“Go big or go home.”
That’s what Lianne Forman of Teaneck said in early April, as she and her husband, Etiel, planned a community meeting about the dangers of opioid abuse and other addictions in the Jewish community.
They went big.
The parents of a daughter who had been abusing alcohol and drugs for years, fueled by the need to help other families get help more easily than they had, driven by the desire to reduce the stigma that makes help so hard to ask for, the Formans, prominent members of the Orthodox community, arranged for an evening where a panel of speakers could explain what the situation is, and discuss some first steps parents, friends, and abusers themselves could take.
They didn’t know what to expect. They got somewhere between 600 and 700 people. (It’s hard to know because the room at the Torah Academy of Bergen County was set with 500 chairs, and people who had come too late to claim one of them stood in the back and along the side and in the stairwells.) The huge audience sat in an almost-eerie near total silence as the panelists talked.
Etiel Forman told some of his story; in early April, Lianne and Elana herself told it in more detail. Elana, who is about to turn 24, began drinking just before ninth grade and started to smoke pot the next summer. Her parents, careful observers of their five children, knew she was struggling but did not know why. They ascribed it to depression and an eating disorder, which surfaced during middle school. Both the depression and the eating disorder were serious problems, but the Formans did not realize that those conditions were accompanied by substance abuse.
Elana is very smart, and her parents — who also are very smart — did not know what to look for or what they were seeing.
Elana went through some very hard times. She lives in Florida now, she is working, after some setbacks (and the word “setback” understates how devastating such turns of fortune and physiology can be) she recently celebrated her eighth month of sobriety. Her parents will not be able to relax about her future for years, but they can feel a little bit more steady now than they have for some time.
That’s why they are pouring so much energy into the problem.
In May, Lianne and Etiel began a support group that meets in Teaneck every two weeks; it’s free, aimed at members of the Jewish community in general and the Orthodox world in specific, and provides parents of substance abusers with an understanding, nonjudgmental, private place where they can stop hiding and pretending, at least for a few hours every other week.
They also have founded a nonprofit organization; Lianne is the president of Communities Confronting Substance Abuse. That organization will offer the community an evening of discussion this Sunday as experts answer the questions that families, friends, and abusers themselves ask them. (See box.)
At the April meeting, “we asked for feedback,” Ms. Forman said. “We asked people what they wanted as the next step. We heard that they wanted more information. This evening will provide that.”
Therefore, “it will be nothing like the last one,” she said. “We built a website so people could submit questions anonymously. We have been gathering those questions, and we have lined up people who can address them through various perspectives.”
The panel will include Christopher Jakim, a “very senior DEA official — the DEA’s special agent in charge — who will talk about drug trafficking, anti-trafficking efforts, and what we are doing to prevent drugs from coming into New Jersey.
“We’ve been getting questions about where the drugs are coming from, and how to get it to stop. It will be fascinating.”
Mr. Jakim has the background to answer these questions authoritatively. He has “been to Colombia, broken up cartels, and been involved in many drug busts,” Ms. Forman said.
Shelley Stuart, from the Center for Alcohol and Drug Resources, will talk about resources and programs in Bergen County; she’s able to provide a general overview of what’s available here and now.
Dr. Matis Shulman is a psychiatrist who specializes in addiction. “There have been a lot of questions on the medical end,” Ms. Forman said. “Questions about the risks of taking prescription medication, about how quickly you can become addicted, and whether full recovery is possible, about the dangers of vaping and Juuling. Not all of the questions are from parents about kids; some are from the people themselves,” adults who suffer with substance abuse. “One person said, ‘I have gone into treatment for addiction, to no avail. Is it possible not to recover?’” Dr. Shulman can answer those questions, even if the answer is “Maybe,” “We don’t always know,” or “It depends.”
Rabbi Larry Rothwachs, who heads Congregation Beth Aaron in Teaneck, will talk about the communal aspects of substance abuse. “He has been outspoken about mental health generally,” Ms. Forman said. “There have been questions about why this problem is the community’s responsibility. Isn’t it a private matter? He will address, more specifically than before, what it is about being a rabbi in a community, in a shul, in an Orthodox shul, that would empower us to reach out more broadly.”
