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‘Slaves’ to Drugs Find Help in Chabad

by Gaby Wenig

September 9, 2004 | 8:00 pm

When John Ostlund was 33, a judge offered him a choice: Quit heroin or lose your 3-year-old daughter.

Ostlund chose heroin.

Four years later, Ostlund had to make another decision. The 37-year-old had been a drug addict for 25 years and had spent 11 years in prison. Now it was up to him: Get off drugs or die.

"And by a miracle, within 24 hours, I was a client at Chabad," Ostlund said.

Now sober for seven years, Ostlund has spent the last six of them working at the Chabad Residential Treatment Centers (CRTC), the rehabilitation organization he credits with saving his life. He is now married, gainfully employed, happy and sober.

When you think Chabad, Ostlund is not exactly what comes to mind: Firstly, instead of wearing a black hat, he sports tattoos, a ponytail and an earring; secondly, Ostlund is not Jewish.

That's probably why Ostlund and other recovering addicts from the CRTC are touted so heavily at Chabad's telethons. This year's 24th annual telethon takes place on Sept. 12, and Chabad hopes exceed the more than $6 million they raised last year.

At the telethon, CRTC clients and their families will appear on stage every half-hour to talk about their stories and the center. Telethon organizers hope that by putting this humanistic, nonsectarian face on a very Jewish organization they will open the hearts -- and the purse strings -- of the people watching in the four major markets that the telethon will air: Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Las Vegas, as well as on the satellite Dish Network.

But in terms of numbers, the CRTC's reach is relatively small. It can only service 44 people at a time (as opposed to Beit T'Shuvah, the other prominent Jewish rehabilitation center in Los Angeles, which has space for 120), and comprises a small portion of Chabad's programs, which primarily aim at reconnecting Jews with their Judaism.

Yet when it comes to the telethon, CRTC's public relations value is immeasurable. CRTC functions give Chabad a trendy, modern image, as if to say these men who dance around in frock coats and black hats have their fingers on the pulse of today's society.

Only about $1.1 million of the money raised at the telethon goes to CRTC, funding half its annual budget of $2.2 million. The rest comes from client fees ($4,900 a month, or less for those who can't afford it), private donations and county and state funds, which account for approximately $700,000 of CRTC's budget. More than 75 percent of CRTC's clients are on a reduced-fee plan of some kind.

The other $5 million of the funds raised at the telethon go to supporting emergency counseling and therapy, the free burial fund, Chabad's prison chaplaincy program, scholarships for needy families at Chabad schools, seed money for new regional Chabad centers and university outreach and adult education.

Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, director of West Coast Chabad Lubavitch, started the drug and alcohol treatment center in 1973, after he noticed an abundance of drug use and a dearth of treatment centers.

"People were coming into the Chabad House [in Westwood] stoned and on terrible trips, and there wasn't anyone in the Jewish community dealing with it," said Mendy Cunin, Boruch Shlomo Cunin's son. "[My father] realized there were underlying causes, and the problems were not the drugs or the alcohol, but the pain that was present that they weren't dealing with properly."

CRTC currently occupies a three-building complex on Olympic Boulevard in the Miracle Mile area. It can handle up to 44 men at a time, and another 25 in its sober-living facility, which is where clients can go after finishing Chabad's mandatory six months of treatment, if they feel they need additional assistance. Over the years they have helped more than 4,000 people.

According to the reports Chabad submits to the county, 60 percent of its clients stay off drugs after they leave CRTC.

The program has five components: clinical, which includes individual, group and family therapy with licensed psychologists; meetings that study the 12-steps of Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous; physical activity, which includes hikes; spirituality, an all-encompassing program that includes healthy kosher food, the peaceful and verdant center garden, as well as the optional Torah classes offered to everyone; and vocational counseling, which includes assistance in resume-building, interviewing skills, money management and basic computer skills. CRTC also has a team of acupuncturists who come to the complex once a week to treat addiction, as well as physical ailments.

CRTC is a melting pot of people and cultures. In one bedroom, a small cross on a chain hangs next to a bed; other rooms have Hebrew prayer books in them. There are black, Latino and Asian clients (as CRTC likes to call its residents) and Orthodox-looking Jews. Some clients look as if they just arrived from Wall Street, others like they were dragged in from Skid Row. There are young, hip clients and paunchy middle-aged ones.

"We get all types," said Donna Miller, CRTC's clinical director.

The center has to make its Jewish component voluntary, not compulsory because it accepts county funds, including funds that come from Proposition 36, which sends those who have been arrested for drug-related offenses to rehabilitation instead of prison. (Conversely, Beit T'Shuvah, which also has a strong faith-based component, makes its faith-based counseling mandatory for all its Jewish and non-Jewish clients, so it is not eligible for county funds, and relies solely on client fees of $3,000 a month and private donations.)

CRTC is the only solely kosher live-in treatment program in California (although the Tarzana Treatment Center and Beit T'Shuvah will bring in kosher food for clients if necessary) making it a fitting treatment center for observant Jews who are addicts.

"It can be anywhere from 60 percent Jewish to 75 percent Jewish," Miller said. "But we try to save lives here. We don't say, 'Are you Jewish?'"

Nevertheless, Miller said that those who need a kosher facility will be accommodated faster than those who do not.

"People come here, and it is a very spiritual place," Miller said. "It's very healing. Some programs tear you down to bring you up. We just bring you up."

The cornerstone of CRTC's spiritual component is Chasidic philosophies that emphasize the worth of every individual. They are taught through the study of books like "Toward a Meaningful Life" by Simon Jacobson, and "Bringing Heaven Down to Earth" by Tzvi Freeman.

Mendy Cunin encourages clients to think of their journey to recovery as one of yetziat mitrayim -- the exodus from Egypt, with "Egypt" being their slavery to drugs. Cunin also encourages them to love God, fear God and rely on God and to take a cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the soul, so that they can feel responsible for everything in their lives, both good and bad.

"To graduate [the six-month program] and change from someone who is dependent on substances to deal with challenges to become a self-inspired human being, you need a lot of tools," he continued. "So we share this age-old wisdom with them."

For some of the clients, like Ostlund, CRTC is their first encounter with religious Jews. While the religious component of the program is not compulsory, it still appears to be an invigorating part of the program for all participants, Jewish or not.

On the day The Journal visited the center, the Torah class had as many attendees as the 12-step class, and in the break between classes, many of the clients got out the shofars they had made the day before in a shofar factory workshop and started blowing. They also greeted Mendy Cunin by spontaneously starting up a Chasidic niggun (wordless melody), which they continued singing as he hugged them hello.

"My connection with a Higher Power is so much greater now than when I came," said Serge, 33, who recently completed the program. "Being here and being involved with the rabbis really helped me to nurture my spirituality, and that is where the cornerstone of the recovery is."

For more information about CRTC, call (323) 965-1365.

Chabad's 24th annual "L'Chaim-to Life!" telethon will be broadcast live Sept. 12 from 5 p.m. to midnight in Los Angeles on KCAL Channel 9.

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