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Breaking the Stigma: Addiction and Judaism in Orange County

The addiction epidemic sweeping across the country has taken many by surprise. The young and old, rich and poor are all finding themselves stuck in the cycle of addiction. As it hits Orange County in particular, the members of the Jewish community are especially vulnerable.

Myths among the Jewish community deny that addiction is an issue for those of their faith. In fact, some view addiction as a moral failing and faithful followers of Judaism don’t have problems with addiction.

As a result, those who do struggle with addiction receive a lack of support from within their community. Overcoming stigma is the biggest challenge for Jews. However, there is a growing understanding that addiction is not the result of a lack of faith, and the disease model of addiction is growing in acceptance.

There’s an old Jewish saying: “Knowing the disease is half of the cure.” As there is a better understanding of addiction, whether to alcohol or drugs, more individuals can get the help that they need.

In fact, members of the Jewish community can find that their faith offers them the extra support and help they need on the road to recovery.

Here is what you need to know about recovery for Jews in Orange County.

Orange County and the Addiction Epidemic

Addiction was once believed to be a problem for poor communities. Because drug issues and overdoses initially were concentrated in poor cities, affluent neighborhoods, as a whole, didn’t concern themselves with the problem. In recent years, though, addiction is increasingly a problem even amongst the wealthiest of communities.

Orange County has particularly felt the sting of the addiction epidemic. Drug overdose deaths increased by 88% between 2000 and 2015. Also, opioid-related emergency department visits skyrocketed 141% from 2005-2015, and opioid-related hospitalizations increased 9% during that same time. All of these statistics point to an increase in addiction, particularly opioids.

Typically, addiction starts with a well-meaning prescription from the doctor. However, once the prescription runs out, individuals look to obtain opioids on the street. Soon prescription drugs become too expensive and those who are addicted turn to cheaper heroin and other similar, dangerous drugs.

Not only does addiction affect every area of Orange County, but it growing amongst every age as well. The age group with the highest opioid-related mortalities is 45-54. The 55-64 age group follows it as the next highest group. Older age groups are more vulnerable because they don’t have the social support they need. They are also more likely to be prescribed opioids by the doctor, leading to addiction.

For the estimated 100,000 Jewish people in Orange County, the addiction epidemic poses unique problems. They’re not immune to the statistics above, but they do face more hurdles receiving help.

Judaism and Addiction

The consumption of alcohol has long been a part of Jewish celebrations and rituals. However, there is a strong stigma against addiction to alcohol or drugs.

There is a wide belief in the Jewish community that strong ties to Judaism protects them from potentially becoming addicted to substances. While the belief comes from many sources, some believe that their history of persecution is partially what fuels it. According to Ivy Kopstein, addiction coordinator at Jewish Child and Family Service, the denial of addiction “may go back to the [feeling] as a people that we’ve been persecuted for so long that we don’t want to admit we have faults.”

Some of the common myths circulating in the Jewish community include:

  • Followers of Judaism are protected from addiction.
  • Jews do not abuse drugs.
  • Addiction is the result of lost faith or because they have alienated themselves from their Jewish heritage.
  • Substance abuse is a moral failure and a cause for shame.
  • Faith-based addiction recovery programs are unnecessary for the Jewish community.

These beliefs are especially pervasive among the Orthodox Jewish community. Some believe that because they separate themselves from mainstream society, they are particularly immune. This is a particular challenge and not based in fact: overdoses happen even within the Hasidic community.

In reality, drugs and alcohol provide a coping mechanism for our increasingly stressful and hectic modern lives. To add to this, members of the Jewish community face even more stress over and beyond the typical trials of modern America as a direct result of their heritage The FBI released a study showing that Jews are the biggest victims of hate crimes: 57% of reported hate crimes were directed against the Jewish community.

Despite the claims otherwise, evidence shows that a significant number of people in the Jewish community struggle with addiction. Unfortunately, because it is such a taboo subject, the data is limited on exactly how many Jews struggle with addiction. One survey through Jewish Child and Family Service in Winnipeg, Canada revealed that:

  • 41% knew someone struggling with drug or alcohol addiction.
  • Almost a quarter (23.5%) had a family history of substance abuse.
  • 9% stated that would contact a rabbi or priest if they or a loved one required help for substance abuse.

The great news is that the disease model of addiction is growing in acceptance among the Jewish community. The disease model of addiction holds that addiction is not the result of moral failing, but rather a sickness that is both preventable and treatable with the right tools. The roots of addiction come from biological, neurological, genetic, and environmental factors as opposed to weak willpower.

The disease model of addiction removes the stigma of addiction and encourages treatment. In times past, some criticized the disease model as a “get out of jail free” card that excused addiction and relapse. However, that’s not the case. Rather, it’s the individual’s responsibility to get the treatment and care needed to recover. The disease model simply explains how addiction happens, but it doesn’t excuse it.

Battling addiction is a lonely and difficult road. Adding to that difficulty the stigma from their community, many Jewish individuals struggle to overcome their shame and seek recovery.

How Judaism Can Encourage Recovery

Although Jewish individuals may struggle to overcome the stigma of addiction, the traditions of Judaism can provide significant support on the road to recovery. Addiction treatment is even more successful when individual religion, heritage, and culture are woven into traditional techniques. Support from therapists, counselors, and peer groups of the same faith can be helpful to those in recovery.

In addition to a supportive community, prayer and meditation in the Jewish tradition can help address the stress that comes with recovery. It offers a powerful and positive coping mechanism that further aids those on the road to healing from addiction.

As the stigma of addiction is fading, many members of the faith community can assist each other as they or their loved ones’ struggle with addiction and start to recover. The Temple can be an incredible source of support. The Torah and Talmud, the religious texts of Judaism, can also provide encouragement and solace during the recovery journey.

Traditional recovery programs, such as the 12-Step program, are often erroneously thought to be exclusive to the Christian faith. Many believe this because their meetings are commonly held in churches and other Christian places. However, the 12-Step program isn’t exclusively Christian.

The 12-Step program encourages general spiritually in the process of breaking addiction. In fact, the tenets of spirituality they support incorporate well with the Jewish faith. That is why there is an increase in the number of Temples and Jewish organization that hold 12-Step meetings and base their meetings on the study of the Torah.

Beyond the spiritual aspects to encourage those in recovery, successful rehabilitation needs to include additional, evidence-based approaches. Recovery centers offer the perfect opportunity to add the religious tenets of recovery with scientific methods. Successfully recovery should consist of:

  • Medical detoxification
  • Individual and group therapy
  • Outpatient therapy and support
  • Treatment for co-occurring disorders
  • Research-backed therapies, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

When blended, Judaism and the Jewish community can offer the encouragement individuals need along with the therapy and professional support of a rehabilitation facility.

Find the Help You Need on the Road to Recovery

Although followers of Judaism face additional hurdles to receiving treatment, they also have more significant help for recovery. As addiction becomes more of a problem in Orange County, and every age group becomes increasingly affected, members of the Jewish community have a greater responsibility to remove the stigma of addiction and offer support to families and individuals that need it. The understanding that addiction is both preventable and treatable continues to grow and become accepted.

By combining their faith with evidence-based treatment, Jewish people can find support during their journey to recovery. The tenets of Judaism, including Temple, religious texts, prayer, and meditation, offer just the encouragement that many people need as they start and continue on their long journey to recovery.

Are you or a loved one struggling with addiction? It can be a lonely journey, but you don’t have to go through it alone. Take the steps to recovery and get your life back again. Contact Asana at (949) 438-4504 to speak with one of our trained professionals and see how we can help you.


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