Facing Addiction in the Jewish Community

By Rabbi Elizabeth Bahar & Rabbi Jonathan Lubliner


Sharing statistics can be surprising and scary when thinking and discussing addiction in the United States. 

1 in 7 individuals will face substance addiction (including alcohol or drug abuse).
Addiction includes process (e.g. gambling, eating and gaming) not simply substance.
Only 10 percent of those who are addicted will receive treatment.
Every 19 minutes someone dies from an opioid or heroin overdose.
The impact on the American economy is $442 billion.
Nearly 21 million Americans struggle with substance addictions (greater than the number of all the individuals who have cancer combined).
Addiction increases the risk for cancer, cardiovascular issues and other health complications. 
Addiction impacts the family through job loss, domestic violence, increased incidents of transmission of communicable diseases and daily stress.


As Jews, we are not immune to the addiction. Shame remains a barrier to treatment and an impediment to even discussing the problem. Addiction is seen as a moral failing or a character flaw, despite the overwhelming evidence that it is a chronic illness like Crohn’s Disease or diabetes. The addicts and their families feel stigmatized.


Often, those suffering with addiction have graduated from college, have careers and families. They are soccer moms, board members and business owners. Many are suffering in silence, sitting in our sanctuary pews. As rabbis we counsel them and their families; we refer them to therapists; we officiate at their funerals.


One of the most unfortunate pieces of misinformation centers around Twelve Step programs such as Narcotics Anonymous (N.A.) and Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.). While true that A.A. had its origin in the Oxford Group, which was Christian, the principles of A.A. and N.A. as embodied in Twelve Steps recovery are in no way incompatible with Jewish teachings. Indeed, all of the Twelve Steps can be found in the sacred literature of the Torah, Talmud and other classic sources of rabbinic Judaism.

As Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski – a noted psychiatrist specializing in addiction, an Orthodox rabbi, and a strong advocate of the Twelve Steps – maintains, “While it is true that the majority of A.A. meetings are in churches, it should also be mentioned that few Jewish facilities have welcomed A.A. The myth that Jews do not become alcoholics has resulted in an alienation of alcoholism treatment programs from the Jewish community.”

In our role as clergy, we seek to debunk this fallacy and educate the members of our congregations. We seek to create an address within the Jewish community for those who are in recovery and those who will be one day. In partnership with Jewish Family & Community Services, our synagogues have an important role to play in offering recovering addicts, alcoholics, and their families a spiritual refuge. 


Twelve Step programs, along with support groups such as Al-Anon, belong in the Jewish community, not only because they serve the needs of Jewish families, but because their underlying premises resonate deeply with the wellsprings of our tradition. Judaism urges that we imitate the attributes of a God who, in the words of the daily Amidah prayer, “supports the falling, heals the ailing, and frees the fettered.” Opening the doors and hearts of Jewish institutions to those struggling with addiction is one significant way to uphold our partnership with the Divine in helping heal a broken world. Rabbi Bahar and Rabbi Lubliner are working with JFCS to assess the need within our community for addiction treatment services. 


“We are preparing to help all those impacted by addiction, the addict and the family. We encourage you to identify yourself to JFCS by calling Colleen Rodriquez at 904-395-5752,” explains Rabbi Bahar. 
“Do not suffer alone. Take the first step. Your life can be different,” says Colleen. “Please call me. I will respond to each call confidentially.”