Four years ago Tony, 43, was at his wit’s end. A 20-year addiction to alcohol and prescription drugs made a mess of his life. As he would later recount to others, he was, “sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
Contemplating suicide, Tony turned to others in what was a final call for help. Frightened, he opened the phone book and called the first institution listed under ‘Crisis.’ The counselor on the other end of the line invited Tony to come over for a cup of coffee. 45 minutes later he arrived at the facilities of Chabad Lifeline in Montreal.
A member of Montreal’s Italian community, Tony is one of some 12,700 people who turn to Chabad Lifeline for help each year.
Under the auspices of Rabbi Ronnie Fine, Director of Chabad of Queen Mary in Montreal, the program has in recent years grown steadily in size and scope. It began in 1989 as Project PRIDE, an extension of Fine’s work as a McGill University chaplain. On campus, Fine saw first hand what addiction could do to students and their families.
“Under the mandate that no Jew be left behind,” Fine recalls, “we began a grass roots effort to counsel others and increase community awareness.”
In 1996, Fine opened a counselling and crisis center in a rented walk-up storefront, and this past December, the facility expanded, moving to a new state of the art location near the prestigious Jewish General Hospital.
Rabbi Benyamin Bresinger has served as Chabad Lifeline’s director since 2007 along with his wife Karen. The staff of eight, including a psychologist and social worker, seeks to provide comprehensive care for addicts and their families.
“This isn’t a one time service,” Bresinger says. “We make sure that there’s guidance for those who turn to us every step of the way.”
According to Karen, who has a Masters in Social work and serves as the clinical director and family counselor for Chabad Lifeline, even if an addict refuses treatment, the team seeks to “empower the addict’s family”—the “silent sufferers” often ignored in the shadow of addiction, to help them “cope with the difficult road ahead.”
Rabbi Bresinger first became familiar with addiction and the recovery process while serving as a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary in West Orange, New Jersey. At the time, a congregant struggling with addiction turned to him. Together they became familiar with Alcoholic’s Anonymous and its 12 Step Program for recovery. Bresinger was inspired.
“I saw many of the teachings found in the Chasidic approach to divine service reflected in the 12 Step methodology,” he recalls.
Playing on the common themes of rigorous honesty, self evaluation and self-nullification to a higher source, Bresinger created a series of lectures on Judaism and recovery.
Since returning to his native Montreal to head Chabad Lifeline, Bresinger has been able to apply the message he honed in New Jersey.
The path to acceptance of awareness of addiction, however, hasn’t been easy.
According to Mrs. Sybel Dorfman, a pioneer of Jewish recovery in Montreal, stigma and denial are the two chief obstacles to helping an addict begin recovery. When Sybel and her late husband Bernard first broached the idea of comprehensive programing for Jewish addicts in the late 1980’s, they found few willing to take an active role.
“Nobody wanted to admit that there was a problem,” Dorfman recalls. “It was a point of shame that others wanted to sweep under the rug.”
Dorfman sees the key to the success of Chabad Lifeline and programs like it today as the result of increased education.
“People are now aware that addiction is a disease,” she adds. “There is hope that the vicious cycle of addiction and abuse can at last be broken.”
For information on Chabad Lifeline, visit ChabadLifeLine.com