Two summers ago, I participated in the Elaine Breslow Institute educator’s immersion program at Beit T’Shuvah, a Jewish addiction treatment facility in Los Angeles. Beit T’Shuvah integrates Jewish study, the 12 Steps, and clinical and medical techniques to address the process of recovery. I approached the new experience as something that could enhance my training as a Jewish educator. I looked at it as an academic exercise. From a personal perspective, I believed that my connection to addiction was tenuous at best. I mean my son had a friend who had struggled with addiction but was in recovery as far as I knew. So though addiction “kind of” touched my life, I felt that it wasn’t really about me.
And yet, it was. It is. It is about all of us. What I learned was what I really already knew, we are all broken in some way. Some of us deal with our brokenness by acting out through drugs and alcohol, some of us act out in others ways. We make excuses, we self-medicate, and we think we are the only ones. Or maybe we make the excuse that everyone is doing it. Then we don’t have to take responsibility for our own behavior. Addiction is a symptom of a much larger spiritual malady. There is a hole in our souls that we are trying to fill up by numbing ourselves and fooling ourselves into thinking we have control.
This is where my learning started. It sent me on a journey into my own spirituality and into the place where Judaism can powerfully connect. It made me think about God. Because, when crisis happens, and we are in the midst of trying to survive and trying to make sure our loved one survives, our relationship with God becomes frayed. We feel distant and adrift. We feel alone and disconnected – not just from God, but from the social networks we had been in and the community activities that helped us define who we were. When we are dealing with trying to rescue a loved one in crisis, we lose ourselves and our center because we feel that unless we focus entirely on fixing our loved one, we will lose them.
Unfortunately, sometimes, we still lose them. And in the depth of our pain we become angry. We are angry at God. We are angry at our loved one. We are angry at ourselves. We ask why couldn’t I help him? How come I couldn’t fix her? What’s wrong with me? How did I fail and what kind of God would fail my loved one this way?
Six weeks after I left the training, my son’s friend died of a drug overdose. He had been clean and sober for 3 years. He must have thought that he could handle it; he had so much life in front of him. But he lost his battle. Two weeks later, another twenty year old young man who grew up alongside my son took his own life. A week after that, it was a boy from college. Addiction touched my life. Addiction touches all of our lives. It is all of our problem and all of our responsibility.
So I dug in – through my own pain, my son’s pain, the inconsolable pain my friends were facing after their sons died – to try to find a way to help and to heal. And I came back to God. I wrote a curriculum designed for parents of kids dealing with addiction and mental health challenges to find the words to talk to God. I believed that we needed to make room for each other to build inner resilience through spiritual connection, and that, finding a way to talk to God would be like “putting our oxygen masks on first,” to quote the flight attendant on every flight you’ve ever been on. We have to be able to breathe before we can take care of others. We find that breath in Torah.
I offered my curriculum specifically for parents of teens and young adults who were struggling with addiction through a local NJ synagogue. The rabbi enthusiastically supported the program. He was working daily with congregants who were living with the story. He wanted them to find the support they might need by reconnecting to God.
But no one came. No one came.
It was too difficult to hold themselves out as people whose kids were dealing with “that” problem. Addiction is a disease that is shrouded in shame. No one plans to become an addict, but it happens. When my program was advertised as directly dealing with addiction, there was fear and trepidation about stepping through the portal.
So I waited. I taught other classes to adult Jewish learners. I built a community of seekers. When I offered the class again, nearly a year later, and framed it as a class to find connection and resilience for all of us, the people came. They eagerly and nervously walked through the threshold to explore their challenges in talking to God. Remarkably, when I didn’t label the class, the target community walked in. They shared their stories which were both heartbreaking and heart opening. They built the sacred space that I so boldly dreamed they would. Forty-five learners in three different synagogues explored their connection to God, to their Judaism, to their life in the outside world and to each other.
What I learned was that change takes time. I learned that hearts that have been broken need to scab over for a while, before they can begin to find the spiritual strength to move forward. It’s not about moving on. It’s about moving through. And it’s about connecting what has been disconnected. We are humans who must find a way to live with our inner contradictions, and we can find access to that power by connecting to God.
I believe that our people have the tools for this connection right in front of us. As the closing chapters of our Torah tell us, “this Teaching is not in the heavens and it is not across the sea, it is right here before us, in our mouths and in our hearts.” We must empower ourselves to step into that Teaching, and demand that God answer our cries. The words in our Torah will reveal the answers we need, and help us build up our souls from the inside out.
By Lisa Lisser
Lisa Lisser is a freelance Jewish educator and adult Jewish learning specialist.