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Addressing Addiction in the Jewish Community

By Howard Reznick, LCSW-C

The “compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance (heroin, nicotine, or alcohol) characterized by tolerance and by well-defined physiological symptoms upon withdrawal; broadly: persistent compulsive use of a substance known by the user to be harmful.”  

That’s the definition of addiction, according to Webster’s Dictionary. But that definition doesn’t tell the whole story. It doesn’t touch on the toll addiction takes on the user, their family, their friends, their employer, or their community. It also doesn’t hint at the broken promises, the failed relationships, the crushed dreams, or the shattered hearts.  

Addiction is a disease that’s tough to endure and even more difficult to shake. Denial is a big part of addiction. Nobody wants to have any disease, but with addiction, denial comes along with the illness. With cancer, there’s an initial denial but people eventually move past it. With addiction, denial is more integrated into the disorder and therefore harder to overcome. Just like sneezing with a cold — it’s a given.  

There’s no way to know who among us will fall victim to addiction. It’s an equal opportunity disease that doesn’t discriminate based on race, religion, gender, etc. and no one can say “not in my family; not in my neighborhood.” 

Every ethnic group has its own set of issues when it comes to addiction. In some cultures, drinking alcohol is so pervasive that abstaining could alienate a person from family and friends. In others, intoxication is so unusual that it can force an individual to question their cultural identity.  

For Jewish people, there are cultural nuances and religious sensitivities which come with their own set of unique challenges. On one hand, many Jewish rituals are based around alcohol: a Jewish boy is exposed to wine at his bris; at the Passover Seder people are instructed to consume four cups of wine; on the holiday of Purim, intoxication is encouraged to elevate the learner to a higher level of understanding the spiritual dimension of Jewish history. On the other hand, overindulgence is looked down upon, illustrated by the common belief that “Jews aren’t addicts.”  

Whether it’s alcoholism or problems with other drugs or behaviors like gambling, addiction is no stranger to the Jewish community. As far back as 40 years ago, Rabbi Abraham Twersky, M.D., one of America’s leading authorities in addiction medicine, first addressed the Baltimore Jewish community about the then increasing pervasiveness of these disorders. Once we overcome denial that addiction exists among our friends and neighbors, we can begin to remove the barriers to addiction treatment and recovery. If you’re concerned about yourself or someone close to you, Jewish Community Services can help point you in the right direction at 410-466-9200.

Management Staff - Jewish Community Services

Howard Reznick, LCSW-C, is a Senior Manager for Prevention & Wellness at Jewish Community Services.

JCS is a comprehensive human services organization providing a broad range of services that meet the diverse, multi-dimensional needs of individuals and families throughout Central Maryland. To learn more, visit jcsbalt.org or 410-466-9200.

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