13 Ways a Rabbi Can Help Jews Recovering from Addictions, and their Loved Ones

Nov 12, 2013 by

13 Ways a Rabbi Can Help Jews Recovering from Addictions, and their Loved Ones

I have just co-lead a class at HUC-JIR in their Pastoral Counseling Course on addictions and how Rabbis and congregations can be helpful to Jewish addicts, alcoholics and co-dependents. For eighteen years, I have been blessed to work with Jews with addictions.  I have learned so much from people in recovery about spirituality, perseverance, healing and hope, about God and t’shuvah (repentance).

Through self-study of addictions and recovery literature, running retreats for Jews recovering from addictions, study sessions around holy days, mentoring rabbinic interns on how to support Jews in recovery, and from a CCAR-sponsored week of addictions counseling and spiritual care training at Minnesota’s Hazelden Addictions Treatment Center, these 13 guidelines/suggestions for Rabbis became apparent:

  1. Be Comfortable with 12 Steps: 12 Steps and Judaism are fully compatible. The 12-Steps parallel Rambam’s Laws of Repentance and Rabbenu Yonah of Gerona’s Gates of Repentance. One can work the 12 steps as a believing Jew!
  2. Show parallels between 12 Steps Spirituality and Judaism: Jewish D’veikut (clinging to God): Jews CAN turn themselves over to a Higher Power. Some Rabbis question the “Jewishness” of the 12-Steps because of the latter’s call that addicts “turn themselves over to the Higher Power” (e.g., to become a servant to God’s Will).  To some, this seems to clash with Reform Judaism’s historical opposition to blind faith. Yet it is not so! To quote Lawrence Kushner’s Perush on Likkutei Yehudah’s citing of the Sefas Emes, Yehudah Aryeh Leib of Ger:
    • To be a servant is more than being servile; it is carrying out the will of an ‘Other.’ It is being the agent, the instrument through which what is supposed to happen, happens.  A good servant is always aware of the importance of his [her] act, and this gives heightened meaning to his [her] life…  Everything we do, and everything we do it with, and everywhere we do it is filled with the Presence of God.   We are free to choose whether or not we will be aware of it, whether we will be servants.  That is Jewish spirituality.
  3. Help remove the Busha (Shame): Each morning a Jew rises to say, Elohai, neshama sheh-natata bi, t’hora hee! – My God, the soul that you have given me, it is pure!  Judaism, when applied correctly, helps lift the shame connected with being in recovery.  We remind ourselves that though as addicts/codependents we may do, or may have done, terrible things with our bodies and minds, our essence (our neshama, soul) remains pure.  This is true, because how else could we rise each morning after a day filled with terrible acts and still say “Elohai, neshama she-natata bi, t’hora hi!”?
  4. Be Amazed at the Spiritual Power of 12 Steps: People who are in recovery are amazing in their spirituality.  They know that they have to turn it over to a Higher Power to recover. God is not a metaphor; the Higher Power is reality in their life.  They know that their Higher Power is saving them from certain death! Wow! Soak in their belief and spirituality.  Learn from it how to speak to others.
  5. Don’t Try to Fix the Addict: If he is in recovery, chances are he got there without your (or the Jewish community’s) help.  If she is an addict, you cannot make her recover.  Rather, listen, and be non-judgmental.  The 12 Steps teach the three C’s: You didn’t Cause it. You cannot Control it.  You cannot Cure it.  The addict has to do the work.  You can be there to be open, listen and accepting.
  6. Welcome them into (or back into) the Jewish community: Many addicts and their families live with shame (see #3 above). Provide them with Jewish resources, including prayers, and Twersky or Olitzky books (Jewish Lights Publishing).  Invite them to study with you.
  7. Buy the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous: Display it prominently over your shoulder. Read it to see how real people find spirituality and God’s help.
  8. Refer to Addiction Recovery and Codependency Help: During Mi Shebeirach d’var refu’ah (words prior to Healing prayer), mention the category of people struggling with addiction and codependency (by category, unless they give specific permission to say their answers) among those for whom you ask for healing.
  9. Open your Synagogue to 12 Step Meetings: Publicize widely, attend if it is an open meeting.
  10. Remember that people in Recovery often “fall off the wagon” multiple times: Be aware of this. Be open to this reality. Don’t be angry when they do; don’t be too hopeful when they are in recovery.  Be non-judgmental.
  11. Know that Addicts lie.
  12. Write a sermon and bulletin article about addiction and recovery every few years.
  13. Read and become familiar with www.JACSweb.org, the website of Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons and Significant Others.
Do you have other suggestions?  Please share them.

Rabbi Paul Rabbi Paul J. Kipnes is the spiritual leader of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA.  This post originally appeared on his blog, Or Am I?

2 Comments

  1. Josh Brown

    Great points and great issues to raise. I recently worked with an alcoholic and was reminded how much we as Jews rely on alcohol for our rituals. Passover was the most difficult day of the year for her. Sitting in front of family having recently started her period of sobriety, she shared that it felt as though Judaism was testing her will. We need to be supportive and find a way to keep our tradition from being a stumbling block..

  2. Debbie Stiel

    Thank you. That was insightful, helpful, and filled with good reminders.

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