Some 300 people participated in the largest ever 7th annual retreat and shabbaton, organized by the Boca Raton-based Jewish Recovery Center and held held at The Doubletree by Hilton Hotel in Deerfield Beach, Florida, this past March.
Guests came from across the globe to experience a convergence of the academic world of psychotherapy, expert thinking on various forms of addiction and recovery, and Torah-based scholarship and insight.
Attendees consisted of those suffering and recovering from substance abuse and other process addictions, accompanied by world-renowned experts and community who participated looking to educate themselves.
The Jewish Recovery Center’s efforts and success stories have become a beacon of light amidst the darkness of the ever-growing opioid crisis that is now impacting all walks of American life, from Ivy league college campuses to even the most insular of Jewish communities.
The number of opioid-related deaths in 2016 alone was greater than the total number of American servicemen and women who died throughout the entire war in Vietnam. Statistics from all sources now confirm that we are currently facing an epidemic of tremendous proportions. As this epidemic progresses, the Jewish community has begun to understand that it can no longer afford to simply sweep this matter under the rug, and the Jewish Recovery Center engages in bedikas chametz year-round.
“Participants have found that sharing their common experiences has been extremely beneficial to their progress,” explains Rabbi Meir Kessler, founder and director of the Jewish Recovery Center.
He continues to explain that, “for too long, the shame based component associated with addiction has led the frum world down a path of avoidance, minimization and denial, which has only served to further marginalize and isolate the afflicted and thereby inflame the issue. Our goal is not to merely increase awareness but to provide a clear and methodical solution to the problem”.
Nosson Zand, a renowned Jewish musician and close friend of Rabbi Kessler, discussed his experience and how he has witnessed the JRC save many lives.
“I lost one of my best friends last year over Pesach to an overdose. He never made his way to the sedarim, let alone out of his personal Egypt.” Nosson continued, “I get flack from the Jewish Community for even making a song about addiction, so you can imagine how an addict or the family of an addict must feel.”
Nosson exclaimed that he also knows of many success stories. “I have friends who are B”H in recovery thanks to the tireless efforts of the JRC. The best part is that they have now become lamplighters themselves, spreading a message of hope and pointing people in the right direction.”
South Florida is known to be the recovery capital of the United States due to its large number of treatment centers and halfway houses. However, the 7th annual JRC Shabbaton was attended by participants far beyond the scope of Florida’s Jewish communities. Looking to draw support from fellow members of the Jewish community from all across the world, attendees came from all over, including Panama, Germany, Israel, South Africa, Australia and Canada. Over 20 people flew in from Los Angeles, New York and countless other locations.
“We had one woman from Brooklyn who told me that she goes to the furthest Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in the city from her house so that no one will recognize her,” Rabbi Kessler lamented. “She told me how much she enjoyed being able to come here and not feel like she was being judged by anyone.”
Creating a climate of acceptance for those who struggle with substance abuse or process addiction has been an uphill battle in the Jewish community. Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twersky noted, “Some people in the secular community think that to be an addict is an embarrassment. In the Jewish community it’s not an embarrassment… It’s a shanda!”
Rabbi Dr. Twersky continued to explain that “25 years ago there could not have been a retreat like this with a Shabbaton,” and although there has been progress, there clearly remains much to accomplish.
“One of the things that we try to do is to normalize recovery,” said Rabbi Kessler. “For years and years and years, substance abuse has been taboo, with recovery meetings held in the basements of churches. We have taken recovery out of the basement and brought it to the Chabad house where we do AA meetings. For our Shabbaton, we go out of our way to make it a high class event so people can feel proud to be in recovery and they are excited to come.”
Acknowledging that fighting addiction is a lifelong commitment, the theme of this year’s retreat was “Hityatzvu: Don’t Quit Before the Miracle Happens” and featured well known author and lecturer Rabbi Shais Taub, addiction expert Lewis Abrams, The Living Room clinical director Menachem Poznanski, Fort Lauderdale’s Downtown Jewish Center directors Rabbi Schneur and Mrs. Devorah Kaplan, gambling consultant Arnie Wexler, addiction therapist Moshe Yachnes, alcohol and addiction counselor Sharon Carter and Bright Beginnings director Rabbi Yakov Horowitz.
The event was co-sponsored by Amudim, the Boca Raton Synagogue, Caron Treatment Centers, Chabad of Boca Raton, Next Chapter Addiction Treatment and the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County and featured younger participants than in previous years, as well as approximately 60 children who joined their parents for the weekend.
“This time of year is particularly difficult for those in recovery, with both Purim and Pesach having alcohol playing a central role in the holiday observance,” noted Rabbi Kessler. In past years, the JRC shabbaton had more of clinical focus. This year, the retreat was geared toward experiential inspiration, and even the featured speakers were asked to share their own stories of vulnerability with participants.
“Instead of feeling like they were being told what to do, those who came to the weekend felt like our speakers could really relate to them,” said Rabbi Kessler. “To see that a rabbi can share his own struggles normalizes recovery which is very empowering and what this event is designed to do.”
Those thoughts were echoed by Rabbi Kaplan who said that having everyone sharing their own struggles created an unprecedented level of intimacy.
“That is really the magic and the energy of the retreat,” explained Rabbi Kaplan. “To be in a community where you can draw strength from each other, where bonds are formed and inspiration is everywhere, you get a sense that there are miracles happening in every corner.”
“Having people from all segments of the Jewish community, from Chasidim to those who are not religiously observant, at the JRC Shabbaton has demonstrated the need for broad support for those who are dealing with or are recovering from substance abuse issues,” observed Rabbi Kaplan.
On one hand, the process of recovery consists of open and revealed miracles. If you are interested in seeing the proof of such miracles, you can see them walking around, smiling and laughing, sharing their stories of hope and perseverance at each retreat that the JRC has organized. On the other hand, recovery from addiction is highly treatable. Most people think that this a hopeless battle. The JRC proves time and again that it is not. If you need help, reach out, or come to the JRC retreat and shabbaton, where the success stories come to life.
VIDEO: Reflections on the retreat and shabbaton
For more info, visit JewishRecovery.com