“Go big or go home.”
That’s what Lianne Forman of Teaneck said as she and her husband, Etiel, were about to start an organization to provide substance abuse education to the local Jewish community.
The organization, CCSA — Communities Confronting Substance Abuse — was created in response to the Formans’ daughter Elana’s drug use.
Etiel and Lianne Forman both are lawyers, and formidable presences; all their children, including Elana, their second oldest, have gone on to live happy, productive, actively impressive lives.
Elana’s now working toward a doctorate in community health and prevention at Drexel University; her research project has her in a lab, looking at ways to reduce communal harms, infectious disease, and negative outcomes associated with substance use. “Elana’s research has a specific focus on harm reduction, and she is currently working out of a syringe service program to address trauma amongst women who inject drugs to reduce HIV risk and drug use amongst this population,” her mother said. “Her work looks at a variety of ways we can intervene on communal and organizational levels to minimize harms to certain vulnerable populations.”
So personally, the Formans are fine now. But they feel that their obligation to help fight a problem that they’d encountered firsthand extended beyond their family to the community, and beyond their immediate community to the broader one. That led to their forming the nonprofit CCSA in 2018. Lianne Forman is the CCSA’s executive director; she has two employees, as well as “a very dedicated volunteer.”
The organization, heralded by a community-wide meeting in Teaneck that year, went on to be named as one of four start-ups in the Orthodox Union’s second cohort of its yearlong Impact Accelerator.
And it continued to grow. “In 2019, we had programs in 10 schools, and we educated maybe 500 kids, all in Bergen County,” Ms. Forman said. “By this past school year, we were in 53 schools, we conducted over 180 programs, and we educated almost 7,000 kids in that one year. Altogether, we have educated about 14,500 kids in 66 schools.”
CCSA now runs programs in Jewish day schools across northern New Jersey and MetroWest; it has many in New York and quite a few across the country. It’s in Chicago, California, and Florida — basically, if there’s a center of Jewish life, CCSA is there. It was there even during the covid shutdown. “There were a couple of times when the principal or the head of guidance would tell the students, ‘This is a closed campus, and the fact that you see someone you don’t know in front of you, that shows you how important this subject is.”
And CCSA’s not only in Orthodox schools but also partners with the Conservative movement’s Solomon Schechter schools.
Of course, the world would be a better place were CCSA not necessary, but we do not live in that world.
“We went from one middle school and one high school prevention program to seven programs, for sixth- through 12th-graders every year,” Ms. Forman said. “There’s new content for every grade, built on the year prior. It’s continuous education, with age-appropriate, stage-appropriate educational goals.
“Initially, we developed it with a whole team of educators, addiction experts, prevention experts, and guidance counselors. Last summer, when we realized that we needed to build it out to something bigger, we sat down with a team of prevention experts who do this in the public school system. We reviewed it with them, and took ideas from them, and they took some from us too.”
CCSA’s approach is social-emotional, Ms. Forman said. “The beginning points are about anxiety, resilience, and dealing with feelings. Those are the building blocks; when we get to the older grades, we talk more about how not to self-medicate. How not to use substances to escape bad feelings.”
The approach also is wholistic, she added. “Not only do we educate students, but we approach it with the goal of also reaching parents, faculty, and the broader community with an entire array of programs. We do this to create dialogue, increase awareness, and encourage a communal response to this issue.”
It’s personal not only for her, but for the audiences too. “I will tell you that at every single speaking engagement I had this past year, whether in a synagogue, at a community event, as a panelist at a conference, or to an audience of 400 professional Jewish women — no matter the audience, I am always approached and told a personal story of addiction, whether the person themselves is in recovery from addiction or has a family member,” she said. “It is without fail. This issue is so prevalent.
Even though we might not know it — even if the truth is hidden from us — “we all know someone dealing with it,” Ms. Forman said.