Rabbi Tully Harcsztark of Teaneck is the principal of SAR High School in Riverdale, N.Y. “He’ll talk about what the schools are doing,” Ms. Forman said. “About what school policies are and whether they are effective.
“SAR has been at the forefront of high school initiatives,” she added. “And Rabbi Harcsztark is very focused and outspoken on the issue.”
The evening, too, will be very focused, she said. It’s planned as 90 minutes of almost pure questions and answers; Etiel Forman, who will double as the panelist who can answer questions about how substance abuse affects parents, children, and family dynamics in general, will moderate the evening. He will read the questions and direct them to the panelist whose expertise is most relevant, and then ask the other experts if they have anything to add to that answer.
One group that will not be represented on Sunday evening is Amudim, the New York-based organization that was so prominent in the April meeting. That’s not because of any rift between the groups, Ms. Forman said. It’s because they have different functions; she continues to work closely with Amudim, but its main function is not educational. “Amudim does case management, and helping people directly,” she said. “I send people to Amudim.”
Many of the questions that the experts answer on Sunday will have come from email — if you have any, send them to Time2TalkAddiction@gmail.com — but there will be cards, pens, and runners for last-minute or follow-up queries. The app that Time2TalkAddiction uses strips all names from all emails, so all the questions will be anonymous; in fact, there would be no way to attach names to them.
“Education is power,” Ms. Forman said. “Knowledge is power.”
Nonprofits must have three unrelated trustees; the other two are Rachelle Zomick and L’via Weisinger. Both of those women work full-time, but they are driven by their desire to help. “They are both so passionate about it,” she said.
That brings up the question of why. What was it about the first meeting that drew so many people to it? Why has the support group take off as it has? Why is there apparently so much interest in this next meeting? “What was it that created this storm?” Ms. Forman asked. “I have to think that there is some element of the community being really worried, and this gave us a way to mobilize. We aren’t immune from substance abuse. It is happening to people we know. It might be happening to us.”
Ms. Forman is a lawyer; she works part time at that profession formally, but it is clear that she is a lawyer all the time. Her thinking is analytic and strategic. She feels strongly that her partners in the nonprofit, Ms. Zomick and Ms. Weisinger, both have skills that are complimentary to hers. “The more we work together comprehensively and cooperatively, the better off we will be,” she said; she’s talking not only about her partners in the nonprofit but also about the other agencies and organizations and people with whom she networks. “I know what I can do and what I can’t do.” When she can’t do something — refer people to therapists or rehabs, for example — she can point them in the direction of other people who can do it.
Rabbi Harcsztark believes that “the focus of the conversation so far has been on the abuse and treatment side. People tend to think about that because they are concerned about people struggling with abuse.
“But as a high school principal, in the educational setting, we are starting at an earlier point. It’s about kids using, and using becoming part of the way that they socialize together.
“Use is different than abuse, and prevention is different than treatment. What I am hoping for, in making the conversation public, is allowing the schools to talk to each other about how they deal with the place using has in our kids’ social circles, and how to change that.”
So far, he said, most schools focus on “teaching kids what they need to know and bringing in speakers to enforce that. Another area is the punitive — setting rules to help kids make the right decisions. But the third area — which we using increasingly — is to figure out how to deal with this from a public health perspective.
“A public health perspective means assuming that kids won’t necessarily make the right decisions. The rational decisions. The public health model is focused more on changing communal behaviors, in the way that Mothers Against Drunk Driving affected behavior, and the way that anti-smoking campaign worked to curb smoking. In the same way that on Saturday nights and Friday nights and Simchat Torah and Purim there are some force that have taken hold” — forces that encourage and normalize heavy drinking — “there is room to change that behavior.”
