering alcoholic."

It's a stark way to open a conversation -- surprising, really, coming from Cheri Morgan, the vice chair of the United Jewish Fund Campaign (UJF) and wife of Todd Morgan, chairman of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

Even though her battle with alcoholism is long behind her, Morgan remains acutely aware of her condition and has no qualms about talking about it. Yet, she is way ahead of many in the Jewish community who are loath to identify addiction as a Jewish problem.

The Federation hopes to change some of those closeted attitudes by co-sponsoring The First West Coast Jewish Federation Addiction Conference on Monday, Oct. 22 from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the Skirball Cultural Center. The daylong symposium is open to health-care professionals, educators, community leaders and members of the public, and will address a topic that many in the community prefer to pretend is not their problem: alcohol and drug addiction.

"When I went through treatment 30 years ago, I went through an outstanding program called St. Mary's," Morgan told The Journal, speaking about a clinic in her hometown of Minneapolis.

Co-sponsors of the Addiction Conference are Jewish Family Service (JFS), a beneficiary agency of The 0Federation; Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) and Beit T'Shuvah, the only residential rehabilitation facility in the country offering a Jewish aspect to treatment, such as in-house rabbinical counseling and spiritual services.

Morgan, who will co-chair the conference with Annette Shapiro and Rita Lowenthal, said she wished that something like Beit T'Shuvah had been available to her when she had been wrestling with her demons.

"What was missing for me was the Judaism part," Morgan said. "That they [Beit T'Shuvah] are healing through spirituality and Judaism is utterly important. I have gotten sickest in my life when I wasn't connected spiritually."

Morgan grew up in a prominent Minneapolis family that was, on the surface, the envy of her community. But behind the scenes, her father was dying of cancer. Morgan's drinking started at 16, when her father was diagnosed, and accelerated when she was 18, following her father's death. At the time, teenage alcoholism was not a topic of discussion in American society -- and certainly not in the Jewish community.

When Morgan became pregnant, she decided to finally tackle the disease. With the support of her family, she entered treatment at age 24 .

"Even though it wasn't verbalized at the time," Morgan said, "there's a name for what I was going through. It's called alcoholism."

If Morgan were going through this today, no doubt she would find many more young Jews in her rehab group.

Jasmina Moore and Catherine Bergmann, coordinators of JFS' Alcohol Drug Action Program (ADAP), say that about 10 percent of the Jewish community is addicted -- the same as the percentage of addicts in the U.S. population as a whole.

According to ADAP's coordinators, many Jews in their 30s and 40s who have enlisted in the program say their alcohol abuse began in their teens, starting with drinking at home, including during Jewish holidays.

For three years, Moore and Bergmann have been using ADAP as a platform to bring the issue out in the open.

"Part of what we do is educate the families and the congregations that this is becoming a problem," Moore said.

Beit T'Shuvah is only one component of the solution, say the conference's organizers. Awareness, recognition of symptoms, and admitting that such a problem exists in our community are key points that the Addiction Conference intends to target.

"We just cannot ignore it anymore," Morgan said. "We have to make it safe to come out, because it's a disease of denial."

Denial and shame have been factors in keeping the subject out of the community, said Rabbi Paul Kipnes, spiritual leader of Congregation Or Ami of Calabasas. "For years, people didn't want to talk about it," said Kipnes, who will lead a lecture titled "Spirituality and Addiction."

"We whisper about it, we don't talk about it. It was a source of shame. The community was horrible, shoving aside Jews who needed to recover, and they wound up going to churches and other secular programs," Kipnes said. "But the truth is that Jews are recovering from addiction. They fill up pews in our congregations and participate in our Jewish organizations."

Here in Los Angeles, vices associated with the entertainment industry exacerbate the problem, Kipnes added.

"The Jewish community is so filled with healing institutions and our traditions are so filled with healing texts, " Kipnes said. "We need to make this available to all who are going through difficult times."

"I'm hoping that the conference will break through the silence in the community," Kipnes said. " I'd like to squarely position Jewish community and tradition as healing avenues."

The conference will feature testimonials by former addicts and panels with people such as Beit T'Shuvah's Director Harriet Rossetto and Rabbi Mark Borowitz, and JFS's Murray Kane. Keynote speakers include Ethan Nadelman, founder of The Lindesmith Center, a nonprofit drugs policy foundation created by philanthropist George Soros; and Rabbi Abraham Twerski. Conference organizers expect about 200 attendees, including doctors, rabbis, social workers and psychologists.

To call this the "first" Addiction Conference may be something of a misnomer, since a similar Federation conference was organized in the 1980s by Marcia Cohn Spiegel. Perhaps the fact that two decades have passed between conferences indicates the depths of the community's denial about alcohol addiction.

The Addiction Conference came about when PJA's Lowenthal approached Carol Levy at The Federation.

"She was really looking for a place where there could be some political advocacy," said Levy, vice president of the UJF Community Division, "and I offered to put something together through Federation."

Unfortunately, issues of Jewish addiction were all too familiar for Lowenthal. Five years ago, her son, Josh, died of a heroin overdose at age 39. "He was the perfect bar mitzvah [boy]," she said, adding that her late son's career as a musician was derailed by a life in and out of the prison system. "He went from shooting hoops in the suburb to shooting heroin in the ghetto in Pittsburgh."

Lowenthal attributes some causes of addiction in Jewish culture to a perfectionist attitude that pressures children to become nothing less than lawyers or doctors. She wants the conference to bring this pressure to the forefront of the Jewish community's social agenda.

"I hope it encourages and facilitates networking of interested people from different disciplines to address the problems from their own perspectives and link drug treatment practitioners, politicians, clergy, educators, law enforcement personnel and citizens," Lowenthal said. "On a personal level, I hope that hearing from 'nice Jewish families' caught in this epidemic might encourage the thousands who mourn privately behind their shame to speak out."

The Addiction Conference will also highlight political aspects of the equation, including talks by L.A. Superior Court's Judge Stephen Marcus, who runs L.A.'s largest drug court and heads L.A. County's Task Force to Implement Proposition 36, the Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act.

The proposition was passed by 61 percent of California voters last year to allow substance abuse treatment instead of incarceration for nonviolent, simple drug possession offenders.

Prop. 36 will cost $120 million annually over five and a half years. Its advocates maintain that this allocation for treatment is much cheaper than incarceration, and will save taxpayers $1.5 billion.

Clearly, the problem of substance abuse is now being recognized, said conference co-chair Shapiro, past chairperson of Jewish Community Foundation, which has contributed funding to Beit T'Shuvah.

"Only in the last seven or eight years has the issue come out," Shapiro said. "The conference will give people an opportunity, make them aware, and teach them how they can help. It's also for someone to learn what's happening in the community.

"The Jewish community needs to look at this problem inside the community and to realize that Jewish people are not immune to these problems," Shapiro said. "We're people, like anyone else."

Levy agreed. "All I know is that Beit T'Shuvah doesn't have an empty bed."

The First West Coast Jewish Federation Addiction Conference runs Oct. 22 from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the Skirball Cultural Center. For information, call (323) 761-8373; or register at www.jewishaddiction.com .

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