Just as CCSA’s reach has grown, so have the needs it fills. “You are dealing with increased anxiety, increased mental health issues, and more stress,” Ms. Forman said. That’s been true since before the pandemic — it was fueled by social media and then by the covid-necessitated isolation that was hard on everyone but particularly hard on tweens and teens. But that’s not the only change in the outside world. “There’s also a reduced perception of harm, particularly around marijuana,” particularly since the laws that regulate its use have loosened. “It’s often legal now,” Ms. Forman said. “Kids look at it and say, ‘No big deal. It’s safer than alcohol. I’d rather drive stoned than drunk.’
“There are a ton of messages around substances, and those messages are both intentional” — most obviously but not exclusively through advertising — “and unintentional.” Even something as age-old and cherished as drinking wine at Shabbat meals can give the wrong message to a vulnerable teen. “CSSA is about educating kids early, because they’re exposed to so many messages early on.” She’s not talking about decades-old stereotypes of shadowy figures selling marijuana, Ms. Forman said; “you just walk down the street, and you smell it everywhere.” And that implies that everyone does it, and it’s just fine to do it too.
When CCSA presenters talk about substance abuse with sixth-graders, “we have a conversation with them, and we meet them where they’re at,” Ms. Forman said. “We hand them blank index cards and ask them what they think a drug is, or what they’ve heard about addiction. We tell them to write any questions they have on the card.”
Many of the questions show that middle-schoolers still are at least in part still children. They want to know that difference between medication and drugs. Is Tylenol a drug? CCSA presenters talk to them about the importance of taking drugs according to the instructions, and about the gray areas where properly administered medications slide over to become illicit drugs. Some substances are legal to people 21 and older, but not younger. And some substances never are legal.
The presenters are people who have struggled with substance abuse, and therefore know what they’re talking about. “We have 12 of them, from across the country,” Ms. Forman said. “We have one in Chicago, a couple in Florida, one in Atlanta, a lot in the New York area. They’re all Jewish. And we try to match the presenter with the school — for example, for an all-girls school, we bring in a female presenter.”
They’re trained. “We just gave them a public speaking course, to help them tell their stories effectively,” Ms. Forman said. After they talk about their own lives, the presenters lead a question-and-answer session with the students.
CCSA finds its presenters through the large network it has developed. “We are constantly telling people about the program, and our presenters talk to their friends,” Ms. Forman continued. “We ask them who is on the recovery journey with them, and who wants to give back.
“The presenters love it. They definitely work hard. There is a lot of information to learn. But they’re energized by it and find it a way of doing service.”
Ms. Forman described a new element in the program that CCSA offers 10th-graders. “It’s Fatal Vision goggles, which mimic the physical impact of being high or drunk,” she said. “We have the kids do a simple activity, like throwing a ball or walking a straight line.” The students usually are unpleasantly surprised to realize how much the substances they might use can affect their vision and judgment.
As CCSA continued to grow, “we looked at our trajectory and said, ‘Wow! We need to expand — and to do it relatively quickly,’” Ms. Forman said. At around the same time, she talked to someone she’d known, a guidance counselor from a New York school, who had moved to Ohel, the Brooklyn-based social service agency that’s “met the social and emotional needs of more than 23,000 individuals from all communities” since it was founded in 1969. (That’s according to its website, ohelfamily.org; the group’s full name is Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services.)
Ohel means tent in Hebrew; it refers to Abraham and Sarah’s tent. As we’re told in Bereisheit, and in the midrash surrounding that first book of the Torah, the tent was open on all sides, so that everyone was welcome to find respite, comfort, and hope under its big top.
“When we started talking, in February, she explained to me that they are working in building resilience in kids in early childhood, elementary, and middle schools. They work on social and emotional wellness.”
The echoes were obvious. “We started talking about what we could do together,” Ms. Forman said.
“One thing led to another, and in March I was invited to come to speak with Ohel’s CEO, David Mandel. In those discussions, I was able to tell him that we are a small but fierce organization, and that through persistence and passion we have built this incredible organization that is so effective for so many people.”
As those discussions progressed, the endpoint became clear. CCSA would become a division of Ohel.
