Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh - all Jews are responsible for one another. This is a principle we strive to live by as Jews. We create communities, build synagogues, celebrate Shabbatot and the chagim together, focus on our connections to family and our heritage. We identify as a nation - one people - emphasizing our relationships with each other, doing acts of chesed (kindness) and caring for one another. Loving and protecting our most vulnerable community members, helping those who are sick or in pain, and offering support is arguably the ideal paradigm of this Talmudic saying.
Nowhere to Turn
When we first learned of our daughter’s struggles with substance misuse, we had nowhere to turn. Not that we didn’t have friends or family, but we knew of no one else in our community who was facing this issue. Addiction is a disease and, like any other, we Jews are not immune. In a conversation with our rabbi, I sarcastically said we must be the only family in town dealing with this situation, and he replied, “If you only knew.” 1
We knew there had to be other Orthodox Jewish families facing this struggle and we thought, if we could all only freely and honestly share our situations, perhaps share knowledge and resources, or even just lean on each other and get support, how much better off we would all be. How amazing is it when you can pour your heart out to someone who “gets it?” Eliminating the stigma associated with addiction simply means better outcomes for families and their loved ones.
As a result of our own feelings of isolation, we consulted with all five of our children, including our daughter (whose story was not ours to tell without her consent), and organized an awareness event for our Jewish community in Teaneck, New Jersey, in April 2018. We addressed an audience of 700 people, speaking about our experience. The evening began with one woman telling us that she lost her son to an overdose four years prior, and ended with a friend of mine (who I had known for 10 years) telling us that they, too, had a loved one struggling with addiction - we never knew about each other all that time. During the more than two hour presentation, you could hear a pin drop…even in a room that exceeded capacity (people were standing in the hallways and down the stairwells).
With the need to create bonds and reduce stigma in mind, we founded a Jewish support group in May 2018. We welcomed anyone with a loved one struggling with substance misuse or addiction. We have had many people join our group over the years, even more now that we are on Zoom and not limited by geography. I would venture to say that they all come with varying degrees of embarrassment and hesitation, but are so relieved to meet other people going through what they are enduring. Unfortunately, for every person who attends the group, there are at least three more people who have inquired, but never attended (and I would venture to say a lot more who don’t ask at all).
The Pandemic’s Impact
During these difficut times, when we are all experiencing the uncertainty and stress caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, we must be even more vigilant about how this impacts those with mental health issues such as addiction. Isolation is known to be a signficant risk factor for those suffering from addiction and, as a result, COVID-19 has created a perfect storm for those vulnerable to the disease.
I know from our support group that there is an almost universal heightened fear for the sufferer. Parents are worried about kids whose routines and social lives have been disrupted and who are being asked to cope with the stress that COVID-19 has put on all of us. Spouses are concerned about husbands or wives who are out of work or coping with working at home while attending to children who are unexpectedly home without childcare. We are all under extreme stress right now and we know that our loved ones are particularly vulnerable, so we worry. We need to be cognizant of our loved one’s need for routine and purpose, for social connection and support. We need to remember that this is a disease and make sure we are not feeding into any stigma associated with it. When stigma is reduced, more people are open about their struggles and may be willing to ask for help when they need it.
Living the Talmud
We Jews have always valued community as the backbone to our existence. We need to remember that physical “social” distancing does not equal emotional distancing. We can and must still maintain social bonds during this time of enormous stress and uncertainty, and, in fact, need to make those extra efforts to connect with others, particularly our most vulnerable. We need to go out of our way to be vigilant to the struggles of those around us, be it physical or emotional. Everyone struggles in some way and we need to ensure no one feels they are struggling alone. We must work even harder to build and emphasize the need for community and be responsible for each other, as the Talmud teaches us.
For those who are not personally impacted by addiction in their own families, you may feel this is not an issue you need to think about. Especially now, with physical distancing, it may be our inclination to shy away from acts of chesed that normally come naturally to us because we can’t perform them in person or because social isolation has caused us to focus our energies inwardly. We must remember that those who are suffering from addiciton and other mental health illnesses need us now more than ever. Lives are literally at stake if we don’t.
Lianne Forman, a 28+ year Teaneck resident, is the executive director of Communities Confronting Substance Abuse (CCSA), the organization she and her husband, Etiel, founded in 2018. Lianne, a corporate and employment lawyer by training, and Etiel have five children and two grandsons. Their daughter Elana is currently in recovery from addiction. Through their own family’s struggles, they founded CCSA, a charitable organization committed to community education, awareness, and prevention of substance misuse and addiction. For more information, go to www.time2talkaddiction.org.