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How One Chabad Community Responded After One Of Its Members OD'ed

How One Chabad Community Responded After One Of Its Members OD’ed


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Imagine waking up on a beautiful tropical island, with crystal clear waters as far as the eye can see, soft warm white sand around your toes, all the while sipping a delicious margarita and listening to gentle sound of the waves lapping the shore.  Heaven! Paradise!

This fantasy has only one flaw.  You are all alone; not a loved one, not a friend, not a stranger, just all alone in paradise.

Now imagine you are in a dark cellar, without beautiful waters, without food, the only sound you hear is the sound of your own heart beating.  What you see is the four walls around you. What you smell is your own loneliness, because in this nightmare you are all alone. Not a friend, not a loved one, not even a foe.  Just. You. Alone.

This is the worst type of nightmare. It’s a nightmare that millions of people suffer through every single day.  It’s a nightmare and a hell that many of our own Jewish brothers and sisters of every level of observance live in constantly.

The loneliness of the nightmare is exacerbated when those in the dark places feel that even if someone is walking around outside their dark cellar, they can’t possibly tell them where they are or that they are alone. Their fear of judgment adds layers to their already dark loneliness.

This darkness is the darkness of addiction and the struggle of mental health.

Right now in our sphere of acquaintances and loved ones there are those living in this very cellar every single day.  Sometimes we see it in their eyes, sometimes we hear it in their words, sometimes we see it in their actions. And sometimes we see it only after it is too late.

They are alone and silently pleading for help.

It’s time for you and I to answer their plea.

***

Rosh Hashanah is a time for renewal.  It’s a time that G-d Almighty opens the heavenly doors to let us back in. Regardless of how dark the cellar is we are invited back into His embrace, His home, His safe space.

Yom Kippur is a day that highlights our essential value and worth as a creation of G-d Almighty regardless of where we have been or what we have done. The day of Yom Kippur itself atones.  The day calls us to us on behalf of Hashem and cries, “please come home my children. Please my children you are not alone, you have never been alone, I am here with you and for you.” The day of Yom Kippur says to us; “you are good enough just as you are.  I want you back!”

On a rainy Friday night, Sometime early in 2017 a young man entered our Chabad House here in Atlanta. He was clearly new to the setting and wasn’t all that familiar with Chabad synagogue life.  In a quiet manner he asked for the page number and upon the conclusion of the prayers he asked if he could return the following week.

For a Chabad Rabbi engaged in outreach, Jeff was a dream come true. A customer literally walked through the door and was ready to purchase what we were selling. He consumed it all, Torah, Prayer, he went to a winter yeshiva program while continuing his studies at Georgia State University.

For almost two years Jeff became a part of our community, he became Shomer Shabbat, started keeping Kosher and a regular at Young Adult events and Shabbat services. He developed strong relationships with the Rabbi’s and their families and engaged in long Shabbos afternoons of studying and thirstily taking in the Torah learning he missed in childhood and embraced a community that his soul yearned for.

Never did any of us imagine and never did Jeff share with us that there was a tempest of inner struggle that was deep inside of him that he had been struggling with for 14 years.

We never imagined that someone with such joy and passion in his relationship with the community and his thirst for Judaism and his great sense of easy humor had a part of him that only recently had found a sense of peace in his journey of connection to G-d, Torah and community.

We never imagined that we’d hear the tragic news on a rainy Shabbat morning in November of 2018 that Jeff was found lifeless after a relapse and an overdose.

Sadly, it’s a story that’s been told too many times in recent years, with variations of names and circumstances and particulars but the plot is always the same.

The natural questions then set in. What if Jeff had let us know he was in recovery? What if Jeff has let us know that he was about the relapse and he needed a lifeline? Why would Jeff not let us know? Was it shame about his past?  Was he concerned about being stigmatized?

We’ll never know for sure but I suspect he simply wanted a fresh start in a new community. He found his Higher Power and wanted to leave the rest of him and the darkness and loneliness in a different world.

Here is where he made a deadly mistake and here is where we as a Jewish community can contribute to minimizing these tragic stories in the future.

  • More than 70,200 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2017, including illicit drugs and prescription opioids. 47,600 of those deaths were a result of an opioid overdose (prescription opioids (and methadone), heroin and other synthetic narcotics (mainly fentanyl)). (https://www.drugabuse.gov)
  • There were an estimated 1,400,000 suicide attempts in 2017, 47,173 which resulted in Americans that died by Suicide. (www.asfp.org)
  • According to the article “As Opioid Crisis Grows In Orthodox Circles, Those Closest Speak Out,” from January – June 2017, over 100 individuals died of overdoses among Orthodox and formerly Orthodox Jews under the age of 35.

The underlying causes of mental health issues and addiction are beyond the scope of this article and are the subject of billions of dollars of research in the medical community.   However, there are two practical actions steps that are easily identifiable to assist any individual on their road to recovery.  Armed with this information, we outside of the recovery community can be a literal lifeline to those struggling.

The first is the knowledge that there is hope.  The second is that they are not alone.

Millions of people of all degrees of suffering and addictions have received the help they need to move past and build on their prior challenges to lead healthy and productive lives.  We can contribute to that knowledge by creating spaces that embrace those struggling so they in turn know that the community at large and individuals frequenting those spaces and involved in that community believe in them, have been on that road before and are there to support them along the way.

In a word, eliminating the stigma saves lives; because those suffering know they need not have shame surrounding their suffering and that there is hope.

The silver lining is that today there is Jeff’s Place, a physical gathering space on the Atlanta BeltLine, where Jews gather three times a week for 12 step meetings.  Jeff’s Place is a place that is focused on bringing awareness to the greater community that you are not alone and that there is hope.  Jeff’s Place is doing its part in tearing down the stigma so the next man or woman will know that they are understood, loved and all of our communities are here to support them in their journey of recovery.  Jeff’s place is ensuring that the next young man or woman struggling with mental health and addiction will feel part of the greater community without shame.

Jeff’s Place is saving lives and so can you through learning more about mental health and recovery to increase your own empathy to those struggling.  You can save lives through engaging in open conversation with your synagogue, your friends, your family and openly supporting those in recovery, recognizing them as the heroes that they truly are.

As we approach a New Year and the holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, let our collective Jewish community; open our hearts without judgment to those in those dark places.  Tell them through our collective actions and the warm changes we make and the embraces our communities will give them that they are not alone. That we love them; we want to hold them in our hearts, and we are in awe of their journeys.

It is my prayer that as one year ends and takes with it the negativity it brought, may it take the loneliness and pain of all that suffer in the loneliness. It is my prayer that as a New Year begins and brings with it hopes of blessings for all, that those that hurt find our warm embrace, the embrace of their loved ones, their friends and communities.

Shana Tova!

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Rabbi Eliyahu Schusterman

Rabbi Eliyahu Schusterman is the founder and director of Chabad Intown Atlanta and Jeff’s Place and can be reached at rabbi@chabadintown.org. He is a member of The Blue Dove Foundation Rabbinical Advisory Committee. The Blue Dove Foundation’s mission is to raise awareness of, end the stigma of, and educate people about mental health and substance abuse in the Jewish community. If you or someone you know is struggling with mental illness or addiction, please contact the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) or visit The Blue Dove Foundation’s resources page.