Ms. Forman is thrilled. “It gets us from Point A to Point B,” she said. “We are growing exponentially, and now we will have the resources. We will be leveraging an already existing infrastructure, including development and marketing. It gives us a very comprehensive product.
“Our working together can only help each other, in terms of messaging, content, and goals. And it also avoids redundancy in the Jewish nonprofit world, which very much appeals to me. I always wonder why people can’t collaborate more.”
Mr. Mandel, Ohel’s CEO, is “very happy that we’re doing this together,” he said. “Ohel has done school-based services for many years in New York, New Jersey, and nationally. Ohel also has a license to do outpatient mental health counseling.
“We have developed ways of building resilience in children. You can teach children to build resilience, to withstand crises and traumas in life, because at some point we all face crisis and trauma.
“So the work that Lianne is doing in schools locally, regionally, and nationally on drug prevention fits in very nicely with the work Ohel has been doing. To use an overused word, there is synergy. It just makes sense.”
It’s a mistake to think that somehow Jewish schools, Jewish families, and the Jewish community are immune from the challenges confronting the outside world, Mr. Mandel said.
To make his point, he told a story.
“A number of years ago, I was asked to come into a school to deal with an issue,” he said. “It was the presence of soft drugs amongst seventh- and eighth-graders. My style is to ask the faculty to please leave and let me talk to the students by myself. They talk more freely that way.
“I have a conversation with them, and after that conversation, I told the faculty, ‘You really don’t have a drug problem.’ Their faces showed that they were quite relieved. And then I told them, ‘You do have a gun problem.’”
The point of this story absolutely is not that there is a problem with guns in yeshivot and Jewish day schools, Mr. Mandel said. The point is that you don’t know what you’re going to hear, you have to listen carefully, sympathetically, and for real before anyone will say anything that matters. Perhaps most important here, students at yeshivot and Jewish day schools do not live in a bubble. They are not untouched by the world around them. They benefit from that world in many ways, but just like everyone else, they are put at risk by it as well.
Mr. Mandel quoted Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski, the giant who was an Orthodox rabbi, a psychiatrist, a writer, and an authority on addiction who died in 2021 at 90. Rabbi Twerski lived fully in both the Orthodox world and the outside world.
“Rabbi Twerski,” who was an Orthodox Jew, the founder of Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Pennsylvania, and a leading figure in the fight against substance abuse, “talked about how everything that goes on in the general world goes on in the Jewish community,” Mr. Mandel said. “He talked about that with alcoholism and drug use. He said that the mental health and social problems that occur in the general community also occur in the Jewish community.
“Lianne’s work is important. Her entrée, and Etiel’s came from a deeply personal place, of knowledge, action, and empathy. She is able to translate that into a system. Her work isn’t a one-off. And her joining Ohel will enable both of us to expand our work using each other’s expertise.
“We will both grow together.”
Mr. Mandel feels compelled to mention a new threat. “No conversation about substance abuse can go on without introducing the word fentanyl to it,” he said. “It gets a little scary.
“Weed is legal, but there were more than 110,000 deaths in the last few years in the United States that have been fentanyl-related. It’s known that fentanyl often is laced into marijuana — it makes it stronger,” and stronger marijuana is an easier sell than its fentanyl-free counterpart. “The dealers do that because it makes it stronger,” Mr. Mandel said. “When you pick it up, you’re picking up a bottle of poison.”
He returned to his excitement about the CCSA joining Ohel. “We are very happy about this relationship,” he said. “This partnership. We are looking forward to working together.
“Our resilience workbook has been introduced; New York City’s Mayor Eric Adams asked us to introduce the workbook in homeless shelters and to asylum seekers who experience a lot of trauma. We have translated or are translating the workbook into Spanish, Russian, and Arabic.”
Arabic, Mr. Meyer? Yes, Mr. Meyer said. There is a wide world out there.
“Our core mission at Ohel is to serve the Jewish community,” he said. “Our broader mission is to serve the broader the community, which we do.
“A Bedouin community in Israel asked if we could translate the work on resilience into Arabic, so someday they can use it with their children.”