In order to change behavior, it is necessary to know what the behavior actually is, Rabbi Harcsztark added. It is important to gather data, “to develop an approach that will help us shift culture. And that takes a little bit of selling.” That’s because people do not want to take the time to gather data if they are reacting to crisis; the real work of culture change, though, is a long-term challenge, he said.
Rabbi Rothwachs feels very strongly that the work that the Formans and their partners do is vital. “In my opinion, community plays an important role in three areas,” he said. “Prevention, detection, and treatment.”
Prevention can only happen when people have the information they need to understand what is happening beneath their noses. “I don’t think that there is any way to prevent addictions entirely in all individuals in the entire community,” Rabbi Rothwachs said. “That would be an impossible task, given the realities of life. But there is no question that we would be better situated to prevent any further rise.
“Detection is when the community is aware. When they are armed with information, they can be better prepared to detect a problem, and it is when the problem is first emerging that it can be nipped in the bud.
“The likelihood of success in treating an addiction increases dramatically when it is detected early. If someone is struggling with it for years, the likelihood is that the overall prognosis is going to be less good.”
Also, he added, not only do parents have to learn to recognize the signs of addiction in their children, substance abusers, particularly the ones at the beginning of what is likely to be a steep downhill path, should learn to recognize the signs in themselves.
“And finally, the part that is most near and dear to my heart — treatment,” Rabbi Rothwachs said. “There is no question that overcoming an addiction is an incredible challenge under the best of circumstances. When a person feels alone, without the support of family or friends or community, when a person feels somehow like a disappointment to the community, like not having lived up to the community’s expectations…
“And that’s particularly true when you are dealing with an insular community, a community based on values and principles. A religious community. That is not unique to the Jewish religion, but the Orthodox community, by design, is going to discourage all the behaviors that lead to addiction, so that when people do them, they often will feel completely ashamed, alone, and more likely to suffer in silence.
“So if the community is more open, it will be more likely to help recovery.” We have so many groups to help other people, he continued — for cancer, for other illnesses, for special needs. With cancer, he said, “there is no shame. No one would ever think twice about lending whatever support they can to God forbid a person stricken with cancer. They say, ‘How can we help?’”
With addiction, on the other hand, there is a tremendous stigma; he, the Formans, the other experts on the panel, and many others are working to overcome that stigma, but it’s not gone yet.
There are many reasons for that, he said. When a person has a disease, that person clearly is a victim; when it comes to addiction, most people assume that the addict has relinquished his or her personal responsibility and therefore is responsible for it, physiological predilections notwithstanding. “I consider myself very progressive and open-minded when it comes to this issue, but I myself cannot help but default to this view at times,” Rabbi Rothwachs says; he knows the inclination and battles it. “It takes a lot of time and effort and motivation to be able to rewire our own brains” and not default similarly, he said. Just as a person with an eating disorder cannot simply make herself eat, just as someone with depression cannot snap out of it on command, no matter how often that command is barked, a drug addict cannot just make it stop. It takes time, effort, and will. Most of that must come from the addict, but community support is invaluable as well.
Lianne told a story about Elana that brings it home. It was a story Elana told her parents. “She said that she was at work, celebrating one of her co-workers’ birthdays, and he brought out vodka. A manager offered it to her — he said, ‘Come on. Just one drink’ — and she said, ‘I just can’t.’
“They know that she is a recovering addict.
“She said, ‘You don’t understand. For me, it wouldn’t be just one. It would be 20. I know in my head that it will ruin my life.’
“And I thought,” Lianne said, “what it would be like to wake up every day and have to say to myself, ‘I will not drink. I will not use. I will not drink. I will not use. I will not drink. I will not use.
“It is a battle that has to be fought every day. It takes its toll.”
And it is a battle that she plans to fight every day, on behalf of her daughter, and on behalf of everyone else’s sons and daughters. It might not be possible to win that battle, but she will keep on fighting.
What: Forum on addiction and substance abuse
When: On Sunday, November 4, at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Congregation Keter Torah,
600 Roemer Ave., Teaneck
For more information: Go to www.time2talkaddiction.org
or email time2talkaddiction.org.