No one expected a crowd this big, or this quiet.
In what they thought was an excess of ambition, Lianne and Etiel Forman decided to have all the chairs in the huge auditorium at the Torah Academy of Bergen County set up for the meeting they’d called to talk about drug abuse in the Jewish community, a meeting where they would detail their own family’s odyssey.
The room comfortably holds 500 chairs — so why not put all of them out? Even if a handful of people ended up rattling around in a sea of chairs? Because, really, why not?
But before the meeting started those seats all were filled, and then the others, the ones that hadn’t been put out because they made the room less comfortable, were unfolded and then they were filled too. And then there was standing room only, first in back, and then in front, and then there were people standing in the stairwells.
The estimates are that somewhere between 600 and 700 people came out on Sunday night, and another 125 watched the live stream.
When the speakers — Rabbi Laurence Rothwachs of Congregation Beth Aaron, social worker Avi Shteingart, recovering addict Etzy Finkel, Rabbi Zvi Gluck of Amudim, and Etiel Forman — talked, the room was entirely silent. Dead silent. Strikingly silent. Even as all those packed-together bodies made the room get hot and then hotter, everyone was silent.
Why were so many people there?
To begin with, the evening represented an unusual effort on the part of the local Orthodox community. (Non-Orthodox Jews were welcome, and some were there, but the campaign was mainly directed to the Orthodox.) The rabbis of all 26 local Orthodox synagogues and the heads of the five local high schools all used their pulpits and newsletters to urge people to show up, listen, and learn. And the local newspapers, Jewish and general, including this one, wrote about the Formans, the meeting, and the problem of drug use as well. (Ours was the cover story on April 13.)
Beyond that publicity, Rabbi Rothwachs said, “The Formans really put themselves out there, and I think that many people who know them, and even many who don’t, wanted to show solidarity with them.
“In my experience, the number of people was close to unprecedented for a stand-alone event of this nature,” he added.
Substance abuse, as well as the stigma attaching to its sufferers and their families, is a real problem in the Jewish community and it must be addressed, Rabbi Rothwachs said. In fact, “I believe that the stigma is perhaps more prevalent and more pronounced in our communities than in others,” he said. “There are many reasons; the most important one is that we do value morality and ethics and proper behavior so much that it is really hard to understand and accept the fact that if a person is behaving in a certain way, that behavior is not voluntary.”
In other words, it is the truth that a person does not abuse drugs, does not become addicted to drugs, because he or she is weak, immoral, or ethically lacking. People do not become addicts because they want to be addicted. It is instead because of a combination of genetic and environmental conditions that make some people far more susceptible than others.
“There is a general stigma around mental health issues, but I think that there is an additional layer of stigma when it comes to drug abuse,” Rabbi Rothwachs said. “In the last few years there has been significant progress around mental health, although we’re not there yet, but drug abuse has a whole other dimension.
“People who are lost in this world” — the drug world, the world where the idea of shooting heroin is not impossible — “often find themselves in an environment that most Orthodox Jews cannot identify with.
“What really resonated most with me from the meeting was when Etzy Finkel was speaking about his sponsor being someone you would think of as being one of the least inspiring people” — Mr. Finkel talked about the inspiration that mentor, an elderly, uneducated African American man, had on him. “He spoke more about the truth, brought him closer to God, than anyone else ever had done,” Rabbi Rothwachs said.
“We assume that if someone is out on the street, shooting himself up with heroin, that is an empty, soul-less being, who has nothing to contribute. That is not true.
“This is the challenge for our community. We are somewhat insular, and that is by choice. That is not something we want to change. We have deep-seated values that we try to protect and preserve, and that demands that we withdraw from society a little bit. But if we have people who are on the periphery, who step out a little bit — we have to understand that they are still a part of our community.
“We have to hug them. We literally have to hug them.”
On Sunday night, Rabbi Rothwachs told a story about stigma, about how being unable to tell a story locks people and families into themselves, forcing them to seal up their lives, making them unable to breathe freely or honestly, forcing them to put on masks.
He talked about a Shabbat dinner at his own house, where his family hosted two others. The guests were friends of each other’s. One of the women said she couldn’t understand how anyone could deal with a child using cocaine, heroin, or methamphetamines. The other woman, the first woman’s friend, sat with a frozen smile; her child was using all three. And Rabbi Rothwachs sat there, knowing the story, unable to break the confidence that would unleash the stigma. “I was completely paralyzed,” he said.
He does not want to be paralyzed by the specter of stigma any longer. We all have the responsibility to help, and that demands that we learn, he said.
Lianne Forman had no idea what to expect with the evening that she and her husband had willed into being; they still are processing what they heard, saw, and felt, but they are confident that it was the right thing.
“There were 700 Jews in that room, and they all were quiet,” she said. “It was so hot in that room, but in a good way. Everyone was packed together, and everyone was captivated.”
She doesn’t know why there were so many people at the talk. “Some came because they said they want to know what addiction is, or because they have teenagers or up-and-coming teenagers. Some say they’re coming because they know they’re naïve parents. And then there was a woman there who had lost her brother, and another who had lost her son — she and I were both very emotional when she told me about it just before it started, and we’ve been emailing each other since.”
Ms. Forman heard from many families that include drug abusers since the story came out in the Standard two weeks ago, and that number has been ratcheting up since the panel on Sunday. “A lot of people have been writing emails and sending text messages to me after the fact. The attendance was a testament to the community’s need to look at the issue and to understand it.
“You can’t say that 700 people all have a loved one using drugs, or any other issue that affects them directly, but they all want to learn about it.”
Amudim is the Manhattan-based organization that provides case management for people with substance abuse issues, who are suffering the aftereffects of sexual abuse and other forms of PTSD, or have other forms of mental illness. It’s been reaching into Bergen County to offer help; the social worker and the recovering addict who spoke both have ties to Amudim. Its founder, Rabbi Glick, told Ms. Forman that he’d heard from several people between the time he spoke on Sunday evening and early the next morning. The organization will give them all referrals to the appropriate treatment facilities, doctors, hospitals, and any other services they need.
When she first thought of going public with her story, Ms. Forman said that it would be like pulling off a band-aid. When she did it, though, she said, it was more like taking off an entire body cast. It wasn’t as much the liberation from the constraints, she said, it was just removing all the masks and make-up and disguises that had kept her from showing her real self to the world. “When Elana was really sick, and we were going from crisis to crisis, I felt that I was hanging onto my sanity and my life by a fingernail,” she said. “I would walk into a store in town and paint a smile on my face and say, ‘Hi, how are you, how are the kids?”’ and there was a voice in my head screaming, ‘Do you know how hard my life is? Do you know what I am going through?’
“And now it feels like I am wearing a sign that says, ‘This is my life. This is who I am.’ I am reconciling the inner voice and the outer appearance. I am allowed to be myself.”
Had she allowed herself to go public back then, she said, she would have been met with pity. But now, the time for pity is over. Now it is time for her and her husband “to try to take our experiences and channel them.
“Now it is time for us to practice what we preach. We are opening up a dialogue.” She hopes that everyone who wants help will be able to get help, and that once people are more able to ask for help, the community will begin not only to get help but to begin to heal.
If you need help, information, or just to talk to Amudim, call (201) 464-8000 or email NorthernNJ@amudim.org.