The Conservative Challenge

The challenge of serving Jewish alcoholics and addicts and their families reaches far beyond the world of addiction, testing our communal faith . As Rebecca Ehrlich, Director of Religious Education at JBFCS and a member of the United Synagogue Commission on Substance Abuse and Teens in Crisis, comments, “Contemporary kids don’t have a concept of gaining strength from a community. It would be a wonderful model if synagogues opened their doors to people in recovery — to show that people can share weaknesses and gain strength from our religion and our relationship to God.”

Rabbi Neil Gillman of the Jewish Theological Seminary, who has written and lectured about the Jewish aspect of the twelve steps, agrees that “people who want spirituality are not getting it in most of our synagogues.” Rabbi Gillman advises us to ask, “How much room does the [synagogue] service leave for feelings, personal expression — or conversely, how much of it is cold, unfeeling? Is it participatory, does it draw people in?”

The United Synagogue Commission on Substance Abuse and Teens in Crisis, under the leadership of James Schlesinger, will sponsor a presentation at the 1995 Biennial Convention (November 2–6) and hopes to become a central resource for substance abuse initiatives in the Conservative community. Commission members Rabbi Eric Lankin of the Jewish Community Center of West Hempstead, New York, and Rabbi Shawn Zell of Temple Beth O’r in Clark, New Jersey, have actively sought to open their synagogues to people in recovery. Rabbi Zell has given sermons on substance abuse, opened Temple Beth O’r to Al-Anon, and created “A Third Seder,” designed for recovering Jews and their families.

Rabbi Lankin reports, “I gave a Rosh Hashanah sermon on issues of substance abuse and addiction. As a result of that sermon, a whole group of congregants came to me and shared with me the pain of their recovery with members of their families. From that sermon, the congregation has reached out to provide services to Jews in recovery all over Long Island.” Rabbi Lankin now works with a group of forty Jews in the Nassau County Jail, thirty-five of whom were incarcerated because of drugs, alcohol, or gambling. The Jewish Community Center of West Hempstead hosts ninety pathological gamblers (60 percent of them Jewish) each week, with simultaneous Gamblers Anonymous, Gam-Anon, and Gam-Anon Parents meeting for family members.

Commission member Arleen Sternfeld, Coordinator of Substance Abuse Education and Prevention of The Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Monmouth County, New Jersey, has designed an eight-session curriculum for grades 1–6, piloted at the Solomon Schecter Day School in Marlboro, New Jersey, to promote self-esteem and responsible decision-making and to educate children about substance abuse. Congregation Olam Tikvah in Fairfax, Virginia, in conjunction with Project Pride of the Chabad Center in Rockville, Maryland, sponsors a Drug Abuse and Self-Esteem Day for children from kindergarten to the tenth grade and their parents.