Jews & Alcoholics Anonymous

Dispelling the myths that Jews aren't alcoholics and that Alcoholics Anonymous is only for Christians

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The following article discusses the problem of alcohol and drug abuse among Jews, suggests ways to address the issue, and shows that Alcoholics Anonymous is consistent with Jewish values. At the end, the author answers some common questions about AA. Reprinted with permission from the website of Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons, and Significant Others.

"For whatever I did or failed to do which contributed to my daughter's alcoholism problem I will always bear the responsibility and perhaps the guilt. But the fact that my daughter is now a devout Catholic and has left the faith of her family, for that I hold the rabbinate responsible. It is not as though she was primarily attracted to another religion, but rather by default of the Jewish resources."

Full and empty bottles

At a weekend retreat for Jewish alcoholics, chemically dependent people, and their family members, this mother went on to explain:

"My daughter was an excellent student, and when her grades began to drop we knew something had to be wrong. We eventually discovered she was drinking too much. When she failed her courses she sought help for her problem in an alcoholism clinic. She told her counselor that she felt spiritually empty, and he advised her to see a rabbi. The rabbi she consulted admonished her to control her drinking, and told her that it was a disgrace for a Jew to drink excessively. The rabbi offered no response to her feelings of spiritual bankruptcy. 

"Her counselor then told her of a priest who was knowledgeable in alcohol problems. She began to see this priest, and progressed well in her recovery. She is now happily married, eight years sober, and a devout Catholic."

This is a serious indictment, but one which I believe has great validity. Nowhere in the years of my training to become a rabbi was I taught anything about alcoholism, nor do I recall any attention given to the problem either in rabbinic journals or at conventions. 

 

Alcohol Abuse by Jews

It may be convenient to adhere to the myth that Jews cannot be alcoholics, but this denial constitutes a serious dereliction of duty. To dispel this myth, one need only ask proprietors of country clubs, who just several decades ago shunned Jewish affairs because they could not make their profits on the sale of alcoholic beverages. These same facilities now welcome Jewish business because the drinking is more than adequate to turn a profit. 

Whereas the incidence of alcoholism among Jews, while no longer negligible, may indeed be less than in the non-Jewish population (a rather hollow consolation), the same cannot be said of chemical dependency involving other mood altering drugs. Among the older population, addiction to tranquilizers, sedatives, and pain pills is quite common; and among the young adults and adolescents the problem of marijuana dependency as well as abuse of other street drugs is rampant. 

Addressing the Problem

What can be done about the problem? The first step is awareness. As long as we believe the problem is not ours we will do nothing. Recognition of the realities of life is of paramount importance, and must be faced squarely by the clerical and lay leadership, as well as the Jewish community at large.  

Yeshivas and seminaries must begin to introduce courses dealing with chemical dependency. Jewish communal professionals must become knowledgeable in the field. Community education programs must begin to feature programs of substance abuse. All individuals involved in Jewish communal life must learn to recognize the problem of chemical dependency, and become familiar with the resources so essential to treatment recovery be they detoxification, rehabilitation, counseling or self-help programs.

However great the stigma attached to alcoholism or chemical addiction, it can no longer be allowed to interfere with getting help. Jews have a tendency to be most secretive about emotional disturbances within their families, and often avoid seeking help, for fear of exposure and shame. Furthermore, since family participation is crucial in the recovery process, parents may have concerns that they will meet other members of their community at a treatment facility, and that their private nightmare will be "known to others." 

It must be understood that chemical dependency, whether it involves alcohol, narcotics, cocaine, or other addictive substances, is a malignant condition. Unless arrested, it is like a cancer: progressive, destructive, and lethal. It may claim as its victims not only the user, but the family members as well. Its consequences are far-reaching and devastating. With a problem of this severity, we can no longer afford to deny or hide our need for help. 

Whatever the initial approach to treatment, long-term recovery invariably requires participation in Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, or Pills Anonymous. Psychological therapy can be adjunctive to involvement in these programs, but cannot be relied upon to be the sole treatment modality. 

Some people mistakenly believe that programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous have a Christian orientation and are "off limits" to Jews. But anyone familiar with AA, NA, or PA knows that this is simply not true. The Twelve Steps of the "anonymous" fellowships are very compatible with Judaism, and those Jews familiar with the concepts of musar (Jewish ethics) will recognize the similarities. 

AA Steps & Jewish Sources

Consider the following AA steps in light of the Jewish sources quoted: 

AA Step(s)

 

Jewish Teaching

Steps 1 & 2: We recognized that we were powerless over alcohol and that only a power greater than ourselves can return our sanity. We choose to call that higher power God as we understand him.
 

 

The Talmud: Man's yetzer (impulse, temptation) gains upon him every day, and if it were not that God helps him resist the temptation, man would be powerless. (Sukhah, 52a)

Step 3: We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God.

 

The Talmud: Make His will your will and negate your will before His. (Ethics of the Fathers, II, 4)

Steps 4 & 5: We made a fearless and thorough personal inventory, and shared this inventory with our higher power and at least one other person.

 

All the musar authorities stress the need for regular heshbon hanefesh (personal inventory) as well as having a confidant with whom one shares it.

Step 9: We made those amends to anyone we had harmed whenever this was possible.

 

Shulhan Arukh (Code of Jewish Law, Orach Hayim 606:1): Yom Kippur forgives only for sins between man and God. Offenses committed against another person are not forgiven until the offender seeks direct forgiveness from the one he has harmed.

Step 12: Having had a spiritual awakening we carried that message to other alcoholics.

 

The Torah holds Jews responsible for one another, to the extent that one has the capability of correcting another's misdeeds. "Teach and correct your friend, then you will not bear responsibility for his sins." (Leviticus XIX, 17)

Some Questions & Answers

What about the fact that most AA and NA meetings are held in churches?

This is only because until recently no one had made any effort to hold them in synagogues, or because synagogues did not welcome them. More and more synagogues have now become the site of AA and NA meetings.  

What about the prayers at AA meetings?

No one is obligated to say any particular prayer. When others recite prayers of their liturgy, a Jew may recite any prayer from the siddur (Jewish prayer book). 

Jews who observe the laws of kashrut [dietary laws] can generally arrange for kosher provisions in a rehabilitation center. Some rehabilitation centers have already accommodated various observances without any difficulty. Nor need there be any problem in Sabbath observance or in setting time for daily services. 

In 1980 a group known as JACS (Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons, and Significant Others) came into being under the auspices of the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies and the New York Board of Rabbis. In addition to being the resource center, JACS provides two annual weekend retreats for recovering persons and their family members to focus on Jewish spiritual issues. In many communities, local JACS affiliates have developed to stimulate community awareness, provide information and resources, and create a supportive and understanding network for Jewish recoverers and their families. 

It is clear that chemical dependency has become a Jewish problem, but it is also clear that there are support systems and solutions which can and must be utilized to help the Jewish recoverer. There is no longer any excuse for not recognizing the problem or not knowing where to turn for information or help.  

The problem is ours! We cannot walk away from it!

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Rabbi Abraham Twerski

Rabbi Abraham Twerski, M.D. is a nationally acknowledged expert in the field of alcoholism and chemical dependency, and is currently the Medical Director of the Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Pittsburgh, as well as an Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.